The Georgia Southern baseball team has advanced to the Sun Belt Championship in four of the last five tournaments but have come up short in each instance.
Sunday in Montgomery, Ala. the Eagles jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but saw the South Alabama Jaguars outsource them 10-1 from there as the Eagles season came to a close with a 10-4 loss to the Jaguars.
“It’s very disappointing, but it doesn’t take away how proud I am of these young men,” said Eagle coach Rodney Hennon. “I don’t know if there’s a group, I have ever wanted this more for. Particularly our seniors who have represented our University with nothing but class.”
The Eagles won the Southern Conference in their final season 2014 but haven’t been able to get back to the NCAA Regionals since then despite coming so close. South Alabama has ended the Eagles season in three of the past four tournaments and did it Sunday riding the arm of Tournament MVP Miles Smith.
Smith came in for starter Matt Boswell in the second inning and went the rest of the way allowing only one run while striking out five. The Eagles had plenty of chances to get back in the game but left nine runners on base with six of those being in scoring position.
The Eagles also struggled in the field and on the mound. Eight walks, a couple errors and two wild pitches proved costly. The Eagles actually had 11 hits compared to 12 for South Alabama but the biggest difference was the number of free passes and the inability to get their runner's home.
“There were a lot of free bases we gave up, so the walks really hurt,” said Hennon. “We had the momentum and then Sorrenti’s homer was huge. The base on balls hurt us as did a couple defensive issues toward the end of the game. Smith really kept us off balance and made pitches whenever we threatened.”
The Eagles actually took the lead in the first on an opposite field home run by regular season MVP Mason McWhorter. The solo shot gave the Eagles a 1-0 lead. Georgia Southern added a pair of runs in the second inning, Noah Searcy brought Jason Swan home with a sacrifice fly and then Steven Curry singled home Jarrett Brown to make it 3-0. Curry and J.P. Tighe were left on base as Christian Avant and McWhorter popped up off of Miles to end the inning.
The Eagles pitching staff was depleted going in as Chase Dollander was out with an injury and the Eagles top relief pitchers Nick Jones and Jay Thomspon both threw two innings in the Eagles 11 inning win Saturday night against Louisiana. Senior Tyler Owens was working on three days' rest and started Sunday's game.
Owens struck out two of the first three batters he faced in the second, but a pair of walks set the stage for a two-out three-run homer from Richard Sorrenti which tied the game at 3-3.
The Eagles had a great chance to take the lead in the top of the fifth, but McWhorter was stranded on third after two ground outs by Austin Thompson and Jason Swan. The score remained 3-3 until the bottom of the fifth when another walk proved costly. Michael Sandle drew a leadoff walk, stole second and then scored on a double by Hunter Stokes to give USA a 4-3 lead.
South Alabama went on to score single runs in the sixth and seventh, and then scored four runs in the bottom off the eighth to put things away.
An emotional Hennon spoke after the game on how much his senior class has meant to him and the Eagle program.
“There should be no regrets from anyone in that dugout,” said Hennon. “These kids give everything they have very day. They have nothing to hang their heads about. I love all these guys. The ones that are moving on they are going to go out and be very successful at whatever they do. They have been outstanding baseball players but are even better young men and I’m proud of them.”
One possible bright spot for the Eagles is the fact that the current four-year seniors are eligible to come back for an additional year next season. Hennon says he will discuss that with players soon and is hopeful some will return.
“We have had a lot of talks with our guys through the season and we have a pretty good idea who may be returning,” said Hennon. “When we get back, we do exit interviews before the guys go off for the summer so we will know more then. We have to get ready now for next year and work to improve and do the things necessary in order to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.”
The Eagles had three players make the Sun Belt all-tournament team. Pitcher Jordan Jackson, infielder Jason Swan and outfielder Parker Biederer who missed Sunday’s game with an injury after going 4-5 with all three RBI in Saturday’s win against Louisiana.
The Eagles end the season with an overall record of 34-23.