By CHRIS MACKOWIAK/CHASE GORSKI
Sports Editor/News Editor
Featured photo: The Sea Gulls celebrate with Dean (No. 6). May 12. Emma Reider photo
This season the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) instituted a new conference tournament format for its baseball and softball championships. From two separate double-elimination mini-tournaments, two teams would remain for a best-of-three-games conference championship series.
While the road to the title was different, the results were much of the same for the Salisbury University baseball team (33-10, 15-3 CAC). Awarded with the top-seed and home field advantage in the conference tournament, the Sea Gulls made the road to the title look easy over the past two weekends.
Going a perfect 5-0 in the conference tournament, SU outscored their opponents 49-7 including three shutouts over the course of the five contests. The conference title is their third-consecutive one and sixth in the last seven seasons.
“I just think the execution is a lot better, whether it’s bunting or hit-to-run,” SU Head Coach Troy Brohawn said. “We’re swinging the bat and getting contact with it with runners in scoring position, something we weren’t doing earlier in the season.”
Third-seeded Penn State Harrisburg visited SU for the three-game series which started on Friday. While the bats did come alive with some small ball that plated four runs in the first inning, Salisbury’s ace pitcher shined again.
The Lions never recorded a run in the game with SU senior pitcher Connor Reeves throwing his third complete game shutout this season. Reeves only allowed four hits while tallying a season-high 13 strikeouts on the way to a dominant 14-0 SU victory.
The performance was also historic for Reeves, putting his name in the record books. With 11 starts and 19 appearances this season, the win moved Reeves to a 13-3 record which sets the record for the most wins in a season for both the Salisbury program and the CAC and are the most in D3.
Entering Saturday, Salisbury only needed to win the first game of the day to clinch the conference title. It was a quick start once again for the Sea Gulls, leading 5-0 after the third inning.
“They’re a really good ball club,” SU junior third baseman Jack Barry said. “They beat CNU, No. 5 in the nation at the time. For us, it’s just execution, getting bunts down when we need to, situational hitting. That’s kind of carried the energy and momentum for us.”
A solo home run from SU sophomore catcher Matt Padeway was featured along the way in the second inning. The early offensive effort was matched on the mound with senior pitcher Austin Heenan.
Heenan slowed down the Lions through 6 1/3 innings of work, allowing just one earned run on two hits. Alongside five strikeouts, Heenan did allow six walks, letting the Lions have chances in the game.
“[The fielders] saved me,” Heenan said. “They saved me every time. I get myself into trouble, but I just make my pitch to get a ground ball and trust those guys every single time to make a play.”
With both Barry and freshman pitcher Jimmy Adkins coming on in relief in later innings, the Lions did strike for three runs in the eighth inning, cutting the SU lead to 7-4 at the time.
The Lions were led by left fielder Bret Williams who went 3-4 with two RBI’s. However, PSH came alive again in the top of the ninth inning, plating three runs to give SU more insurance in the game.
Coming on in relief and helping SU close out the game was senior pitcher Wes Whitlock, pitching 1 2/3 innings allowing two hits and recording two strikeouts. Whitlock was slated for the game No. 3 start if the game had been necessary on Saturday.
“Luckily, I’ve had to face some of these situations over the past season,” Whitlock said. “We just had the next man up mentality. When your number is called, just make sure you’re ready.”
Whitlock needed no more runs from the Sea Gulls, recording the final outs of the game for the 10-4 victory and conference title clinching win. Seven different players had RBI’s for SU in the win.
Barry led the way, going 3-5 with an RBI double. Sophomore center fielder Justin Meekins, junior first baseman Jay Perry and senior outfielder Colby Dean all recorded two hits. Meekins continued his success from Friday’s game where he led with one hit and four RBI’s.
As the final out fell into Dean’s glove in the field, Whitlock had one image in mind.
“I’m thinking, ‘hopefully I don’t get crushed by all these guys in the dog pile,” Whitlock said.
The conference title gives SU an automatic berth into the 2018 NCAA Tournament with the field set to be announced early Monday morning. It is the 19th consecutive trip to the national tournament for the program.
Last season, SU made it to the last game of their NCAA Regional, falling just short of a trip to the College World Series. The last time Salisbury visited the College World Series was 2015.
Update: Late Sunday night, the NCAA Selection Committee announced the 58-team 2018 NCAA Tournament field. Salisbury will travel to Auburn, N.Y. to take part in a regional hosted by top-seed SUNY Cortland. SU will be the two-seed in the region.
The eight-team region also features Southern Maine, Baldwin Wallace, Swarthmore, Amherst, St. Joseph’s (L.I.) and Westfield State (seeded in that order). Salisbury began their season against Cortland State, falling in both games.