Late Friday night, Southeastern Louisiana coach Matt Riser saw a hungry lion in the face and voice of reliever Tate Scioneaux.
Riser was obviously going with ace Andro Cutura, who had a 1.75 earned-run average, in the Southland Conference baseball tournament championship game against the University of Central Arkansas.
“He came to me and said he knew we were going with Andro but he felt great and if I had the chance, give him the ball; he wanted it,” said Riser. “I could see this was true genuine. It wasn’t coach speak or anything like that. It was true heart.”
With UCA nipping away at an early 6-0 led by the Lions, Scioneaux became the second pitcher in relief and took the Lions’ title hopes on his shoulders. He struck out eight and scattered four hits in 5.1 scoreless innings in leading the fifth-seeded Lions to a 9-4 victory over the sixth-seeded Bears in the championship game Saturday before a record crowd of 1,007 at Bear Stadium.
Scioneaux, voted the tourney’s Most Valuable Player, pitched 11 scoreless innings in the tournament — against defending champion UCA and top seed Sam Houston State.
“Once he found a rhythm, he shut us down,” said UCA coach Allen Gum, whose team saw its winning streak halted at 10 and its season end at 32-22.
Southeastern (37-23) gained the Southland’s automatic bid into the NCAA tourney field. Sam Houston State, the regular-season champion with a strong resume in conference and nonconference, is also expected to get a bid.
The Lions defeated the Bears for the third time in four games this season at Bear Stadium.
The Lions drove UCA ace Bryce Biggerstaff from the box with six runs on seven hits in two innings. Bo Stitch of Conway came in to limit the Lions two hits over 4.1 innings, allowing UCA to creep back into the game at 6-4 before the Lions got some key hits and scored one run in the sixth and two in the eighth to give Scioneaux plenty of cushion.
Cutura lasted only a third of an inning more than Biggerstaff, each pitcher going on limited rest.
“It was an easy decision to throw Bryce,” Gum said. “He has been possibly the conference’s best pitcher over the last few weeks. He gave us everything he had and a little more. He was a little bit flat but he did all we could ask.”
The Lions scored twice in the first after a ground ball glanced sharply off Biggerstaff’s glove with the bases loaded, denying the Bears a possible inning-ending double play.
A four-run, five-hit fourth was ignited by a bang-bang play at first on an infield hit. A lunging stop by shorstop Kennon Menard took the Bears out of a rally in the third.
“They definitely got the breaks and they made some big pitches and big plays,” said Gum. “They put the pressure on. They got the hits at the right time. They found some holes and used the turf to their advantage.”
“We came out with the right energy,” said Riser. “This came down to a bunch of guys competing. We knew it would take everybody. It was a total team effort.”
The Bears, trailing 6-0, scored twice in the second on hits by Scott Zimmnerle, Carson Dowdle, Doug Votolato, anb error and a sacrifice fly by Charles Deckard. They scored twice more in the fourth on singles by Deckard and Dowdle, an error, a bases-loaded hit batsman and a bases-loaded walk that brought in Scioneaux from the bullpen.
The Lions scored a run on two hits in the sixth and added two runs in the sefenth on singles by Jacob Seward, Jameson Fisher and a two RBI single by Andrew Godbold.
Dowdle was 3 for 4 for UCA, which had 10 hits. Dnaiel Midyett, Seward and Fisher were all 3 for 5 for the Lions, who had 13 hits.
UCA placed four players on the all-tournament team — second baseman Chris Townsend, third baseman Nate Ferrell, Votolato (center fielder) and pitcher Connor McClain of Conway, who relieved both Friday night and Saturday,.