One Last Ride: Inside Birmingham-Southern’s Improbable Run to the CWS

After 168 years of operation, Birmingham-Southern College closed its doors on May 31. However, the Panthers’ baseball team made an improbable run to the Division III College World Series after the mid-season news changed the team’s season.

The private liberal arts college in Birmingham, Alabama, closed due to financial problems, but that did not hinder its baseball team from making a run to the biggest stage in the sport. The Panthers clinched their first super regional title and DIII College World Series appearance since 2019 following a 7-6 victory over No. 2 ranked Denison University on May 25.

Speculation about the school’s closure began in 2022 after its $122 million endowment had dropped to $53 million from 2007 to 2009, impacting the ability to increase student enrollment and athletic recruiting. The school could not secure a $30 million loan to help refill the endowment, which finalized the decision to close the school.

After learning about the fate of its school on March 26, the baseball team steered itself onto a championship course by ending the season by winning 14 of its last 16 games before losing the first two games in the first round of the Southern Athletic Association Tournament. The Panthers still qualified for an NCAA Regional with a 32-14 record.

“In this day and age [of NIL and the transfer portal], they are either going to limp to the finish, quit on the team, or immediately think about ‘where am I going to go?'” head coach Jan Weisberg said on the McElroy and Cubelic in the Morning show. “None of these guys have done that. Not one. They dug deeper as a team in this age of ‘let’s focus on me.’ I think that’s a pretty damn cool thing.”

The Season Changing Announcement

The Panthers were losers of nine of their last 14 games with an overall record of 13-10 when head coach Jan Weisberg called a team meeting on March 26 to inform the team of the school shutting down.

Weisberg learned about the news earlier that day from the school’s Athletic Director Kyndall Waters, and described it as a “gut-punch,” but he had to be the one to tell the team before it was spread by email. After 17 seasons of being in charge of the program at BSC, Weisberg knew how to handle the difficult circumstances.

The experienced coach made sure everyone knew they were in it together. Through a “good message and some strong leadership,” the team bought in on the situation and supported each other through the difficult time.

“Life does still go on,” he told McElroy and Cubelic. “We are going to do our best to help you with your academics. You are not going to quit. … Immediately, let’s have meetings. Let’s start to talk about where you might want to go and, maybe, we can get in touch with the coaches.”

Instead of giving up on the season, the news sparked a fire in the Panthers. They finished the regular season on a 14-4 stretch and went 5-0 in the NCAA Regional and Super Regional to clinch their spot in the College World Series.

Super Regional Scare

Birmingham-Southern won game one of the NCAA Super Regional against Denison University 10-1. Going into game two with a chance to clinch a berth in the Division III College World Series, disaster struck the team.

Two players were hospitalized with what was thought to be food poisoning, one was treated in an ambulance, and several others had to get IVs during the game. Two of those needing IVs, relief pitchers Jacob Fields and Charlie Horne, combined to get the last seven outs and secure the 7-6 win, Weisberg told the morning show. The presumed food poisoning was a strand of norovirus that impacted as many as 10 players.

“When stuff hits hard, you don’t have to give up,” said Hansen McCown, one of the hospitalized players, to Birmingham news station WVTM13. “You don’t have to give in to the situation. And there’s always people to lean on find ways to persevere. I think that’s what our team has done.”

A season of unexpected twists and turns created a team that could deal with adversity. Despite having a chunk of the team out with illness, the Panthers won and gave themselves an opportunity at a championship in their very last season.

Support Across the Country

When the Panthers took the field against No. 2 Salve Regina on May 31, they were playing for a school no longer in operation. A walk-off home run in game two delivered a glimpse of hope. Still, the Panther’s 11-10 walk-off loss to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in their third game put the stamp on the final page in the history of Birmingham Southern’s baseball program.

“I don’t feel sadness right now and I mean it,” Weisberg said following the season-ending loss. “The ride that these guys have given me this year has been absolutely incredible.”

A GoFundMe has garnered over $110,000 in donations to support the team’s travel expenses and championship rings with the extra money helping the coaching staff’s expenses. Trading card company Topps has created an official trading card to commemorate the team’s achievement with a portion of the sales going to the program. They are also giving cards to players, friends and family.

Fifteen members of a film documentary crew were present for the championship series to capture the ending of a rollercoaster season for Birmingham-Southern’s baseball program. Executive producer Jason Sciavicco told AL.com that multiple major streaming services have their eyes on the documentary, and it will come down to the service that can give the story the most “global reach.”

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