GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For the 15th time in school history, Jacksonville University baseball is in the postseason.
JU baseball has the most NCAA tournament appearances out of any sport in school history, and has the unique position as a "small school" to make it as an at-large, both this season and in years past. While this year's team is the first to make the NCAA Baseball Championship in seven seasons, part of that past success, plus a little outside flavor, is helping the 2018 Dolphins prepare like they have been there before.
Head Coach Chris Hayes played on the JU baseball team from 1992-95, and made an NCAA Regional in both his junior and senior year.
"I was so excited in '94. Joy, enthusiasm, fire, a want and knowledge that you could dominate," said Hayes about that first trip to the postseason as a player. "Obviously, there were some butterflies and enthusiasm for the moment.
"Walking on the field, we knew we belonged, we were prepared."
After his professional playing days ended, Hayes returned to Jacksonville as an assistant coach, helping guide the Dolphins to postseason appearances in 2006 and 2007, before leading JU back this season in just his second year as the head man at his alma mater. He understands what distractions can affect a team this time of year.
"There is greater attention on us now. For us, it's about cutting out all the noise and concentrating on what's got us here."
Pitching Coach Mark Guerra was also a part of that 1994 Regional participant squad, after setting a school record for wins in a season with 14.
"We were a team with a bunch of really gritty guys, just like our team now. We entered that '94 Regional having already beat Florida State when they were ranked number one, just like with Florida this year.
"We were really happy to get there, but not for one minute did any of the guys on our team think that we didn't belong."
Assistant Head Coach Rich Wallace went to three consecutive Regionals as a player at UCF from 2000-2002, and was a coach on staff for another appearance by the Knights in 2004.
He emphasizes how the important thing is to not treat it too differently, despite the increased stakes.
"It is the same thing we've done all year, just every play is magnified. It's crazy, emotions are high. It is a lot like the end of conference tournament games. There are going to be big leads, teams are going to blow leads."
"The biggest thing is to treat it as business as usual."
The basics of the experience is nothing new. Most players these days grew up playing four-team, double elimination tournaments all the time throughout youth baseball.
"They've been playing in events like this since they were five years old," said Wallace. "We as coaches probably feel the pressure more than they do."
Wallace also think that playing in familiar territory at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., where JU has already played two games this season, helps in that business-like mentality.
"They've had some success here. They've taken ground balls, had batting practices, seen live pitching here. That all helps."
Rounding out the coaching staff's NCAA experience is the man who has had arguably the most postseason success. Volunteer Assistant Coach Scott Wingo went to the NCAA Championship all four years he played at South Carolina, culminating in National Championships in his junior and senior season, and a Most Outstanding Player at the College World Series honor after the 2011 title.
He certainly has some perspective on what it takes to win in the postseason.
"Staying the moment is the biggest part of postseason play. You've got to realize that you have to be ready for every single pitch, because that could be the one to decide a game."
"Knowing these guys and how hard they work and have each other's backs, they respect each other. A team like that can go a long way."
The main thing is that every coach can impart a unique perspective heading into the week.
"The tough ones are the March midweek games, these are the easy ones to have excitement for," said Wallace. "I think it's about slowing it down and keeping yourself composed more so than ramping it up or finding more intensity."
"It doesn't matter how hard you throw, or what kind of bat you have, if you go up there and you're confident and feel good about what you have, then you can compete," said Guerra. "It comes down to whether or not the guys are really comfortable at the plate, on the mound and in the field."
"You've got to stay even-keeled both when things are going well and things are going bad," said Wingo. "You've got to keep the mindset of 'we're not done until that game is over'."
"A good team realizes that it is going to be a fight until that 27th out."
"Ultimately, the message to the guys is 'don't overcook it', we're prepared for this moment," said Hayes. "Because we as a staff were able to go through it in this uniform, we know what we need to do."