McNeese punches ticket to NCAA baseball tournament

Cowboys edge Sam Houston for SLC title

Jim Gazzolo
Special to the American Press

A season of struggles and inconsistency has given way to a flurry of joy, smiles and even a dog pile.

In what few if any saw coming, McNeese found its game over the last three weeks, capping things off by capturing the fourth Southland Conference championship in school  history.

Seeded seventh in the tournament, McNeese beat Sam Houston 2-1 in a tense, gut-wrenching championship game Saturday night at Alumni Field in Hammond.

“This win right here is for the city,” said outfielder Clayton Rasbeary, who was named the tournament’s MVP and gave the Cowboys their only runs with a 2-run homer in the first inning. “With all the destruction and all that people have gone through. We hope this helps give people some hope.”

The finale to claim an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament wasn’t easy.

But the Cowboys (32-28) will now wait until Monday to find out what regional the NCAA will send them next weekend when the national tournament begins. San Houston’s season  and its time in the Southland, ends at 30-25. The Bearkats, along with four other Texas teams, are now off the the Western Athletic Conference.

McNeese was able to defend its 2019 title, improving its SLC tournament winning streak to eight straight games. There was no postseason last year. McNeese will enter NCAA play having won 10 of its last 12.

“It was a season like no other,” said head coach Justin Hill. “We just kept going. We never stopped.”

The heroes were many, like Rasbeary, whose key blow was his 12th home run of the year and third of the tourney. He finished 7-of-19 with six RBIs and six runs scored.

His blast Saturday gave the Cowboys a 2-0 lead before they made their first out.

But McNeese managted no more runs and only two more hits throughout the tense night.

Will Dion, throwing on two-days rest after a 95-pitch win Wednesday, started and struck out seven in three innings.

“I just wanted to go out there and set the tone,” said Dion.

But nobody stood taller than Cameron Foster. At midseason he wasn’t even really part of the staff, but became the closer.

Foster, wigglingh out of trouble almost every inning,  worked a season-high 4.2 innings, allowing two hits while striking out four to earn his fifth save.

“I was going to go as long as I could,” said Foster. “I was ready.”

He got SLC player of the year Colton Cowser to end the game by flying out. When the ball landed in Julian Gonzales glove 20 feet from the warning track in left, McNeese players piled on Foster at the mound and the celebration was on.

“You could have not have drawn that up any better,” Foster said.

The biggest moment early came in the top of the fifth when the Bearkats loaded the bases with just one out. Hill turned to his closer right there. Foster responded by getting Blake Feacher to pop up and then then tagged out Jackson Loftin at the plate for the third out.

Loftin was trying to tie the game on a wild pitch, but McNeese catcher Brett Whelton was quick to the ball and made a perfect throw to Foster. The play was reviewed for about five minutes before the out call was upheld.

McNeese had a chance to break the game open in the bottom of the sixth, loading the bases with no outs on an error and two singles. But Sam Houston starter Kyle Backhaus, who threw 77 pitches on Thursday, struck out the conference’s top RBI man Nate Fisbeck and followed that by getting McNeese cleanup hitter Tre Obregon to ground into a double play.

Backhaus (4-2) went all eight innings for the Bearkats, allowing just three hits and striking out six while holding down a McNeese offense that had been averaging 11 runs a tournament game.

McNeese reliever Bryson Hudgens, who was sandwiched between Dion and Foster, got the win, improving to 2-3 on the year.

“We don’t have to be the best team, we just have to be the best team on the field that day,” said Hill.

For four days in Hammond, nobody was any better than the Cowboys.””

McNeese’s Clayton Rasbeary, the Southland Conference tournament MVP, is congratulated by teammate Payton Harden after his 2-run homer gave the Cowboys all the runs they needed to beat Sam Houston 2-1 to clinch a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Arief Harlan

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