This time, it was the Lions who scratched, clawed and roared to a Southland Conference baseball tourney title.
Southeastern Louisiana, who had lost the tourney title game the last two years (last year to UCA) celebrated at Bear Stadium on Saturday afternoon after a 9-4 victory over the upstart Bears.
They did it with shouts. Several of their fans danced in black umbrellas trimmed in yellow and white. A couple of their fans wore yellow imitation lion tails.
Yep. This was special.
The championship game was typical of the fourth day of a four-day tournament even though each team was undefeated. They were running on fumes. It would be decided by who had the most left in the tank and took advantage of opportunities.
The lion’s share of the breaks went to the lions.
Both starters, both aces, Bryce Biggerstaff of UCA and Andro Cutura of SE Louisiana, showed the effects of pitching on limited rest.
Both struggled with the strike zone. Neither had his best stuff. Each was gone by the third inning, fingers crossed for an NCAA future.
This one was about the intangibles — perseverance, resilience, patience and passion.
And by one magnificent relief job by Southeastern’s Tate Scioneaux, the tourney MVP who threw 5.1 scoreless innings against the Bears and 5.2 against top seed Sam Houston State.
The Bears were down, 6-0, after an inning and a half.
But UCA coach Allen Gum has built a team with a lot of fight and a lot of chemistry.
The Bears scrap like crazy, like a mama Grizzly guarding her Cubs.
“Gum Ball” is resolved.
“Gum Ball” is disciplined.
“Gum Ball” is opportunistic.
“Gum Ball” is built for tournament pressure.
“Gum Ball” makes the opponent make plays.
“Gum Ball” forces you to make pitches.
“Gum Ball” emphasizes prolonged at-bats and two-strike hitting.
It was 6-4 after four before Scioneaux went into shutdown mode and the Lions manufactured insurance.
“They (the Bears) weren’t going to go away,” said SE Louisiana coach Matt Riser. “The are tough kids and resilient.”
Here’s how gritty the Bears were. Tyler Langley of Conway went down with his knee buckling and couldn’t immediately get back up after a hard swing with the bases loaded in the fourth. After being attended to by the athletic training staff, Langley got back up, went to the dugout and grabbed a bat with gusto. He struck out, but he did it with passion. He later made a spectacular driving catch in right that saved a triple.
The Bears go down hard.
But Saturday, in defeating the Bears for the third time in four games this season on their home turf, the Lions were a little tougher, a little more opportunistic, a little better at the plate and a little hungrier.
The day before, the Lions came off the ropes in the last inning to turn back a gallant effort by Northwestern State. This weekend, they had the drive of a champion.
UCA, after losing the bulk of last year’s team that advanced to the finals of an NCAA Regional, finished 32-22, winning 10 of their last 11 games and having to sweep two three-game series just to make the tournament.
“I’m extremely proud of this team and how we came together at the end of the season,” said Gum. “We fought the good fight, we finished the race and had faith. We did well in all three categories.”
Unfortunately for the Bears, so did the Lions.
They are deserving champions.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)