Thrilling run ends in title round

Sunday, May 25, 2008

PADUCAH, Ky. -- Southeast Missouri State made an impressive run through the losers bracket of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

After eliminating top-seeded Jacksonville State 6-4 in Saturday's losers bracket final, the sixth-seeded Redhawks found themselves in the championship round later in the day.

But there would be no miracle finish for the Redhawks.

Fourth-seeded Eastern Illinois completed an undefeated run through the tournament by holding off Southeast 7-4 to earn the OVC's automatic NCAA regional berth.

Southeast fell behind 6-0 after two innings and could not come back all the way.

"We played our hearts out," sophomore catcher Jim Klocke said. "I wish we could have pulled it out, but it's tough to come out of the losers bracket."

Southeast's tournament outlook was bleak Thursday after Jacksonville State scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to claim the winners bracket semifinal 7-6.

That meant Southeast would need four straight victories to capture the double-elimination event, including beating EIU twice.

The Redhawks got half the job done as they defeated Tennessee Tech on Friday before eliminating OVC regular-season champion Jacksonville State on Saturday.

"We showed a lot of character. I couldn't be prouder of the team," junior designated hitter Matt Wulfers said.

Said Southeast coach Mark Hogan: "You couldn't ask much more than what we did after the devastating loss to Jacksonville State. I'm really proud of them."

Southeast (26-26), which went 3-2 in the tournament, became the first No. 6 seed to reach the championship round since the event became a six-team affair in 1997.

But EIU (27-28) wound up stealing the Redhawks' thunder as the tournament's biggest surprise.

The Panthers ended Jacksonville State's OVC-record-tying 17-game winning streak in Friday's winners bracket final and will carry a losing record into the NCAA regional.

"It was a great tournament for us," said EIU coach Jim Schmitz, who led the Panthers to their only previous tournament championship in 1998. "We played well."

Junior Josh Manning, who worked 3 2/3 shutout innings in relief during Thursday's loss to Jacksonville State, made just his second start Saturday.

EIU scored twice off Manning in the first inning and knocked him out during a four-run second that put Southeast in an early 6-0 hole.

Manning (2-1) allowed four hits and was charged with five runs in 1 1/3 innings.

Junior Todd Strahlendorf, who replaced Manning, was charged with EIU's final second-inning run.

Strahlendorf then reeled off five straight scoreless frames to keep Southeast in the game. His previous longest stint this season had been four innings.

Strahlendorf was replaced after a leadoff walk in the eighth. In 5 2/3 innings, he allowed four hits, struck out two and walked two.

"He gave us just another off-the-chart performance," Hogan said.

Southeast struggled early against EIU left-hander Tristan Facer, who was perfect through three innings and allowed just a walk through four innings.

The Redhawks knocked out Facer during a three-run fifth that featured four hits, including an RBI single by junior shortstop Tony Spencer and a two-run single by senior second baseman Zak Blemker, both with two outs.

Wulfers' two-out RBI single in the sixth made it 6-4.

But EIU reliever Scott Foley shut the door on Southeast with three scoreless innings to earn his sixth save of the season. He allowed one hit.

"He shut us down," junior first baseman Matt Wagner said of Foley.

EIU added an unearned run in the ninth inning as Southeast committed its lone error of the tournament.

The Redhawks held EIU to just two hits and no earned runs after the second inning.

Senior Ivan Nails worked a scoreless eighth inning, then was replaced after an error by Blemker and a walk to start the ninth.

Dustin Renfrow, Southeast's senior ace who saved the earlier win Saturday, retired the final three batters in the ninth, although the Panthers pushed across a run.

Southeast's pitching staff, a problem spot all season, sparkled for most of the tournament as the Redhawks allowed 24 runs in five games.

"Our pitching was wonderful in the tournament," Hogan said.

Southeast, which had its best tournament performance since also placing second in 2004, finished with six hits against EIU, after getting nine vs. Jacksonville State.

The Redhawks had no extra-base hits against the Panthers. Wulfers led the way with two hits.

"They got us in an early hole and played errorless baseball," Wulfers said. "They did all the things you need to do to win."

The Redhawks' ninth-inning error ended a string of 65 consecutive errorless innings by Southeast.

"Overall, we played great in the tournament," said Hogan, who led Southeast to its only two tournament titles and NCAA Division I regional berths in 1998 and 2002.

Southeast had four players named to the all-tournament team, including Wagner, who batted .350 (7-for-20) with two home runs, two doubles and 11 runs batted in.

Wagner had two homers and five RBIs during Saturday's win over Jacksonville State.

Also on the all-tournament squad for the Redhawks were Wulfers, Klocke and Renfrow.

Wulfers, only a part-time starter during the regular season, led Southeast with a .500 tournament average (7-for-14).

"I got hot at the right time," said Wulfers, a Notre Dame High School graduate.

Klocke batted .333 (5-for-15) and walked seven times.

Renfrow allowed just two runs in 11 innings, including a complete-game first-round win over Austin Peay.

"We had a lot of great performances in the tournament," Hogan said.

Klocke believes the Redhawks' strong tournament showing will build momentum for next year.

Southeast, which loses just six seniors, will return the majority of its key players and Hogan believes the Redhawks have added several impact recruits.

"I'm excited to see how next year plays out," Klocke said.

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