They won everything there was to win.
That’s an apt description for the week the Nova Southeastern University baseball team just experienced in Cary, North Carolina, where they earned the program’s first NCAA Division II national championship.
The title hunt culminated with an 8-6 win over Millersville (Pennsylvania) on Saturday.
But along the way, the sixth-ranked NSU Sharks (44-16) also won over many of the fans in Cary and they nearly cleaned out the city’s collection of stuffed animals, spending hours playing the Claw Crane at the local Dave & Buster’s.
Here’s the back story: Halfway through the Division II World Series, NSU’s players convinced their coaches to have a team dinner at Dave & Buster’s in the Cary Towne Center.
While the coaches played air hockey, they heard some roars from the players by the Claw Crane. NSU coach Greg Brown went over to make sure his players weren’t getting too rowdy, but what he discovered was something else entirely.
“I watched them work together, the way they were moving the stuffed animals,” Brown said. “I saw the strategies they used. I saw them compete. That was my favorite part of the trip because it filtered back to the field.”
The stuffed animals found their way to the field, too.
The first two plush toys — brought down with third baseman Danny Zardon at the controls — were named Ref and Peppa.
They became part of the team and were hung in the middle of the NSU dugout for the final three games in what became a 5-0 run through the Division II World Series.
The players went back to Dave & Buster’s last Friday and added three more plush toys to their dugout collection.
“Ref and Peppa broke the ice,” said NSU right fielder Kavan Thompson, who estimated that he and his teammates used about $120 worth of gift cards and cash to bag their winnings. “Then they got some friends.”
To outsiders, Ref, Peppa and their three stuffed “friends” might mean nothing. But to the Sharks, this was all part of their plan to have fun and play ball.
“You could tell the difference between us and other teams that were tense,” Thompson said. “They never seemed as loose as us, and it culminated with us winning the championship.”
It was NSU’s eighth national title since the athletic program was created in 1982 — the other titles came in golf and rowing.
The baseball team, though, got off to a slow start this season, losing their first three games and standing just 11-10 nearly halfway through the regular season.
Things started to change in March. Brown talked to junior outfielder Teft Hill, who rarely plays but is a leader because of his team-first attitude.
“You know what we are?” Brown asked Hill. “We’re red hot.”
The Sharks were only 7-7 at the time. They didn’t take off until March 15, when they began what became a 33-6 close to their season.
But “red hot” became the NSU mantra.
Hill took Twizzlers and threw them at his teammates. When he said “red,” they said “hot.” The more they said it, the more the players believed … until they actually were red hot.
Pretty soon, the players started filling their dugout with Tabasco sauce, tomatoes and anything else red they could find.
The inspired Sharks caught fire, going 11-2 against Top 20 teams. During the regular season, they beat No. 2 Tampa and No. 18 Florida Southern, taking two of three from each, both on the road. They also beat No. 11 Southern New Hampshire.
In the playoffs, NSU went 6-0 against top 20 teams, including two in a row against No. 1 Millersville, which finished 52-7 with win streaks of 10, 14 and 22 games.
But Millersville was no match for the Sharks.
NSU closer Devin Raftery was the MVP of the World Series, compiling one win and three saves. He also was the MVP of the South Region playoffs with three saves.
There were numerous other heroes, too, including catchers Mike Hernandez and Jake Anchia, first baseman Andres Visbal, second baseman Jancarlos Cintron-Torres, shortstop Dylan Woods and Zardon at third.
The outfielders, left to right, were Sebastian Diaz, Kevin Suarez and Thompson. Brandon Gomez was the DH and unofficial outfielders coach.
Besides Raftery, the top pitchers were Alex Mateo, Julian Loret de Mola, Alex Kline, Matt Hardy and Jonny Ortiz.
“We knew we were the best team out there,” Suarez said. “We just had to put it all together.”