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27 May 2008

Unexpected Departure: JSU, Favored to Win Tournament...Falls Short with Loss

Second baseman Bert Smith prepares to throw to first during JSU's 6-4 loss to SEMO that eliminated them from the tourney. Photo: Steve Latham/JSU Athletics

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

PADUCAH, Ky. It's always disappointing when a team's season ends in a tournament prematurely, especially when it wasn't expected to end there at all.

It was fully expected Jacksonville State would play three games in this year's Ohio Valley Conference baseball tournament, with the third game being the title clincher.

The Gamecocks did play three games all right, but two of them came in the losers' bracket and Saturday they were given their earliest tournament exit ever in a 6-4 loss to Southeast Missouri.

The win sent the sixth-seeded Redhawks into the championship round, where they later lost to champion Eastern Illinois, 7-4. The loss sent the Gamecocks (37-21) home to only hope for an unlikely NCAA Tournament bid.

The Gamecocks had played in the championship round each of the first four years they had been in the OVC, winning it twice, and as the regular-season champions who set the record for conference wins, they were heavy favorites this year for a third.

"The expectations, as you say, was for us to win; that was our expectation, too," JSU coach Jim Case said. "We came here with the idea that we'll win this tournament, we'll find a way to do it, whether it be winning straight through or fighting back through the losers' bracket.

"I thought the effort was there ... We just weren't able to get it done. We hit a lot of balls really hard today, they couldn't find the spots. It's kind of a situation where you get opportunities and you do or you don't, and we didn't, but we did some good things, it just didn't work out for us."

The Gamecocks, a team with 25 come-from-behind wins this year, fell behind 5-0 after five innings, but pulled within a run in the seventh.

The Redhawks pushed across an insurance run in the bottom of the inning, but the Gamecocks didn't fold. They got the tying run to the plate in the eighth, but couldn't get it around.

SEMO reliever Dustin Renfroe closed it out by getting the Gamecocks' usually effective top of the lineup in order in the ninth.

"We definitely could have been better, there's no doubt about that," senior outfielder Clay Whittemore said. "Coming in, I definitely thought we could win the tournament. We were really the best team there, we just caught some bad breaks. There are going to be days when things just don't your way.

"These past two games by no means are indicative of the way our season went. It was one of those days. Who knew we'd have two in a row?"

Matt Wagner single-handedly staked SEMO to its early lead with two home runs off JSU senior starter Nick Hetland, one off a curve and one off a fastball. The first was a three-run shot in the first that followed back-to-back singles. The second came in the fifth and ended Hetland's day.

"I felt good, I felt like I was hitting my spots," Hetland said. "I made two mistakes and I paid for them."

"He's the story of the game," Case said of Wagner.

Actually, the Redhawks' first baseman was only part of it.

Missed chances and close calls also conspired to keep from extending the OVC regular-season champions' season.

The Gamecocks left runners in scoring position in two of the first three innings. But the most gut-wreching play came in the fourth when, with the bases loaded and the top of the order to follow, Spencer Brandes ripped a ball to left that appeared headed for extra bases but was snared by a twisting left fielder Justin Wheeler at the wall.

"When I first hit it, I thought it might be going out," Brandes said. "I saw him just keep going back and then he made an over-the-shoulder catch. I couldn't believe it, I thought it was gone.

"It would have been a big momentum change. It would've gotten us right back in the ballgame. It took the wind out of us."

The Gamecocks had the chance for a huge inning in the seventh, when they loaded the bases with nobody out and the heart of the order up. They did score three runs to make it 5-4, but two of them came at the expense of infield outs.

Whittemore fouled off several two-strike pitches before grounding a low fastball to short and Brian Piazza grounded to first. Steven Leach drove in the first run of the inning with a single.

"Good and bad," Whittemore said. "If you wanted to trade an out for a run out there, I guess it was OK, but I'd prefer to get a hit."

"We just couldn't get that big one today, we just couldn't get over the hump," Case said.

SEMO got one of the runs back in the bottom of the inning off closer Alex Jones, who went the final 3 2/3 behind Hetland, and it was all the insurance SEMO needed. The run came on a two-out single, but the Redhawks lost another run when Wagner ran through a stop sign at third and put the brakes on too late, but was hung out on the basepaths.

See story at The Anniston Star's website: .

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