Redhawks deserve credit for overcoming early struggles

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Fair or not, Southeast Missouri State's baseball team has taken some shots this year -- mostly through FanSpeak zealots -- for one of the most overall disappointing seasons since coach Mark Hogan took over the program in 1995.

But the Redhawks have a chance to make amends beginning Wednesday -- and that's an opportunity that seemed fairly remote just a few weeks ago.

Saturday's 4-3 victory over Tennessee-Martin in the regular-season finale not only allowed 10 seniors to close out their home careers in style but also sends Southeast into the Ohio Valley Conference tournament with plenty of momentum and confidence.

Despite having just a 24-30 overall record -- Southeast is likely headed toward only its second losing season under Hogan -- the Redhawks rallied for a 15-12 OVC mark by winning eight of their final nine league games, including the last seven straight. They finished tied for fourth in the 10-team OVC.

The Redhawks began their conference schedule with a loss, soon found themselves 4-8 and, after being swept in a tight three-game series at Eastern Kentucky -- by one run twice, and by two runs --they were 7-11 just three weeks ago. Their OVC tournament hopes appeared slim at best.

But give Southeast's players and coaches -- who entered the year with lofty aspirations -- their props for the way they have rallied since then.

It would have been easy for the Redhawks to feel sorry for themselves -- they've had eight one-run losses and 17 defeats by three runs or less -- and say maybe this just isn't their year. But they kept working and battling, and as a result avoided missing the league tournament for the first time under Hogan. Southeast plays Murray State Wednesday in the first round in Paducah, Ky.

I've written it before, but I think it's ridiculous to get on Hogan's case for a somewhat down year when his program has been so solid for the past 10 seasons. And when a fourth-place OVC finish is regarded as disappointing -- think about the many Southeast teams that would kill for that -- then it shows you've built quite an organization.

And if the Redhawks happen to prevail in Paducah -- they won't be favored, but it's certainly not out of the question -- then this season won't be considered a disappointing one after all.

* A couple of more notes on the six-team, double-elimination OVC Tournament:

The format is a bit different than in recent seasons as the top two finishers in the regular season receive a first-round bye, which I totally endorse.

In the old format, there really was no advantage to having a strong regular season, but this way at least the two squads that proved themselves to be the best over the long haul are rewarded.

And, for the first time in three years, Austin Peay won't enter as the No. 1 seed. The Governors were denied a third consecutive regular-season title, as defending tournament champion Jacksonville State swept three games from Austin Peay on Friday and Saturday. The teams entered the series tied for first place.

* This is in response to the comment in today's FanSpeak, which appears directly below this column and wonders why Southeast couldn't give a local boys basketball player a scholarship, while claiming to be sick and tired of Southeast getting so many players from far away.

First of all, I assume the FanSpeak comment is referring to Jackson's Jack Puisis planning to join Southeast's basketball program as a walk-on.

Now, for a rebuttal: I'm not about to knock any individuals, but Southeast had plenty of players from the area or region the past four years -- way more than during any period in a long time -- and the Redhawks compiled a 43-71 record during that stretch, with the only winning mark being 15-14 last season.

So, if you're a Southeast fan who hungers for the highly successful seasons that marked coach Gary Garner's early tenure in Cape Girardeau, don't you think that maybe it's not so bad if the Redhawks go outside the area to dole out their scholarships, which will be the case for next season?

* Southeast's track and field program will enter the NCAA Mideast Regional, set for Friday and Saturday in Bloomington, Ind., with a full head of steam after Miles Smith and Alonzo Nelson both broke school records during the Redhawks' final tuneup, at last Saturday's Georgia Tech Invitational.

Smith is ranked fifth nationally and second regionally in the 400-meters, while Nelson is ranked 18th nationally and fourth regionally in the 300-meter hurdles.

Smith, Nelson and a few other Southeast athletes should have a shot at qualifying for nationals.

I'll have more on Southeast track prior to the Mideast Regional, but good luck to all of the Redhawks' regional qualifiers.

* Jeff Vernetti, a former assistant in the Southeast sports information department who has also done quite a bit of radio work in the past, is moving back into that area.

Vernetti, who lives in St. Louis, recently won the "Dream Job" contest put on by ESPN affiliate KSLG (1380-AM). As a result, he will get a 31-week paid stint on the air, hosting a show that airs from 3 to 4 p.m. Saturdays, beginning June 4.

Vernetti, 27, works for the Theta Xi fraternity, but he is hoping this opportunity allows him to get back into sportscasting on a full-time basis.

* The River City Rage, a team based out of St. Charles, Mo., that competes in the National Indoor Football League, again is featuring a local flavor as they were off to a 7-1, first-place Eastern Division start prior to a game Saturday.

Scott Pingel, a St. Vincent High School product who set numerous NCAA Division III receiving records at Westminster College in Fulton and is now an assistant coach there, leads the league in receptions (58), receiving yards (600) and scoring (18 touchdowns, 120 points). Pingel set league receiving records last year.

Don Brown, a former Southeast assistant football coach who lives in Jackson, does not figure as prominently into the Rage attack, but he is a solid role player out of the backfield.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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