SLC champs On deck, Cowboys combine offense, pitching to dominate tournament
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 State found its game over the last three weeks, capping things off by capturing the fourth Southland Conference championship in the baseball program’s history.
But the finale wasn’t easy.
Seeded seventh in the tournament, defending champion McNeese beat Sam Houston State 2-1 in a tense, gut-wrenching championship game Saturday night at Alumni Field in Hammond.
The Cowboys (32-28) will wait until Monday to find out which regional the NCAA will send them next weekend when the national tournament begins. San Houston’s season, and time in the Southland, ends at 30-25. The Bearkats, along with four other Texas teams, are off the the Western Athletic Conference.
McNeese improved its SLC Tournament winning streak to eight consecutive games. There was no postseason last year. McNeese will enter NCAA play having won 10 of its last 12 games, including the last four to win the tournament. The Cowboys outscored their tournament opponents 35-5.
“This win right here is for the city,” said outfielder Clayton Rasbeary, who was named the tournament’s MVP. “With all the destruction and all that people have gone through. We hope this helps give people some hope.”
The heroes were many, like Rasbeary, who provided the Cowboys’ runs with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first. It was Rasbeary’s 12th of the year and third of the tourney. He finished 7-of-19 with six RBIs and six runs scored.
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,” Dion said.
But nobody stood taller than Cameron Foster. At midseason he wasn’t effectively part of the staff but became the closer.
Foster worked a season-high 42/3 innings, allowing two hits while striking out four to earn his fifth save.
“I was going to go as long as I could,” Foster said. “I was ready.”
He got 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 drawn that up any better,” Foster said.
The biggest moment early came in the top of the fifth when the Bearkats, the preseason favorites who had their four-game winning streak snapped, loaded the bases with one out. Hill turned his closer right there. Foster responded by getting Blake Feacher to pop up and then then tagged out Jackson Loftin at the plate.
Loftin was trying to tie the score 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 5 minutes before the out call was upheld.
“It was a season like no other,” said Cowboys head coach Justin Hill. “We just kept going. We never stopped.”
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 Mc-Neese cleanup hitter Tré Obregon to ground into a double play.
Backhaus (4-2) went all eight innings for the Bearkats, allowing three hits and striking out six while holding down a McNeese offense that had been averaging 11 runs a tournament game.
The Bearkats had scored in double digits — 43 runs total — in each of their last three wins.
McNeese reliever Bryson Hudgens (2-3), who was sandwiched between Dion and Foster, got the win.
“We don’t have to be the best team, we just have to be the best team on the field that day,” Hill said.
For four days in Hammond, nobody was any better than the Cowboys.
McNeese State celebrates after winning its second consecutive Southland Conference Tournament after beating Sam Houston State Saturday night in Hammond.