Emotionally Charged Rattlers Savor MEAC Baseball Title Victory
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Outfielder Marlon Gibbs wasn’t just jubilant because of the history that Florida A&M University made when it beat Bethune-Cookman University to secure the Rattlers’ first trip to the NCAA regional tournament last Saturday.
He was celebrating his grandmother, whose funeral he attended just two days before the Rattlers headed to the tournament in Salisbury, Md. Gibbs, who led the Rattlers’ hitting with a .583 average and the second most at-bats (12) in the tournament, dedicated the win to his grandmother.
“I played my heart out for her and I guess that helped me out,” said Gibbs, following FAMU’s 8-2 win that also marked the first time in more than 20 years the program captured the MEAC baseball title. “I was playing with a heavy heart but I was playing for her. I love her so much.”
Gibbs batted 2 for 3 and drove in a run in the championship game, which the Rattlers put out of reach with six runs in the bottom of the fifth inning.
FAMU will find out where they play next game on May 25, when the regional pairings are announced. Regional play begins May 29.
Getting this far is remarkable for a team that just two seasons ago won only seven games. The turnaround began last season under Jamey Shouppe, who vowed to get the Rattlers into the NCAA tournament in short order.
“It’s certainly exciting for me but the reason it’s exciting is because you see these kids (win),” Shouppe said. “Two years ago, I became part of the FAMU baseball family and to see the kids buy-in; to set a goal of winning the MEAC championship. They worked so hard to accomplish that goal. Our kids took a lot of pride to make that happen.”
The Rattlers’ explosion in the fifth inning staked starter Chase Jarrell to an 8-0 lead. It was the largest deficit the Wildcats faced in a MEAC tournament game. They managed single runs in the sixth and seventh innings.
“This is awesome,” said pitcher Brandon Fleming who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. “It’s just unreal. It’s everything that we’ve been working for. We finally got that MEAC championship.”
FAMU won the last of five previous MEAC titles in 1994. This time around the Rattlers were dominant, outscoring their three opponents 26-8 at Purdue Stadium.
The Rattlers (23-23) won 11 of their last 15 games and marched through the tournament like a team that couldn’t be denied after clinching the South Division for the No. 1 seed.
Now, the Rattlers will play for the first time in the NCAA Regionals.
“They can really wear it as a medal,” Shouppe said. “They can always say they’re the first team from FAMU. There are not many firsts in baseball (because) it’s really hard to be a first.”
The Rattlers opened the tournament with wins over Savannah State and Delaware State to earn a day’s rest. Meanwhile, the Wildcats had to fight their way out of the loser’s bracket, facing the daunting task of having to beat FAMU twice to avoid their eventual fate.
FAMU didn’t give the Wildcats that second chance. Coupled with a solid 6 2/3 innings of work from Jarrell, reliever Alex Carrasco pitched the last 2 1/3 innings and didn’t let B-CU back into the game. He allowed just one hit.
The Rattlers defense didn’t commit any errors and that, said Jarrell, kept him in a comfort zone after starting the game with a case of the nerves.
“The defense was incredible,” Jarrell said. “Every ball they hit, in the infield or outfield, I knew they were going to make the plays. I had no doubt in my mind.
“Coach gave me the nod (against B-CU) and I knew I had to go out there and get it. I just focused and got it done for the team. I knew the team needed me.”