Hatters Ambush Owls To Take Tourney Opener
The Stetson Hatters sent a message to the rest of the Atlantic Sun Conference in the opening game of the 2016 Championship Tournament with a 13-7 victory over top-seeded Kennesaw State.
It was a message that veteran head coach Pete Dunn gave them team during their 13-hour bus ride on Monday.
“I think we just bought in as a team,” senior captain Cory Reid said. “Coach was preaching to us before the game about ‘Why not us? Why not now?’ and we all just bought in. Being a senior, this is my last year in college baseball and I want to go out on top.”
That message resonated with the Hatters (26-29) who tied a season-high with 20 hits against seven Owls pitchers. Stetson scored in seven of nine innings against KSU (29-26) and had runners on base in every inning.
The win marks the first time since 2011 that the #1 seed was upset in the opening round and the first win for Stetson against Kennesaw State in the ASUN Championship. The 13 runs were also the most for the program in the Championship since scoring 15 in the 2000 Championship Final. The win ends a five game losing streak for Stetson that dated back to a May 13th victory against Kennesaw State. It also snaps a six-game winning streak for the Owls.
The offensive onslaught for the Hatters started with the second pitch of the game from Owls starter Gabe Friese (6-2). Vance Vizcaino ripped the pitch into left center for a double, setting the tone for the game. It was the first of four hits in the game for the junior.
“It was a hustle double,” Vizcaino said. “I felt comfortable at the plate and got some good pitches to hit.”
Vizcaino’s double was followed by the first of a season-high five sacrifice bunts in the game for Stetson. John Fussell then delivered a two-out RBI single to get the Hatters on the board. It was the first of three RBI hits in the game for Fussell.
“I was just trying to stay within myself today, hit the ball up the middle or to the opposite side and not get too big,” Fussell said. “It worked out for me. Hitting is contagious for this team. Vance started it off with a double and we all just followed in his footsteps.”
Vizcaino also set the tone defensively in the bottom of the first inning with a SportsCenter Top 10 worthy diving catch to end the frame after the Owls had scored the tying run off Stetson starter Mitchell Jordan (6-5).
“They had tied the game, and I said that is all they are getting this inning,” Vizcaino said. “I just wanted to back up Mitchell the best I could.”
Jordan worked six strong innings on the mound for the win, allowing three run on eight hits with a pair of walks and three strikeouts. The 13 runs scored for Jordan was more than double any offensive output for the Hatters in any of his previous 13 starts this year.
“It is nice to get runs,” Jordan said. “I was working well with Austin (Hale) today and was able to get some easy outs. It is always easier when you score runs and those guys did a great job today, and they played great defense behind me. We have to keep it going into tomorrow and get another win.”
Stetson scored the single run in the first and another in the third on another RBI single by Fussell. After KSU took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the third, the Hatters regained the lead with a pair of runs in the fifth. Hale drove in one with a ground out and Will Mackenzie plated the other with a two-out single.
That started an offensively roll for the Hatters that went the rest of the way. Stetson scored two runs in the sixth, three in the seventh, two in the eighth and two more in the ninth. Two of the runs in the seventh came on a home run by Reid, his team-best fifth of the season.
“We did a heck of a job today offensively and Mitch gave us a quality start,” Dunn said. “We played the short game really well today. We played for one and ended up scoring two or three. We got some huge two-out hits. In the very first inning we got a big two-out hit.
“I thought our guys did a really great job at the plate. They went up there aggressive and squared some pitches up. That has to be a template for the rest of the way because if you do that in every game, then you’ll have a chance to win this thing.”
The only time things got hairy for the Hatters was the seventh inning when the Owls got three consecutive one-out singles off Stetson junior reliever Tyler Keller. Josh Thorne came in and got a fly ball for the second out, but then Alex Liquori blasted a three-run homer to cut the Stetson lead at the time to 9-7.
“All of a sudden, when they scored four runs to get the momentum back, we came right back and answered with four runs of our own over the last two innings,” Dunn said. “That took the momentum back away from them.”
“It was impressive because of all the times we have struggled this year. We’ve said it before, but this is a second season. Everything we have done up until now means nothing. We got in as a six seed and we have to fight our way through.”
Walker Sheller worked the final two innings on the mound for Stetson, blanking the Owls on two hits.
Stetson came into the game without having had a hitter get four hits in a game all season. That ended in triplicate against the Owls as Vizcaino, Reid and freshman Kirk Sidwell all had four hits in the game. Fussell and Hale both chipped in with three hits each.
“Hitting is contagious,” Vizcaino said. “We all came out today ready to give it our best. That is all we can do and that is what we want to do for the rest of the week.”
Reid echoed those sentiments.
“Like Vance said, hitting is contagious for us,” Reid said. “We all had good approaches today and we are looking forward to carrying that through the rest of the tournament. It was really good to see the seniors step up. We are the leaders of this team and set a good example today.”
Dunn said his message before the game to his team was simple.
“I told them on the bus that there will be some teams that win this weekend as five or six seeds and get to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Dunn said. “My question to them was ‘Why Not Us? Why Not Now?’ I don’t think it was because of anything I said, but they came to play today.”
The Hatters will try to continue the momentum on Thursday when they face the loser of Wednesday’s late game between Jacksonville and host Lipscomb. That game is scheduled for a 3 p.m. (CDT) start.
“This was a big one,” Fussell said of the win. “You have to get the first one in the conference tournament, and this was a big one. We just have to build off this one and come out tomorrow just like we did today.”