Gardner-Webb’s baseball history includes three trips to national championship tournaments

By Richard Walker

Longtime baseball coach Jerry Bryson’s Gardner-Webb Sports Hall of Fame plaque.

Gardner-Webb College has had 27 major league draft picks, helped produce three major leaguers, claimed 10 conference championships and won more than 1,300 games in its baseball history since the school resumed athletics after World War II.

Blake Lalli, Emilio Pagan and Jeremy Walker are the three major leaguers produced by the program. (Pagan transferred to Belmont Abbey after two seasons at Gardner-Webb.)

But three teams stand out from the rest in Gardner-Webb history as they are the only Bulldogs’ teams to advance to national tournaments – the 1967 and 1969 National Junior College Athletic Association national tournament qualifiers and a 2000 NCAA Division II World Series team.

Gardner-Webb first emerged as a power in the sport by winning four titles in five years for veteran coaches Revis Frye and Norman Harris from 1949 to 1953. Harris guided the school to three more titles – in 1955, 1957 and 1959 – before finishing with a 161-93 record during a 17-year tenure that ended after the 1966 season.

The next head coach, Jerry Bryson was hired away from Gastonia’s Hunter Huss High School and led two of his first three teams to the national tournament. And the Bulldogs were one game away from qualifying in the other year.

The 1967 team was led by the first two players drafted by the major leagues from the college – pitcher Wayne Church and catcher Luis Flores – and third baseman Tom Privette. Church finished with a 13-1 pitching record while Privette hit .324.

That pair combined to qualify Gardner-Webb for its first national tournament as Church threw 7 2-3 no-hit innings in a 1-0 victory over host Louisburg in which he struck out 12 and yielded two hits and Flores’ sixth-inning home run was the game’s lone run of the region championship game.

In the national tournament at Grand Junction, Col., Gardner-Webb went 1-2 and was eliminated by eventual NJCAA runner-up Odessa, Tex.; It ended the Bulldogs’ season with an 18-5 record.

After losing in the regional title game to Ferrum, Va., in 1968, Gardner-Webb was back in the national tournament in 1969 after sweeping through the regional in Louisburg.

The 1969 team was led by by first baseman Joe Brown (.390 average, six home runs, 34 RBIs) and local Mike McDaniel (Shelby) and Roger McSwain (Crest). McDaniel, a second baseman, hit .342 with eight home runs and 34 RBIs and McSwain, a centerfielder, hit .439 with three home runs and 22 RBIs. Ron Lacy, Johnny Phillips and local product Bobby Lail (Crest) were the top pitchers.

McDaniel, McSwain and reliever Wayne McCauley were the standouts in the 6-1 regional title game win over Columbia State, Tenn.

Back in Grand Junction, Col., for the national touranament, Gardner-Webb lost both games and the Bulldogs were eliminated 7-6 by eventual national champion Mesa, Col., College to finish with a 22-4 record.

Lail and McSwain, both also drafted as high school seniors, were major league draft picks by the Atlanta Braves in 1969; Lail was a sixth-round pick and McSwain a seventh-round pick.

Bryson, a state championship winner at old Gastonia High School as a player, and later Clyde Miller and Rusty Stroupe led the school to more than 1,000 senior college baseball victories.

Miller’s 2000 team had unexpected success after an unexpected postseason appearance.

Longtime Baseball coach Clyde Miller’s Gardner-Webb Sports Hall of Fame plaque.

A seventh-place preseason pick (out of eight teams) in the school’s final year in the South Atlantic Conference, a Gardner-Webb team led by 13 seniors tied for third in the regular season race and advanced to the tournament finals before losing to Lenoir-Rhyne.

But at 41-19, the Bulldogs were the only league team selected to play in the NCAA Division II playoffs that season and took a No. 3 seed in the four-team South Regional in Haines City, Fla., that included two of top five ranked teams in the country.

Led by senior third baseman Blake Leverett (.420 average, 14 home runs, 65 RBIs), senior first baseman Sammy Pruett (.375, 14, 78) and freshman pitcher Abraham Gonzalez (11-2 record), the Bulldogs seemed to thrive off getting second life in their first and so far only NCAA postseason tournament appearance.

Gardner-Webb promptly beat No. 5-ranked Florida Southern 5-1 in its opening game, then edged No. 2-ranked Tampa 4-3 in 10 innings to advance to the championship game. There, the Bulldogs routed Florida State 14-1.

Pruett had four hits, including two home runs, and six RBIs and Brook Collins threw a six-hitter in the championship.

Miller, who guided the school to 326 victories from 1990 to 2002 after replacing Bryson, couldn’t have been happier with his team’s advance to the NCAA Division II World Series in Montgomery, Ala.

“It’s a great feeling,” Miller told The Tampa Tribune after the regional championship win. “It’s hard to put into words. We were so uncertain we would get an invite, then when we did, we knew we were in a tough South Region.”

In the World Series, Gardner-Webb’s season came to an end after back-to-back losses to eventual runner-up Fort Hays State and Central Missouri State.

Pruett eventually was named first team All-American, with Gonzalez and Leverett getting second team honors.

Gardner-Webb has twice come close to advancing to the NCAA Division I World Series, losing in the 2008 Atlantic Sun Conference title game and the 2011 Big South Conference title game under head coach Rusty Stroupe; A native of nearby Cherryville, Stroupe is the school’s all-time winningest coach in any sport with 481 victories from 2003 to 2019.