PEMBROKE — As the NCAA Division II baseball championship selection show kicked off on Sunday night, Paul O’Neil knew better than to assume his team would be playing in the Southeast Regional on Thursday.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke head baseball coach understood from previous experience that the Braves weren’t guaranteed a spot in the field despite being the fifth-ranked team in last week’s regional rankings.
“I didn’t assume we were in for a moment,” O’Neil said. “If you look at our records over the past 10 years, we’ve got snubbed before where we didn’t get in with 38 and 37 wins.”
The Braves found themselves in a similar predicament this year after finishing the season with a record of 38-13. They lost to Georgia College in their final Peach Belt Conference tournament pool play matchup, with a trip to the championship game on the line.
UNCP ultimately didn’t need the conference’s automatic bid that Georgia College earned by defeating USC Aiken in the finals, as the Braves were awarded an at-large bid as the fifth seed in the regional. They will face fourth-seeded Columbus State, the third and final qualifier from the PBC, in the first round on Thursday.
The Cougars defeated the Braves twice in Columbus earlier this season. The series finale was cancelled due to inclement weather.
“I feel good about it. Our kids are excited,” O’Neil said. “This is what they’ve been working for since August.”
O’Neil said USC Aiken’s loss in the conference championship game helped strengthen UNCP’s postseason chances. The Pacers were the seventh-ranked team in the region, with Wingate separating them from the Braves in the standings.
“Georgia College was getting in anyways, so they grabbed the automatic bid out of our league,” O’Neil said. “If USC Aiken had won they obviously would have been in, but would we have gotten in? Mathematically yes, but that would mean we’d be sending four teams out of our league to the regional. I can’t answer that question with certainty.”
North Greenville University is hosting the double-elimination Southeast Regional and will take on the winner of UNCP’s first-round game, which is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Second-seeded Georgia College (42-10) will take on seventh-seeded Lincoln Memorial (35-19) at 3 p.m.
The winner of that game will face the winner of an 11 a.m. matchup between third-seeded Belmont Abbey (37-12) and sixth-seeded Wingate (34-17) in the second round.
The Braves defeated Wingate twice this season, winning 9-6 at home and 11-0 on the road. Georgia College swept the Braves at home in a three-game series at home earlier in the year before beating them 12-6 in the conference tournament.
This is the second consecutive year UNCP advanced to the Southeast Regional. They defeated Catawba 6-2 in the first round last season before falling to top-ranked Mount Olive and Lincoln Memorial.
The Braves have another opportunity to make a run at the NCAA College World Series in Cary, but they also have a chance to extend the careers of their four seniors.
One of those seniors, Anthony Burke, will take the mound for the Braves on Thursday.
“Every time I go out there, I know it could be the last time,” Burke said. “Who knows when that last time will come. I just want to keep prolonging that for as long as I can and keep riding this thing out.”
Reach Brandon Tester at 910-816-1989 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @BrandonTester.