Butch Thompson kept it to himself.
There were times, he can admit now though, that he just didn’t see a path.
It was when he was driving, maybe, alone with his thoughts on the roads around Auburn, when doubt would set in for him at times earlier this spring. Or he would be in the shower, he said, getting ready for the day and the challenges ahead during his team’s slumps this season, when the questions would echo in his mind.
It hasn’t been an easy road for the Auburn baseball program.
But through all the struggles that have come, and all the times the Tigers were left wondering if their postseason dreams were going to come true, the coaches and players stuck with it. Now they enter the NCAA Tournament’s Super Regionals this Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Auburn (36-25) challenges host North Carolina (45-17) in a best-of-three series starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Auburn has made it to the Super Regional round in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history. The Tigers jumped for joy in Atlanta after winning Georgia Tech’s host regional last weekend. The players piled together on the field, Thompson received the cooler dunk from his team and pulled his cap off to salute the fans before his players stepped off the field to pats on the back from supporters in a heroes’ exit as regional champs heading off to Supers.
So many times this season, the Tigers weren’t so sure they’d get to celebrate a moment like that.
But as they stuck together, they made it possible.
“It’s a good lesson for me, that if you’ll just hang with some young people here, and stay with them, they can do some amazing things,” Thompson said.
That was last Sunday, as he opened up in the postgame press conference after Auburn’s regional title win, admitting there were times this season that he wasn’t so sure this group would reach its potential.
Auburn won 15 straight games including its first four SEC contests in a hot streak earlier this season. The Tigers then were up and down, going 9-16 in the conference from there before a season-finale win at LSU. That win, paired with one win over Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, seemed to pull Auburn off the NCAA Tournament bubble at the final hour and into the postseason.
Now Auburn is among the last 16 teams standing, in part because of the road the Tigers have run, and in part, as Thompson put it, because young people can do amazing things.
Amazing things like Steven Williams’ two-out, three-run, walk-off homer in the team’s 6-5 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday.
“We knew our potential,” Williams put it simply Wednesday as he sat in the dugout now back on the Plains after a team workout at Plainsman Park.
The same goes for the emerging confidence from deep bullpen arms Richard Fitts and Bailey Horn, who threw six scoreless each while staring down the nation’s No. 3 seed on its home field, throughout that Saturday win and the 4-1 region clincher on Sunday.
“We just believed in one another,” Horn said.
Some of those struggles made the team sharper, too. Auburn has the second-fewest wins among teams still in the tournament is tied for the most losses, but Jack Owen said the team felt prepared for the regional after a long road traveled in the SEC. Auburn has the nation’s No. 1 strength of schedule per Warren Nolan. Six of the 16 teams left standing in the NCAA Tournament are SEC teams.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that’s played the schedule that we have and there’s nobody that’s as prepared as we are,” Owen said.
Williams could’ve looked across the street to Auburn Arena. He said he talked with team administrator Randall Dickey before about how the Auburn men’s basketball team struggled at times this season, before ripping its way through March to the Final Four.
“The basketball team, they didn’t play their best basketball the whole season, and I think that’s why they were confident,” Williams said. “We didn’t play our best baseball the whole season, until right now when it really matters. That’s what we always hung our hat on.”
One way or the other, Auburn’s headed to North Carolina — and through it all, the Tigers are still working to make their dreams come true.
“We’re still kicking,” Thompson said. “We were given an opportunity and we did make the most of it, and that’s exciting. If we play this brand of baseball again, I like our chances.”