Kaleb Gibson ended his collegiate baseball career in the best way imaginable — in a national championship dogpile with his North Greenville teammates who have become brothers.
Gibson is no stranger to postseason drama — or winning. He was a senior on the 2017 Colleton County squad that went 8-2 in region play and won the District VIII title before falling to Hilton Head High in the Class 4A Lower State playoffs.
But the success has not come easily. Gibson’s story is one of perseverance, fortitude, and grace.
The 2022 baseball season was a remarkable one for North Greenville University, which finished 54-10 overall and 25-5 in conference play, and captured the Conference Carolinas regular-season and tournament titles, earning the Crusaders a No. 1 seed and making NGU one of 16 regional host sites for the 56-team NCAA Division II National Championship.
The Crusaders fought off UNC Pembroke 6-4 to open the regional, and Gibson made his 10th appearance of the season on the mound, and his only one in postseason play. The left-hander made the most of it, working around a hit and a walk in a scoreless eighth to preserve a one-run lead.
NGU then bounced back from a defeat to Lenoir-Rhyne to avenge the loss to the Bears in back-to-back elimination games and punch their ticket to the Southeast Super Regional, a three-game set with visiting Columbus State. NGU was able to grind out a 7-6 win in the opener of a three-game set before falling 8-4 in game 2. The Crusaders crushed the Cougars 13-3 in the rubber match, though, sending them to the final site for the first time in program history.
North Greenville entered the championship field of eight as the No. 1 seed in the double-elimination tournament held June 4-11 at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, North Carolina. The Crusaders marched undefeated through the bracket, earning wins over West Chester (3-1), Angelo State (18-3), West Chester (8-5), and Point Loma (5-3) to capture their first national championship.
“The very thing my teammates and I grew up dreaming about, and visualizing in our backyard wiffle ball games, was actually happening,” Gibson recalls. “Moments before the last pitch was thrown, I found myself tearing up and smiling as the reality of my biggest dream was coming true — we were going to win the national championship. Earning that title is something few people get to experience in this life, and I am deeply thankful and blessed.”
A MATTER OF DETERMINATION
After being redshirted in his freshman year, along with the impacts of the pandemic on collegiate sports, the unimaginable happened in the fall of Gibson’s junior year. He suffered a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) — the ligament that is repaired through Tommy John surgery. He missed his entire junior campaign and the first 10 games of his senior year.
Gibson refused to give-up, even though there were times he wondered what the future held. He hopes his story will influence other athletes to not give up in the face of adversity.
“After 14 months of rehabilitation, I was able to return to the mound,” Gibson said. “Many times, throughout my rehab, I thought I would never toe the rubber again. When the opportunity finally came, and I touched that rubber, I felt an abundance of joy, relief, and internal fire. Finally, I was able to play the game that I hold so deeply to my heart. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity.”
Although his role was minimized somewhat after his injury, Gibson was a key contributor to a dominant NGU pitching staff. In one start and nine relief outings, Gibson compiled a 3.24 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 8.1 innings, holding opponents to a miniscule .077 WHIP. He didn’t get many opportunities as the bullpen rotation narrowed down the stretch, but having a reliable left-hander waiting in the wings was a weapon for the Crusaders, even if he went unused.
And bringing a national title home to the community that fostered his athletic career was important to Gibson.
“Although Colleton County is not known for championships in recent years, I was motivated to bring the experience, trophies, and championship rings back to my hometown of Walterboro,” Gibson said. “My dad spent countless hours practicing with me on the ballfield and my mom always supported me to help achieve my goals. I also give credit to my former Cougar teammates and head coach Jermale Paige for helping me find myself in the game of baseball. Without them, I would not be the player or person I am today. I always had the skill and the work ethic to be successful, but those guys pushed me to be greater and I want to thank them.”
Gibson graduated from North Greenville University in the spring with a Bachelor of Science in Sports Management with an emphasis on coaching and business. His next goal is to find a way to give back through the game on the same fields where he grew into a future national champion.
“My desire is to grow the game of baseball in Colleton County by using my college experience to encourage and inspire younger athletes to never give up on their dreams,” Gibson said. “Baseball will always have a special place in my heart. It has made me who am I and who I will forever be. I am grateful to have learned many of the life lessons the great sport of baseball has to offer.”
By Cindy Crosby / Cindyc4@yahoo.com