SUGAR LAND, Texas _—The University of Central Arkansas Bears completed their extended mission Saturday, winning five straight elimination games to take their first Southland Conference championship and earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals.
Freshman righthander Connor Gilmore of Little Rock tossed a two-hit, complete game in UCA’s sixth game since Wednesday to beat Southeastern Louisiana 4-0 and keep the season alive. The Bears (39-20), who set a school record for victories, will play in their first NCAA postseason next week. NCAA Regional hosts will be announced Sunday. The pairings will be announced at 11 a.m. Monday.
“This feels so good," said UCA head coach Allen Gum, in his third season at UCA. “We started out the year so good and we were right there. Then we hit a lull. But I knew if we could get back to playing like we were earlier in the year... and it really just came down to a swinging bunt for a hit (on Thursday), and we found a line and something turned right there.
“And then we just had great, gutty, unbelievable performances out of (senior righthander Caleb) McClanahan, then a freshman stepped up tonight. I love to see players reach their goals, collectively and individually. I’m really proud of these young men and couldn’t be happier for them. They’re solid, they’re good teammates, and they just hang in there and fight together."
The Bears showed no signs of either nerves in arguably the biggest game in school history, or fatigue in their second game of the day and fourth in two days. They got all the runs they would need early, loading the bases in the bottom of the third inning against Lions’ starter Kaleb Manuel. Chris Townsend walked, Forrestt Allday was hit by a pitch and Jonathan Davis beat out a sacrifice bunt. Townsend then scored on a wild pitch, which would be Manuel’s final pitch.
After Allday, the tournament's Most Valuable Player, was forced out at the plate, Marietta walked to bring in Davis for a 2-0 lead.Scott Zimmerle followed with a sacrifice fly to bring in Harris to make it 3-0. They added a final insurance run in the seventh inning on Zimmerle’s second sacrifice fly of the game.
Meanwhile Gilmore, in just his fifth start of the year and easily the biggest, stymied the Lions (36-24) all night. He allowed just a pair of singles, one in the fourth and one in the fifth innings, and threw a career-high 127 pitches to improve to 4-0 on the season.
“We had an ace in the hole," said Gum. “We knew it. I don’t think anyone else knew it, but we did. He came through and just pitched unbelievable tonight. We knew if he came in there and wasn’t overwhelmed by the situation, we were going to have a good night. I’m so proud of Connor."
“There are no words to describe it,’ said Gilmore, from Little Rock Catholic. “Your fastball is working, your defense is working behind you, you have faith in God. Everything is just there. I can’t say anything else but I love my team.
“We have heart, we have team camaraderie. It’s all about fight, having faith and finishing. The three Fs. That’s what we had this week."
UCA placed four players on the all-tournament team, including Gilmore, senior third baseman Garrett Brown, senior catcher Michael Mariett and senior right fielder Allday, the MVP.
“(The MVP) obviously it’s going to go to Connor Gilmore," said Allday. “He comes in and throws a complete game as a freshman. That’s just huge. Going in, we kind of had an idea who was going to start this game. He came in and pounded the zone, he did everything we asked of him. I just can’t say enough about him. He’s going to be here for a couple of years, and watch out guys."
Allday finished 2 for 4, while Zimmerle had two RBI for the Bears, who last played in a national tournament in 1959 as a member of the NAIA.
The Bears, who also earned their first Top 25 ranking earlier this season, lost their tournament opener to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Wednesday in the double elimination tournament, but came back and beat Stephen F. Austin on Thursday. UCA then strung together wins over A&M-CC and Oral Roberts on Friday and ORU again Saturday morning to reach its first championship game in just its second tournament appearance.
Southeastern lost in the SLC championship game for the second straight season.
Saturday morning the Bears, who had lost nine of their last 12 regular-season games, won their fourth straight elimination game, defeating Oral Roberts for the second time in less than 24 hours, 11-3.
“We had the momentum on our hand from yesterday and we carried it on and didn’t give it back to them (the Golden Eagles),” said UCA coach Allen Gum. “We just jumped on them early and found a couple of (foul) lines again. That’s big, we got timely hits. Blake Marchal stealing bases and making things happen and being really aggressive. We came out and it looked like we were having fun playing baseball.”
The Bears, who won their first-ever NCAA postseason game on Thursday morning to stave off elimination, won twice more on Friday, then dispatched ORU in the semifinals by scoring all 11 runs in the first three innings against a combination of three Golden Eagles pitchers. ORU, an SLC newcomer that had swept UCA during the regular season series in Tulsa, had won 15 consecutive postseason tournaments in a combination of the Summit League and Mid-Continent Conference before joining the SLC.
UCA, playing in just its second SLC Tournament, got contributions up and down the lineup Saturday, but none bigger than All-SLC righthander Caleb McClanahan (10-5), who started on just two days’ rest. The senior from Wynne got a no decision in Wednesday’s opener, throwing seven innings and 81 pitches. He returned Saturday and went six solid innings, allowing just two earned runs and striking out five. He threw 77 pitches, 58 of those for strikes.
Jon Rand, a junior left hander who had pitched just nine innings the entire season, threw the last three frames, allowing three hits and just one run to earn his first save.
The Bears took advantage of timely hitting and numerous ORU defensive miscues in the first three innings to put the game out of reach early. UCA got two runs off two hits and an error in the first, then exploded for five more in the second inning. ORU had single runs in the first, second and sixth innings. The Bears finished with 11 hits, including extra-base hits by Jonathan Davis, Ethan Harris, Michael Marietta and Garrett Brown. Marchal, a senior second baseman, also stole three bases.
“Our team, we fight,’ said Marietta, a senior catcher from Oak View, Calif. “Our coaches told us to fight and finish and we struggled in the second half of the season, but it just shows how bad we want it. First game of the tournament, we didn’t start off too hot with our bats. But second game we came out swinging and we just got hot at the right time and our bats have carried over at the right time.”
“I tell you what, it’s great to see the guys that work so hard throughout the year, and then good things come to those who work hard,” said Gum. “Our guys work extremely hard.(They are) good guys that have good chemistry and camaraderie, they like each other and they play hard.’