Looking at the conclusion of the 2002 Hurricane baseball season, one might think it was just another typical year of UM baseball. The team won yet another regional championship and were three outs away from heading to Omaha for the eighth time under head coach Jim Morris.
Even though the results were similar, the 2002 squad took a far different route to get to there.
“Roller coaster,” was how starting pitcher Kiki Bengochea summed up Miami’s 2002 campaign.
After an 8-4 start to the season, including a series win against 2001 College World Series opponent Tennessee, the team settled into a plague of mediocrity which lasted until the very end of the regular season. The team was on the bubble to even make the NCAA Tournament. The Hurricane coaching staff found themselves in uncharted waters since the arrival of Morris back in 1994.
Morris spoke about the team’s dilemma in midseason.
“I can tell you everything that happens at the College World Series from the time we step off the plane until we leave the field for the last time,” Morris said. “This is something new to us and as a staff we are still figuring out how to deal with it.”
After losing 13 players from the 2001 national championship team, the Hurricanes introduced many new faces to the club. Adjustment time for these new players proved lengthy. It wasn’t until the postseason that the team began to click on all cylinders. Batting orders were shuffled and players were dealt in and out of the lineup like a deck of cards.
Results were mixed. Streaks of greatness reminiscent of the championship squad, followed by games that made the Bad News Bears look like All- Stars characterized much of the season.
Finishing the season at 30-27, the Canes huddled in front of a television to see if they had just enough to break into the field of 64. A collective sigh of relief went throughout the clubhouse as they had drawn a No. 3 seed in the Gainesville Regional.
“It was a huge sigh of relief for us to make the tournament,” Morris said. “Sometimes people think that because I am the coach that I know before hand if we get in or not and I don’t. I sit there waiting in that clubhouse like everybody else, and if we get good news, we face it together, and if not then we face that together as well.”
With a clean slate for the postseason, the ‘Canes went on a mission, destroying rivals FIU and Florida in regional play. Led by veteran catcher/designated hitter Danny Matienzo and third year sophomore right fielder Jim Burt, UM threw the Gators off their back. Not only did the Hurricanes beat them for the first time all season, but UM knocked them out of the postseason – a scene all too familiar for Gator fans.
“I think the veteran players really stepped it up for the playoffs and that made all the difference,” Morris said. “I really think the younger guys did well all season long, and when the veterans started playing like they can, I think it gave the entire team a boost of confidence that they had not had all year long.
“It seemed like every time we would get ahead of the game a little bit during the regular season, we would turn around and have a terrible weekend.”
The buzz amongst the media following Miami’s regional championship was “The Miami Hurricanes are playing on tradition right now. There is something about the orange and green uniform that the Florida Gators simply can not get around when it comes playoff time.”
Florida Gators head coach Pat McMahon openly wept at a press conference after the loss. “We really thought things were going to turn out differently,” he said.
They didn’t turn out differently and the defending champions were on their way to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks for a chance to return to Omaha. Miami won in dramatic fashion thanks primarily to Burt.
“I truly believe that Jim Burt’s at bat in game one with a home run to tie the game in the final inning was the best moment of his two year career here at Miami,” Morris said. “He then turned around in game two and immediately had another career best moment by knocking the Gators clean out of the playoffs.”
For a moment it looked as if the ‘Canes would get back to Omaha, but an absolute collapse of the UM bullpen sent them packing for South Florida – falling just three outs shy of the CWS.
Leading 4-1 in the top of the ninth, UM relievers combined to allow five runs, thus ending UM’s magical run.
“We had the College World Series dangling in front of us,” Morris said. “In the eighth and ninth innings I began believing that we were going back to Omaha. It’s funny how baseball works.
“They only beat us three out of 27 innings that weekend, but those three innings were enough to send them to Omaha.
“Once you get to Omaha, anything can happen, and I think if we would have won that inning, our team would have felt like the team of destiny.”
In the wake of the devastating defeat, newcomers on this Hurricane squad gained an eagerness for college baseball glory. That will be key in a longer offseason than usual.
“I have had a taste for winning,” freshman shortstop Paco Figueroa said. “Now I have a thirst for it.”
With a passion for winning, a fervor for success and this year’s playoff experience in their back pocket, expect this young squad to be right in the mix next season.