MAGNOLIA, Ark. - Top-ranked Southern Arkansas' run at a South Region title and national baseball championship ended with a 3-1 loss to No. 14 Florida Southern in an elimination game of the region tournament Sunday in front of 1,067 fans at Mulerider Field. SAU defeated Valdosta State (Ga.) 12-5 in Sunday's first game in advancing to face Florida Southern.
After pounding out 15 hits in dropping Valdosta State in the early game, Southern Arkansas (52-11) couldn't find its bats against the Moccasins (41-15), totaling just five. What really doomed the Muleriders, though, were three errors that allowed all three Florida Southern runs to be unearned. SAU uncharacteristically committed nine miscues over their five games in the tournament, three each in their loss Sunday to the Moccasins and Friday's 5-4 setback to Lynn. Of the eight combined runs scored against them in the two losses, seven were unearned.
Florida Southern got a strong pitching performance from Eddie Sipple (3-2), who kept Southern Arkansas in check by scattering four hits over seven innings for the win. His lone run was earned and he walked two, while striking out five.
The Moccasins finished with eight hits, picking up one in the first, but they didn't need it as the first play of the game was an omen of things to come for the Muleriders with leadoff Trae Gore reaching on a misplayed infield ground ball. Gore eventually scored with the first unearned run.
Florida Southern's other pair of freebies especially hurt, coming in the fifth with two out and no one on. Another misplayed ground ball that would have ended the inning came back to haunt SAU as it was followed by Nick Stanley's triple to the gap in right center that nearly caused a collision between Southern Arkansas outfielders Gavan McCauley (Prescott) and Patrick Johnson (Natchitoches, La.). That scored the error and Zach Maggard followed with a single to plate Stanley.
The Muleriders had the potential for a big frame in the bottom of the fifth, loading the bags and then scoring their lone run when third baseman James Schroeder (Montgomery, Texas) drew a walk. But the threat came to a halt on an inning-ending ground ball double play. Schroeder's RBI off the walk tied him for the SAU season record of 88, set by Arturo Cherena (Rio Piedras, P.R.) in 1987.
Southern Arkansas tried for the storybook ending in the ninth, getting a leadoff single from Johnson, but Daniel Tillman, who replaced Sipple in the eighth, mowed down the next three Mulerider hitters to end it, picking up his 12th save of the year.
SAU's Dane Lucas (2-2) (Houston, Texas) pitched a gem in only his second start of the season in suffering the hard-luck loss. The senior threw a complete game, allowing eight hits and two walks, while fanning five.
Lucas was also Southern Arkansas' only player to collect two hits, one a double.
Stanley, Wade Kirkland, and Braxton Chisholm each had two hits for the Moccasins, with Stanley picking up two RBI.
Brian Byrd (9-1) (Arlington, Texas) went the distance on the mound for the win against Valdosta State. Catcher Brandon Graves (Hewitt, Texas) and left fielder Jeffery Meadows (Texarkana, Texas) had three hits and RBIs each, while infielder Cannon Lester (El Dorado) also drove in three runs.
It was a heartbreaking way for the Muleriders to end the season as they entered the region match-up as the top seed and were considered the odds-on favorite by many insiders to advance to the D-II World Series. SAU held the national No. 1 ranking in the NCAA poll for six weeks of the season, and other than the first week were ranked no lower than fifth throughout the year. Ping!Baseball had them atop its poll for 11 of 14 weeks, including 10 straight, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writer's Association (NCBWA) listed them first in four of its 10 poll releases.
Southern Arkansas' 63 games played this year set a new season record, as did their 52 wins.
The Muleriders must replace 11 seniors who played in their final games, including Schroeder, Lucas, Byrd, Graves, outfielders Nick Smith (Little Rock) and Curtis Gibson Amarillo, Texas), first baseman Tim Dellwo (Strathfieldsaye, Victoria, Aust.), and pitchers Aaron Terry (Rison), Thomas Tillery (Lake Charles, La.), Brendan McDonald (Eltham, Victoria, Aust.) and Adam Anderson (Ajax, Ontario, Can.).
The South Region championship game at 11 a.m. Monday will feature an all-Sunshine State Conference match-up in Florida Southern and Lynn (Fla.). Lynn needs only a win, while the Moccasins must have two.