05/12/2019 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 05/12/2019 20:34
Led by yet another exceptional performance from a pitching staff that experienced a renaissance over the last five weeks, the seventh-seeded Knights defeated fourth-seeded and 19th-ranked Illinois Springfield 4-3 on Sunday afternoon in the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament championship game at US Baseball Park.
After he retired the side in order in the ninth to lock up the title and his second victory in the GLVC Tournament, senior left-hander was mobbed near the mound by teammates during a delirious celebration.
'It's 100 percent one of the most exciting moments of my life,' said Mathis, a fifth-year senior and the program's career leader in pitching wins. 'I've never dogpiled before. It was awesome.'
'It feels amazing,' said sophomore left fielder , who collected the game-winning RBI. 'It's something we set our minds to at the beginning of the year. We started slow but we got it going, and we were confident we'd be able to get the job done.'
Bellarmine (33-19) captured the fourth GLVC Tournament title in program history with its fourth straight victory over the Prairie Stars (37-15-1), whom the Knights swept to end the regular season. Bellarmine also secured GLVC titles in 1980, 1989 and 2013, duplicating the latter squad's undefeated run in the tournament after going 4-0.
Coach took over the program after the 2013 title season, and Bellarmine entered a rebuilding phase as it essentially lost a recruiting class in the coaching transition. After a harsh 2014 season in which the Knights were 12 games under .500, they posted a winning season the next year. Then came at-large NCAA Tournament berths in 2017 and 2018, the latter when Bellarmine racked up a program-record 38 wins.
But there were no titles during the period of rapid improvement. Now the Knights have the hardware to reflect their ascension, which will now include a third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament as the team wrangled an automatic bid.
'The one thing we were lacking was a championship,' Owens said. 'Now we've got a championship. That's very satisfying to see happen with the caliber of player and student we have in our program.'
Bellarmine was the preseason favorite to win the GLVC championship, but for the majority of the season it didn't appear the Knights would live up to that billing. There was a very real possibility that existed entering the final regular-season series against UIS that Bellarmine wouldn't even make the GLVC Tournament. While the offense has consistently been a juggernaut, leading the league or ranking second in nearly every statistical category, the pitching had been shaky for the first two months of the season.
The pattern changed starting with a 13-2 series-clinching road romp over Indianapolis in a midweek game April 9. Beginning with that performance, Bellarmine's pitching staff yielded more than five runs in a game just twice in the last 16 contests - and one instance was pretty much irrelevant as it came in a commanding 14-7 victory over Southern Indiana in the GLVC Tournament.
'It's something we all knew needed to happen,' Mathis said. 'The pitching staff came together and said we needed to throw strikes and get people out; not give up free bases. We knew the offense would get us leads; we just needed to maintain them and go at hitters instead of pitching around them.'
Mathis' complete-game victory over Illinois Springfield in what was reasonably viewed as a must-win for Bellarmine in the opener of the regular-season series may have been the most important victory of his distinguished career. And yet, the senior left-hander may have equaled it a little more than a week later. One win helped Bellarmine get into the postseason, and the other has assured an extension of the season for the NCAA Tournament-bound Knights.
The four-time All-GLVC honoree entered with one on and two outs in the sixth and ended the mild threat with a strikeout. He retired the side in order in the seventh, faced the minimum in the eighth and recorded a strikeout, fly out and ground out in the ninth to trigger a raucous celebration as the Knights dogpiled near the pitcher's mound after their eighth straight win.
In addition to Mathis' complete game against Illinois Springfield last Sunday in the regular season, he threw 6.2 innings in Thursday's 12-4 victory over Maryville in the opening round. The southpaw tossed 10.0 innings in the GLVC Tournament and 19.0 over an eight-day span, improving to 10-2 this season along the way.
Owens and Mathis had discussed scenarios in the GLVC Tournament, and Mathis assured his coach after the Maryville game that he would indeed be ready to throw Sunday if needed.
'I wanted to do anything I could to help the team win,' Mathis said. 'I felt really good. I don't know why. Usually I'd feel sore (after that workload). I was ready to go. I felt great after Thursday.'
Junior left-hander and junior right-hander also threw splendidly in the title game. Barringer allowed all three runs in 3.0 innings, but all three came across on defensive miscues. He likely should have departed yielding a single run. Nagel came on for 2.2 scoreless innings of relief where he allowed two hits and struck out one, setting the stage for Mathis to sew up the championship with 3.1 innings of work.
While Bellarmine and Illinois Springfield carried the GLVC's two most explosive offenses, there weren't many fireworks Sunday as the pitching staffs kept the bats quiet. The winning run was anticlimactic, as Higgins drew a two-out, bases-loaded walk in the eighth to push in the go-ahead run for a 4-3 lead.
Senior first baseman had led off the inning with a single, sophomore shortstop was hit by a pitch and, after a sacrifice bunt by senior designated hitter , sophomore second baseman loaded the bases with a walk. After a pitching change and strikeout, Higgins calmly watched four pitches land in the catcher's mitt outside of the strike zone.
'I was just looking for a pitch to handle,' Higgins said. 'I was fortunate to get four balls and score the run, but I was ready to swing.'
After Illinois Springfield scored twice in the first, Bellarmine answered with two runs in the bottom half on a two-run triple by sophomore third baseman . The Prairie Stars scored once in the second for a 3-2 lead, but the Knights tied it up in the fourth as Rouse reached on a two-out infield single and Mehlbauer scored when the throw to first was off target.
Higgins collected two of Bellarmine's eight hits. UIS tallied nine hits.
Bellarmine will now await the announcement of its site and opponent in the NCAA Midwest Regional. For now, the Knights are savoring their much-coveted championship, which has provided extra validation to the rise of the program.
'It's definitely been a culmination of what we've built,' Mathis said, 'and hopefully what the program can maintain.'
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