It's all in the belt for Owls
An unconventional postgame reward turned Kennesaw State's season around
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Superstition is born of desperation across baseball dugouts. An inside-out baseball hat to ignite a comeback, a single pant leg rolled up in the ninth and even a pint-sized Capuchin asking doubters to "believe in the power of the Rally Monkey."
Late-inning quirks serve as a last-resort plea for the improbable, if not impossible. And when they work, well, it offers credence to the belief something as small and off the wall as a rally cap can alter the outcome of a game, of a season.
The reality is those superstitions are not a cry to an ethereal being for divine intervention, rather a show of solidarity and a call for unity among teammates. So on Friday when Kennesaw State travels to Louisville to play for a berth in the College World Series, Cinderella won't be wearing a glass slipper.
She'll be rockin' a championship belt.
"I think baseball is that kind of sport where you look for something that rallies the team," said Kennesaw State athletic director Vaughn Williams, who sat in the stands for all four of the Owls' regional games. "[The belt] is an individual item, but it represents the team, and a lot of players have worn that belt."
Still adjusting to Division I since reclassifying in 2006, Kennesaw State entered 2014 as a middle-of-the-road Atlantic Sun team. Coach Mike Sansing, who led the Owls to NAIA and Division II championships, won 96 games over the three seasons prior, but midway through this season, Kennesaw State was failing to meet even the mild projection of fifth in the conference. The Owls were tied for last.
The genesis of the belt can be traced to second-year volunteer assistant coach and pro wrestling junkie Trey Fowler. Each weekend, something from the world of pro "wrassling," as the Georgia native calls it, found its way into his scouting reports, and Fowler's passion for wrestling began to rub off on the entire Owls roster. They even diverted course en route home from a road trip and flooded the team bus in computer cables to catch WrestleMania XXX.
As the season slipped away, the Owls sat at 13-18 and hopes for a first NCAA tournament bid in school history were diminishing. So, Fowler approached Sansing with the idea of awarding a plastic championship belt to the team's most valuable player following wins.
The first belt was given out after an April 2 win against Georgia Southern -- who, fittingly, the Owls beat to reach the regional final -- and since then Kennesaw State has won 26 of its past 30 games and authored the 2014 NCAA tournament's feel-good story.
"We enjoyed the competition to get the belt. That was a huge deal and we made it a huge deal. After games, the guys are itching to see who would get the belt." said Sansing, who, on the morning of Monday's final, bested outfielder Bo Way in a wrestling match. "Mentally, we had a different approach, maybe because we were trying to get the belt? I don't know. But I do know they're competitive and it gave everyone something to shoot for."
Sports psychologist Brian Cain is willing to give the Owls' coaching staff much more credit. He is not arguing that a toy can inspire a team to reach the NCAA super regionals, but he sees firsthand the difference an altered mental approach can have on a player or a team.
"It gave them a rallying point and something to focus on outside the negativity, and baseball is the greatest game of failure," said Cain, who works with several teams still in the tournament and will travel to three super regional sites this weekend. "A championship belt gives them something else to play for and laugh about. Those little motivators get competitors to rise to their best, and people at this level will compete harder for a Snickers bar than a million dollars."
The larger goal was an NCAA bid, but the focus became on each pitch, each game. The goal became the belt. Ninth-inning losses turned into last at-bat wins. Over a three-game period, Kennesaw State hit a walk-off home run after blowing a ninth-inning lead, and then scored nine runs in the final two innings to notch a comeback win over Georgia State. In the Tallahassee Regional final against Alabama, Kennesaw State trailed 2-1 in the fifth.
"The belt made a huge difference," catcher Max Pentecost said. "It was unreal. We started winning and had a lot of comebacks, so we never really get down. ... It seems everybody wants to be up in the situation to make a difference in the game and see who gets that belt."
During presentations, Cain drives into players' minds that above all it's about the team. "If you don't get it done, how quick can you get out of yourself and into the team," he asks. During Monday's winner-take-all game against Alabama, the Kennesaw State bench cleared every half-inning to slap hands and embrace teammates as the Owls walked to the dugout.
That team-first attitude is the basis the belt is built on. More than half of the team has earned it for their efforts, which often did not come between the lines. Pentecost, a first-round pick in Thursday's MLB draft, remembers winning the belt only once, which teammates jokingly remind him of daily.
"We've had guys win the belt because they're pitchers and they're catching in the bullpen, because they sacrificed to help us win that game," said Fowler, who was awarded the belt following the regional title. "If he's able to do something to help us win even when not on the field, that speaks volumes and that's what special teams are made of."
Fowler, who idolized Ric Flair growing up, is not sure what he will come up with for his Louisville scouting report. He will rack his brain for a little ingenuity and look for guidance from "The Nature Boy" or possibly the Rock, who he channeled last weekend for this scouting report gem:
"We're gonna be Bama beatin', Seminole defeatin'
We ain't gonna run and hide, bring on the Alabama Crimson Tide
Don't forget to call your Ma and Pa, next stop destination: Omaha."
The superstition lives on.
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