J eremiah Grove and Brett Gordon were 1,600 miles and two time zones away from each other. Grove was on his feet, holding his breath inside TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Gordon was sitting and holding his breath with his eyes fixated on a TV in Tuolumne County.
Coastal Carolina University’s Alex Cunningham stood tall on the mound, facing Arizona’s Ryan Haung with two outs in the ninth. The Chanticleers were one strike away from winning the 2016 College World Series.
“If your heart rate didn’t increase, you’re probably dead,” Gordon said. “Any one pitch can change the outcome of the game.”
With two runners in scoring position and CCU clinging to a 4-3 lead, Grove and Gordon both prayed for that long awaited final strike.
Their prayers were answered.
Cunningham struck out Haung and the Chanticleers went into a wild and emotional celebration.
As the majority of the country celebrated the series win because of the classic underdog saga, Grove and Gordon relished the victory because they both were alumni of the Chanticleers baseball program. Their school, their team and the program they helped build were, for the first time in the school’s history, College World Series champions.
“It was extremely loud and incredibly emotional,” said Grove, who watched the series from the ballpark in Omaha. “All us older players, we were jumping around and hugging each other. It was a priceless experience.”
“The level of baseball at that school, I mean, they are top 20 every year,” Gordon said. “On any given day, I think they could beat anybody. As a program, they kept chipping away and finally they made it to that moment where the stars aligned.”
From Cali to Carolina
Grove, 34, and Gordon, 34, both graduated high school in 2000. Grove from Los Banos High School and Gordon from Sonora High. After graduation, both players kept baseball in their sights and enrolled at Merced College. Grove was placed in right field and Gordon redshirted his freshman year.
Gordon was not the only Sonora High grad to become a Blue Devil. Cousins Ricky and Steve Pinocchio honed their skills for two years in Merced as well. Steve Pinocchio, who was a year older than Grove and Gordon, left Merced and headed off to a small college in South Carolina to continue his baseball career. Little did he know, he would not be the last Blue Devil to make the pilgrimage to Coastal Carolina University.
In 2002, Grove played in an All-Star game/showcase at Sacramento City College. It was there he got noticed by CCU. Grove went on a recruiting trip to South Carolina and was chauffeured around by Pinocchio, who helped sell the school.
“When I was recruited to go there, Coastal was a baseball school and that was the biggest selling point,” Grove said. “You know that you’ll have a chance to be successful there.”
Grove, who was a contact hitter with speed, was offered a scholarship and he gleefully accepted. CCU had a void in right field, and Grove was the man for the job.
“They were losing their right fielder and he was an awesome outfielder,” Grove said. “He had left some big shoes to fill and I guess I struggled to fill that role. But it was a good experience and I learned a lot from it.”
Grove graduated from CCU in the spring of 2004 with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry.
Gordon took nearly the same path to South Carolina as Grove. He too was noticed at the All-Star game/showcase at Sac City College and was reunited with his Merced teammate in 2003.
“The coaching staff pushed you to be the best and they had their own ways to pull that out of you,” Gordon said. “(CCU had a) give all you have every day atmosphere.”
Gordon was a strong hitting first baseman, but it was his glove that attracted head coach Gary Gilmore. For Gordon, being put on a roster with elite athletes from all over the country was intimidating, yet refreshing.
“It was intense, but it was eye opening,” Gordon said. “The amount of talent that came together, was something you don’t see at a junior college level. The guys are just faster and there were horses in the bullpen. Everyone had nasty stuff. There was a lot of intensity between the players.”
Gordon played one season for CCU and finished his baseball career in 2006 at California State University, Stanislaus. Although he toyed with the idea of playing at the next level, the risk was not worth the reward.
“You always hope for that next step,” said Gordon, who is a hydroelectric power plant operator for Tri-dam Projects. “Leaving junior college, that next step was Costal. The next step is to hopefully get paid to play. But, how does it look on a resume to play baseball in the minors for five years? Everyone has to play their last game at some point.”
Heading to Omaha
Grove, who works for Hetch Hetchy in the water quality department as an engineer, can still be found on the diamond. He is an assistant coach at Summerville High School under head coach, Ricky Pinocchio. But after the Bears’ season came to a close in mid May, Grove began to focus more on his alma mater.
The Chanticleers won the Big South Championship and qualified for the Raleigh Regionals.
“You expect them to win the Big South, so they will go to regionals,” Gordon said. “But beyond the regionals, to super regionals, that’s when you know something special is going on.”
It was then that Grove got the itch to leave California and head to the Midwest. But once CCU beat LSU in the NCAA Baton Rouge Super Regional (June 10-12) he knew it was time to go.
“After that second win,” Grove recalled, “I was standing front of the TV and my wife, Haley, was looking at me and said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It was really emotional to see Coach Gilmore and that coaching staff advance to for the first time, and to see those players get that kind of result after years of building that program.”
On Friday, June 17, Grove drove to West Wendover, NV and Saturday (June 18) made it to Grand Island, Neb. On Sunday (June 19), Grove made it to Omaha after the 1,600-mile drive and made it in time to see CCU beat No. 1, and overwhelming tournament favorite, Florida 2-1.
The Chanticleers didn’t play again until Tuesday (June 21) and lost 6-1 to TCU. Grove, who was staying with CCU alumni and their families in an Airbnb for $15 per night, left Nebraska Wednesday morning and drove to his father’s house in Pocatello, ID.
On Friday (June 24), CCU Beat TCU 4-1 and Grove’s phone didn’t stop beeping with chatter from ex-players wanting to return to Omaha.
After Grove drove 700 miles home to Sonora, he realized he wasn’t staying home for long. He flew back to Omaha on Monday (June 27) and didn’t come home until Friday (July 1) morning, after watching CCU clinch the championship.
“He didn’t have to try to convince me that he needed to go, at least for the first time, that’s for sure,” said Haley, Grove’s wife of three years. “When he told me he wanted to go back, I didn’t think he was serious. But you can’t say no. He should have just stayed out there the whole time.”
Win one for the Gilmore
Gary Gilmore has been the head coach of CCU since 1996 and has over 1,000 career wins. Gilmore touched the lives of Grove and Gordon and both were thrilled to see their coach reach the top of the mountain.
“I was happy that he finally got to that point that he could take home that college world series championship,” Gordon said. “There was excitement for all the players that went through that program. It showcased the talent that Coastal baseball has and the coaching staff that does a great job.”
Grove added, “Coach Gilmore wears his emotions on his sleeve and he’s very open and honest with players and what he expects from them. At the same time, he’s very supportive and he develops individuals into very good teammates.”