Heading into the Southland Conference baseball tournament this week, University of Central Arkansas coach Allen Gum thinks his team is well prepared.
Teams regularly face elimination and win-or-pack-the-equipment games at tournament time.
Gum claims his Bears (31-24) , just to make the tournament field after a slow start, have faced elimination games for more than a month. UCA had to get a strikeout with a runner on third in a 5-4 victory over Nicholls last weekend to be assured of gaining the eight-team field.
The interesting part is every SLC coach could make the same claim. The SLC season is one long series of elimination games.
The SLC season is one treacherous trip though a minefield every weekend.
Eight SLC teams had between 11 and 16 losses, the pecking order determined by winning a series or two by 2-1 or losing by the same margin. Six of those teams had between 13 and 16 conference losses, a fine line in seeding for a tournament.
Sam Houston State is the best example of the roller coaster. Until about the midway point of the conference season, the Bearkats were cruising as the clear dominant team. During the last part of the season, Sam Houston lost two of three to SFA and Southeastern Louisiana and were swept by both Houston Baptist and UCA (17-13), who enter the tournament as the No. 4 and 5 seeds, respectively. Sam Houston finished as the 3 seed.
The tightrope walk begins anew Wednesday with an NCAA tourney automatic berth on the line.
Gum, who has had a team come off the tournament ropes to win, knows anybody can win it.
And the winning formula comes down to those baseball, fundamental core values — solid pitching depth, good defense and manufacturing a run or two.
“It’s gonna take a tremendous effort from our pitching staff and a couple of extraordinary efforts from a couple of our position players,” Gum said. “And we’re going to have to turn a lot of double plays. Everytime I’ve been in tournaments, it comes down to turning double plays and who can play good defense.
“I think think our pitching staff, one after another, is going to have to do something special, one after another doing something a little extra.”
The key to the Bears’ surge to be a viable factor in the tourney has been three seniors — Jacob Murray, who has prepared himself to be an extra starter; reliever Brandon Hagerla, whom Gum describes as UCA’s toughest player; and shortstop Brooks Ballisteri, the coach on the field.
“Small numbers but large in leadership,” Gum said. “We got in that large hole earlier in the year, both regular season and conference, and those three guys in their leadership who kept plugging and plugging and getting guys ready to go and just overcoming a lot to get us to this spot. Everything rises and falls with the leadership.
“The Southland is so good and everything has to fall right and we have to play well, but if there is no leadership, we have no chance at all.”
But there’s a broad perspective.
“If everybody’s pitching is not on, they are not getting through this league,” Gum said. “Just a little extra, nothing more than that.”
The tightrope walk for everybody begins Wednesday.