The ETSU Buccaneers have seen a resurgence since joining the Atlantic Sun Conference, capped by today’s tournament championship which vaults the Bucs to the NCAA Regionals for the first time in three decades.
In 2011, Head Coach Tony Skole and the Bucs nearly secured the program’s first at-large bid to the NCAA Regionals. ETSU finished the season as the 39th ranked RPI team with a 36-21 record, which included a 17-14 record in A-Sun play and seven overall wins against the nation’s top-100 teams.
However, the NCAA selection committee left the Bucs out of the fray as three other A-Sun teams earned regional bids to give the conference multiple squads in postseason play for the first time since 2007. The Atlantic Sun ranked as the ninth-best conference in the nation in 2011 with six teams in the NCAA RPI Top-100.
“The league is so good and so deep every single year. All the coaches and all the programs get after it and recruit great players,” Skole said. “If you don’t work hard and recruit well, you will get left behind so it has forced us to match that effort.”
The following year, the Johnson City lineup saw a slight dip in wins as the team was shifting onto a new home field in Thomas Stadium, which was still under construction at the time. The Bucs finished 23-32 and missed the conference tournament for the first time in three seasons.
A new motto entered the ETSU clubhouse of Thomas Stadium “The Game Honors Toughness” which was shortened down to “TGHT” and placed on the back of the Buccaneers apparel.
With the new stadium and mantra, the Buccaneers thrived at home with a 20-9 record in their friendly confines, including a 9-3 mark in league play. By the end of the year ETSU racked up a 32-22 tally overall and floated around the top-100 mark of the RPI.
The 2013 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship at Stetson’s Melching Field seemed like a home away from home as the Buccaneers thrived with two extra-inning victories vs. Stetson followed by Mercer two nights later.
The additional wins pushed the Bucs into the top-100 of the RPI as the victory vs. the Bears gave ETSU its fifth win vs. a top-50 RPI squad and ninth against the best 100 teams in the nation.
Another dramatic victory in the tournament – this time against USC Upstate in walk-off fashion – propelled the Bucs into the championship final where they awaited Kennesaw State. The Tournament MVP Kerry Doane quieted the Owls in a complete game effort while the offense kept the Bucs on top the whole way to claim the title.
“I’m proud of our guys. They really rose to the occasion and played very well the last five or six weeks of the season,” reflected Skole. “We got some momentum this week and rode it all the way out to the end.”
The impetus of playing in one of the best conferences in the country will have long lasting effects on the health of ETSU.
“When we got into the A-Sun, it gave us a chance to create an identity. We had an identity in Southern Conference baseball and it wasn’t the best,” Sokle continued. “Once we got into the A-Sun, we had to break through that to create our own identity.”
The first year in the conference, the Buccaneers made quite the splash in the A-Sun by finishing fifth in the regular season and worked their way into the championship final of the tournament before falling 6-2 to Stetson.
“Over the years, we have had some good teams and really great players. It wasn’t in the cards for those players to break the barrier and reach postseason, but these guys found a way,” commented Skole.
Starting with Bucs’ inaugural A-Sun season in 2006 and now eight years later, ETSU and Skole have created a new identity for themselves; that of a championship program.