EASTLAKE, Ohio (AP) — In most cases, the last day of school is a cause for celebration, a needed break, a chance to refresh over summer.

Not at Birmingham-Southern. It’s a painful ending.

The small liberal arts college which opened a year before Abraham Lincoln became president is officially closing on Friday, the final chapter to a prolonged financial struggle the school couldn’t overcome.

The baseball team fights on.

Bonded by adversity and overcoming numerous obstacles along the way, the Panthers have uplifted the Birmingham-Southern’s close community by advancing to the Division III World Series — a final swing at the school’s first national championship.

“That would mean everything,” said second baseman Andrew Dutton. “All the guys are just so hungry for it. We’re all here for one thing, and it would make for a great story. Hopefully we can get it done.”

One of eight teams left in the field, No. 7 seed Birmingham-Southern opens the double-elimination tournament against No. 2 seed Salve Regina at Classic Park, home of the Lake County Captains, a High-A minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians.

The Panthers’ story of loss, determination and togetherness has not only united the school’s proud alums, employees and faculty during a tough time, but they’ve become something of a national sensation with fans across the country.

On Thursday, Topps announced it’s producing a limited-run trading card featuring Birmingham-Southern’s improbable run. The card will feature the Panthers celebrating their Super Regional and World Series berth-clinching win — a game they played while being overrun by a team-wide stomach virus.

At one point during that 7-6 victory at Denison, coach Jan Weisberg, who has built one of the nation’s top D-III programs over 17 years at the school, was filled with more pride when he saw players getting IVs just to get through the game.

In March, when the school announced it would be shutting its doors for good on May 31, Weisberg stood in front of his team and delivered the news to his players. Many of them broke down crying.

As his team took batting practice Thursday, Weisberg recalled the message that took clearly took hold.

“There’s always going to be pain in your life,” he told them. “There’s always going to be uncertainty. There’s always going to be hard work to do. It all went back to COVID and these guys were all in high school or college and they thought that was going to be the most traumatic thing that ever happened to them.

“But I said, hey man, look at three years later and you’re OK. All of you are going to be OK. You don’t see it right now. I think that’s why we’re here.”

While guiding his team through an unexpected, almost unimaginable season, Weisberg, who leases a home on a Birmingham-Southern campus becoming barren by the day, has had to adapt on the fly.

The night before the Panthers’ opening-round NCAA tournament game, he was informed that the host school didn’t allow spiked shoes on their turfed field. With no time to spare, he went to a sporting good store and bought $3,000 worth of plastic cleats.

“We wore them for three days and we played great,” Weisberg said. “My assistant said, ‘What are we going to do. That not in the budget?’ And I said, what are they going to do, fire me?”

Birmingham-Southern has gone 19-4 since the school announced the permanent closure, and Weisberg said his team has become the closest he’s coached.

Before taking a charter flight to Cleveland on Tuesday, the Panthers gathered for their final practice on the school’s campus, where dumpsters are being filled with memories.

As he drove the familiar route from home to school, fifth-year outfielder Ian Hancock was struck by the finality of it all.

“The fact that it was the practice, and honestly last thing to go on at that field was bittersweet,” said the slugger from Roswell, Georgia. “We have all this excitement with the World Series, but the fact that it was the end of a chapter there for the program was sad.”

Hancock was given the honors of being the last to take batting practice.

On his last swing, he connected for a home run, setting off an impromptu celebration as the Panthers hollered and danced on a field they’ll never play on again.

In the moment, Weisberg smiled. Later, it hit him hard.

“I got a little emotional,” he said. “This run has been so fun, that all the positives of it have taken away the feelings of, oh, this is it. I thank these guys for that.”


AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports