Stony Brook's baseball team departed the university Wednesday to thunderous applause from family, friends and supporters, boarding a bus amid a horde of television cameras and photographers. The Seawolves, Cinderellas in spikes, were on their way to the College World Series, and suddenly what's at stake seems far more significant than anyone could have imagined.
"As we're heading to Omaha, facing all the big schools, we feel like we're one of them now," first baseman Kevin Courtney said.
Stony Brook (52-13) meets UCLA (47-14) Friday in 24,000-seat TD Ameritade Park. In a historic postseason run for the program and college baseball in the Northeast, Stony Brook has become America's baseball team.
That is the belief of Kyle Kallander, the commissioner of the Big South Conference who chairs the Division I baseball committee. "I think they'll be cheering when Stony Brook takes the field, makes good plays and scores runs," he said. "It's the energy you would see at a home game."
At Dugout Hats, which has two locations in Omaha, demand for Stony Brook caps and souvenirs "is huge, one of the biggest ever," owner Rich Tokheim said. "Our website has been knocked down, we're getting thousands of emails and calls. Stony Brook is going to have 20,000 fans from Omaha on their side because everybody is for the underdog."
The players do not exactly embrace that label.
"A Cinderella story is a great story for anybody," designated hitter Anthony Italiano said, "but we all believe we are good enough. We don't have the mentality that we don't deserve to be here. We definitely don't feel like we're the underdog."
Pitcher Frankie Vanderka added, "Our goal isn't done yet. Conference is one thing. Regional, Super Regional, another. Now it's Omaha. Our goal wasn't just to get there, it was to win it. I don't want to be that guy giving guarantees out, but I have 100 percent confidence."
That belief was bolstered in last weekend's Super Regional in Baton Rouge, La., when Stony Brook dispatched host and SEC power LSU and pitcher Kevin Gausman, selected fourth overall in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft.
"It certainly opened my eyes," second baseman Maxx Tisssenbaum said. "Wow, we really can do this. This is a really special team. It was, by far, the greatest night in all of our lives. After the way we played, I don't think anything's crazy anymore."
The road to Omaha has been long, winding and steep, paved in the early years with the rocks and stones of a Division III field that coach Matt Senk tended to long before alumnus and major leaguer Joe Nathan's $500,000 donation created a state-of-the-art D-I facility. When Nathan's D-III team made the NCAA Tournament in 1995, it seemed like the be-all and end-all.
Seven players from this team have been drafted, led by centerfielder Travis Jankowski, 44th overall by the Padres. He has an estimated $1-million signing bonus waiting, but his pro career is the last thing on his mind.
"I know that is kind of crazy," he said, "but there's no place I'd rather be than with my team out in Omaha. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. There's no way we want this to end now.''
The success has brought the school national attention. "Someone told me we were the No. 1 search on Google," university president Samuel Stanley said.
Imagine what a national championship would mean.
"It's crazy to think that's a possibility," Senk said. "But I think we've proven that anything is a possibility."