SUGAR LAND, Texas (UCASports.com) - The University of Central Arkansas Bears completed their extended mission Saturday, winning five straight elimination games to take their first Southland Conference championship and earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals.
Freshman righthander Connor Gilmore of Little Rock tossed a two-hit, complete game in UCA's sixth game since Wednesday to beat Southeastern Louisiana 4-0 and keep the season alive. The Bears (39-20), who set a school record for victories, will play in their first NCAA postseason next week. NCAA Regional bids will be announced at 11 a.m. Monday.
"This feels so good,' said UCA head coach Allen Gum, in his third season at UCA. "We started out the year so good and we were right there. Then we hit a lull. But I knew if we could get back to playing like we were earlier in the year... and it really just came down to a swinging bunt for a hit (on Thursday), and we found a line and something turned right there.
"And then we just had great, gutty, unbelievable performances out of (senior righthander Caleb) McClanahan, then a freshman stepped up tonight. I love to see players reach their goals, collectively and individually. I'm really proud of these young men and couldn't be happier for them. They're solid, they're good teammates, and they just hang in there and fight together.'
The Bears showed no signs of either nerves in arguably the biggest game in school history, or fatigue in their second game of the day and fourth in two days. They got all the runs they would need early, loading the bases in the bottom of the third inning against Lions' starter Kaleb Manuel. Chris Townsend walked, Forrestt Allday was hit by a pitch and Jonathan Davis beat out a sacrifice bunt. Townsend then scored on a wild pitch, which would be Manuel's final pitch.
After Allday was forced out at the plate, Marietta walked to bring in Davis for a 2-0 lead.Scott Zimmerle followed with a sacrifice fly to bring in Harris to make it 3-0. They added a final insurance run in the seventh inning on Zimmerle's second sacrifice fly of the game.
Meanwhile Gilmore, in just his fifth start of the year and easily the biggest, stymied the Lions (36-24) all night. He allowed just a pair of singles, one in the fourth and one in the fifth innings, and threw a career-high 127 pitches to improve to 4-0 on the season.
"We had an ace in the hole,' said Gum. "We knew it. I don't think anyone else knew it, but we did. He came through and just pitched unbelievable tonight. We knew if he came in there and wasn't overwhelmed by the situation, we were going to have a good night. I'm so proud of Connor.'
"There are no words to describe it,' said Gilmore, from Little Rock Catholic. "Your fastball is working, your defense is working behind you, you have faith in God. Everything is just there. I can't say anything else but I love my team.
"We have heart, we have team camaraderie. It's all about fight, having faith and finishing. The three Fs. That's what we had this week.'
UCA placed four players on the All-Tournament team, including Gilmore, senior third baseman Garrett Brown, senior catcher Michael Mariett and senior right fielder Forrestt Allday, who was named Most Valuable Player.
"(The MVP) obviously it's going to go to Connor Gilmore,' said Allday. "He comes in and throws a complete game as a freshman. That's just huge. Going in, we kind of had an idea who was going to start this game. He came in and pounded the zone, he did everything we asked of him. I just can't say enough about him. He's going to be here for a couple of years, and watch out guys.'
Allday finished 2 for 4, while Zimmerle had two RBI for the Bears, who last played in a national tournament in 1959 as a member of the NAIA.
The Bears, who also earned their first Top 25 ranking earlier this season, lost their tournament opener to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Wednesday in the double elimination tournament, but came back and beat Stephen F. Austin on Thursday. UCA then strung together wins over A&M-CC and Oral Roberts on Friday and ORU again Saturday morning to reach its first championship game in just its second tournament appearance.
Southeastern lost in the SLC championship game for the second straight season.