A collection of consolations did little to dispel the heartbreak FAU baseball players felt as they returned to campus Tuesday, 18 hours after a riveting 12-11 extra-innings loss to top-ranked North Carolina in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.
Neither a gaggle of fans with pom-poms and words of encouragement nor the national spotlight that generated hours of FAU banter on Twitter and highlights replayed through the day on ESPN stopped the tears from streaming down center fielder Nathan Pittman’s face.
“It was unreal, man,” he said. “I’ve never seen so much passion from everyone on our team.”
FAU had the host Tar Heels on the ropes after storming back from a four-run deficit with six runs in the top of the ninth to take an 8-6 lead. Tyler Rocklein’s grand slam to left was the big blow in the rally.
But that was merely the tip of the iceberg as the Owls and Tar Heels would provide the late-night sports drama many had expected from the Heat and Pacers in Game 7 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals
UNC tied it in the bottom half of the ninth. FAU got three runs in the top of the 12th, and, sure enough, UNC tied it again.
In the 13th, just past 1 a.m., UNC scratched out the winning run.
“Especially in this day and age, with the bats, you don’t see these type of games in 13 innings,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “It was a great display of college baseball. They kept coming back. It was great to watch.”
That was the message the 50-or-so proud FAU fans carried when the baseball team’s charter bus rolled onto the school’s Boca Raton campus late Tuesday afternoon.
Former FAU and Miami football coach Howard Schnelleberger rallied the team around as it walked off the bus.
“You didn’t lose the game,” Schnellenberger said. “You were just behind when the final out was made.”
FAU (42-22) won its first Sun Belt Conference tournament title this season and made its second trip to the NCAA tournament in four years. The Owls had never before won 40 or more games in a season.
“It puts us on the map,” senior right fielder Corey Keller said. “Once we got back to the hotel and people were checking their text messages and stuff, we noticed we were trending pretty well, whatever that means.
“I guess if you’re gonna go out, there’s no better way to go out than that.”
It was tough for Keller, who described a post-game scene Monday night as mercilessly sad, to say those words. But he got through his entire press availability without much struggle.
Pittman stood about 10 feet away and quietly watched his teammate. After Keller answered every question, Pittman stepped in front of reporters. He started fine.
“We put our name out there,” he said. “We played well. We beat them the night before, the No. 1 team in the nation. I’m so proud of everyone.”
That’s when his voice wavered and he dropped his eyes toward the ground.
“It’s tough,” Pittman said. “I’m trying not to break down right now.”