Bears’ tournament run ends in ASUN semifinals

DELAND, Fla. — The University of Central Arkansas Bears saw their memorable run through their first Atlantic Sun Championship end on a hot Saturday afternoon, May 25, with a hard-fought 6-5 semifinal loss to No. 4 seed Kennesaw State at Melching Field at Conrad Park.

The sixth-seeded Bears, who swept through Pool B with three consecutive victories over three days, still managed to put up a battle in their fourth outing, which came 12 hours after their Game 3 win over Jacksonville ended on Friday night. Kennesaw State, which won Pool A with a 2-0 record, was coming off two days of rest and playing just its third game of the week after having it’s third pool game on Friday canceled. UCA had to win Pool B to advance to the semifinals, while KSU just had to finish in the top three of the four Pool A teams, per the ASUN tournament format.

“I think that’s kind of been the makeup of our team,” said head coach Nick Harlan. “These guys just never quit. I was very proud of them, and I knew they would come to play today. The big thing is we’re continuing to play together and extend our season. The relationships are so strong, and they guys just wanted to keep it rolling, and they did that.

“I thought it was a great tournament, very hard-fought, very proud of them.” 

The Bears nearly matched the Owls, finishing with one less run and one less hit (11-10). UCA rallied from a 6-2 deficit after five innings by scoring three times in the seventh inning. The Bears had four hits in the inning, starting with a single by catcher Casey Shipley. Third baseman Bryce Cermenelli followed with a two-run home run over the right field fence to get UCA within 6-4.

Designated hitter Jake Trabbie walked and pinch runner Preston Curtis moved to second on a Kade Seldomridge base hit. A wild pitch moved both runners up but a second wild pitched was corralled by KSU catcher Nick Hassan and a perfect throw nailed Curtis at the plate. Senior third baseman Mason King added his second RBI of the day with a single that scored Seldomridge.

Senior right-hander Jesse Barker, the ASUN Pitcher of the Year, came out of the bullpen for the final two innings, just three days after his complete-game shutout in a Game 1 win over Lipscomb. Barker struck out the first batter he faced to become the all-time strikeout leader at UCA, breaking a tie with Tyler Gray (2015-18). Barker finished his stellar career with 287 strikeouts and tossed 11 scoreless innings in the ASUN Tournament.

UCA got a baserunner on in the ninth inning on senior Hayden Seldomridge’s pinch-hit single to right field but could not manage to tie the game, sending the Owls into Sunday’s championship game against the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast. KSU has three one-run victories in the tournament, winning 6-5, 4-3 and 6-5.

Shipley, Cermenelli and King had two hits each for the Bears, while Cermenelli picked up three RBI and King two. Cermenelli and Shipley both scored a pair of runs as well.

The Bears fell behind 2-0 after four innings but tied it in the fifth when Shipley led off with a double and scored on Cermenelli’s single to left. Three batters later, King lofted a sacrifice fly to center to make it 2-2.  

The Bears’ final two pitchers of the day, graduates Mason Griffin and Barker, allowed no runs and just one hit, striking out five. 

“It just shows the character of our team,” said Harlan. “Like I told them before the game, we’re made for this. We played a number of games that had tremendous meaning throughout the course of the year, so they knew how to play in close games. They knew that they had to fight for their lives when they got to the tournament. And they did it really well.

“The belief is strong in the dugout, that’s been one of our strengths, just keep believing. They play the same way regardless of the score, and I thought it showed today. The leadership (among the players) is good, and when you have good leadership like that, you get that type of effort.”

Senior third baseman A.J. Mendolia and center fielder Drew Sturgeon, who has his master’s degree, both closed out long and highly productive careers at UCA, playing in their 200th and 201st games, respectively. Mendolia leaves with 202 career hits, 12 home runs and 107 RBI, along with a school-record 136 walks. Sturgeon finishes with 194 hits, 140 RBI and 18 career home runs, along with 46 stolen bases. King, a two-year Bear, had 97 hits in 102 career games, with 36 stolen bases.