OMAHA, Neb. -- Virginia's hard-throwing, 6-foot-4 closer Nick Howard found himself in a familiar spot two weeks as ago as the Cavaliers counted the outs left in the super regional against Maryland, a trip to the College World Series at stake.
Howard, from Olney, Maryland, had closed the state championship as a senior in high school and got caught at the bottom of the dogpile, the traditional celebratory collapse of bodies.
So Howard, on the mound late in this 11-2 Virginia win, made a decision: He would run, a move likely to be met with approval by the Cincinnati Reds, who selected Howard with the 19th pick in the first round of the major league draft earlier this month.
But when Howard fanned Charlie White for the final out, the pitcher's mind went blank.
"It happened so fast," Howard said. "I just got hit. I went down. I think it was our bullpen catcher, Jack Anzilotti. I don't know what happened from there, but it was the longest 30 seconds of my life. I couldn't breathe for a little while. I thought I might die."
Virginia and Vanderbilt are playing this week in the best-of-three CWS championship series. On Wednesday night, in keeping with tradition, another dogpile will form on the infield at TD Ameritrade Park.
Gloves will fly. Bodies will go airborne. Arms and legs will twist painfully.
From the outside, it looks fun. Inside the dogpile, there's often agony, even panic. But the players who participate say they would never skip the opportunity to dogpile. At least, most of them wouldn't.
If the Commodores win the national title this week, look for Ro Coleman to avoid the dogpile. Coleman, a freshman outfielder, stands 5-foot-5. He weighs 140 pounds. He figures he would not fare well under the weight of 20 teammates.
"I don't think any person my size would be up for that," Coleman said.
Coleman, in fact, feared for his safety after he delivered a pinch-hit, walk-off single as Vanderbilt beat Oregon on June 1 to win the Nashville Regional 3-2. His teammates charged from the dugout. Coleman touched first base and kept going.
"I just wanted to stay on my feet and keep running as far as possible," he said. "I knew they were going to try get me, but I wasn't going to let that happen."
When the Commodores eventually caught Coleman he was somehow able to keep his feet. A week later, after shortstop Vince Conde caught the last out to clinch the super regional win against Stanford, Coleman stayed on the edge of the celebratory dogpile, a much better alternative, he said.
"If I end up on the bottom," he said, "there's no telling if I was going to make it out."
The dogpile has been a staple at the CWS for many years.
Baseball Prospectus traced the roots of the phenomenon to Major League Baseball in the 1960s. The publication credits the 1962 Yankees for turning their World Series-winning celebration toward the field and for throwing equipment in the air.
Before the widespread TV broadcast of baseball, most championship teams in the post-World War II era simply ran off the field after the final out was recorded.
The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers' celebration featured players who jumped into a circle of teammates, possibly for the first time.
In 1982, the Cardinals won the World Series and fell to the ground in a heap much like the modern-day dogpile.
Four years later, the dogpile reached full chaos mode with the Mets, as reliever Jesse Orosco hurled his glove after the final out of the World Series before a gang of teammates tackled him.
Of the teams in Omaha this year, Ole Miss players came with the best stories to tell of their super regional dogpile.
First, there was reliever Josh Laxer, who fell to his knees in a "soccer slide," he said, facing the Rebels' dugout after first baseman Sikes Orvis recorded the last out to send Ole Miss to Omaha for the first time since 1972 with a 10-4 win at Louisiana-Lafayette.
"I can tell you how not to dogpile," Laxer said. "My problem was someone hit me in the chest. I was trying to get them off me, grabbing the wrong places on a few guys."
Laxer said he may have momentarily lost consciousness.
"There was a moment where I remember my eyes rolling back into my head," he said. "I should have gone into the fetal position."
Meanwhile, Ole Miss pitcher Chris Ellis, sprinting from bullpen, jumped on the pile late and delivered a knee to the back of the head of center fielder Auston Bousfield, who emerged bloody from the pile. Ellis, in the aftermath, saw Bousfield.
"I was like, 'Man, what happened?'" Ellis said. "He said, 'I don't know, someone kneed me in the back of the head.'"
Turns out, a photo of the crime surfaced.
"I had no idea until later that night when I saw the picture," Ellis said.
If Virginia wins this week, left fielder Derek Fisher, another recent first-round draft pick, has a plan: get to the pile last.
"Coming in from the outfield," Fisher said, "you only need two people to beat you."
Good strategy, according to Orvis of Ole Miss, who got crushed alongside Laxer.
"There's no safe place in the dogpile," Orvis said. "But if you're on the bottom, the best thing to do is curl up in a ball and wait it out."