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December 25, 2014

Joe Medley: When regional losses fade, run in OVC tourney will define JSU's season

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Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2014 5:16 pm | Updated: 12:24 am, Wed Jun 4, 2014.

OXFORD, Miss. --- The final book on Jacksonville State’s baseball season will read well for the Gamecocks.

They were Ohio Valley Conference tournament champions.

They made their fourth NCAA tournament appearance under Jim Case, their current head coach.

And in perhaps the understatement of the year, JSU won six of its final eight games.

It’s an understatement because those six victories in the OVC tourney earned the Gamecocks the right to play the final two games, in the NCAA tourney, and their record-setting run in the OVC tourney changed the outlook on the 2014 season.

Just like that, JSU went from a near-.500 team to a team with a transcendent achievement, one that deserves a place in the lore of a program that won two Division II national titles.

In four days, JSU went from flirting with a two-and-out in the OVC tourney to producing a memorable season in school’s Division I era.

It didn’t translate into the first NCAA tourney victory in the program’s Division I era, but the balance of how to view the Gamecocks’ season shifted. The shift will be felt after the disappointment of losing 12-2 to Ole Miss and 4-2 to Georgia Tech in Oxford fades.

“It’s tough, and, in what we do, it’s kind of what have you done lately,” Case said. “That’s OK, and, as disappointed as we all are --- and I am, too. I thought we’d come here and play better than we did --- but at the same time, I don’t think that takes away from what they accomplished last week.”

Ah, last week.

Just a week prior to JSU’s season ending Sunday, the season began anew.

JSU went to Jackson, Tenn., 30-24 then lost to Eastern Illinois in wrenching fashion. A ball rolling under a fence forced a ground-rule double and took the tying run of the board in the ninth inning.

A day later, the Gamecocks were trailing SIU-Edwardsville going into the ninth inning. That’s how close they came to elimination in Jackson and a banner-free season.

What happened next won’t soon to be forgotten. They scored three runs in the ninth inning to beat SIU-Edwardsville and launched into their run of six victories to win the tournament.

No team in OVC history had done it, and JSU did it the hard way. It won elimination-bracket games at elimination-bracket times with elimination-bracket heat. The Gamecocks guzzled down fluids and stretched pitching arms to their limits. Pinch hitters like Oxford High product Joe McGuire came through in clutch moments.

“We were very, very high last week, played about as good as we have all season,” Case said. “We didn’t play as good this weekend, for whatever reason. It might have been the competition.

“We faced some good competition, and that might have been part of it, as well, but I think, as time goes along, the guys will really appreciate what they did.”

Small-picture rewards came from it. The extra games in Jackson and Oxford, Miss., allowed senior Griff Gordon to break Clay Whittemore’s 6-year-old school record for hits in a season. Gordon finished with 100, four ahead of Whittemore’s 2008 total.

With 11 hits Sunday, this JSU team finished with 661, breaking a tie for the school record.

“I had a good season I guess, but we also broke the school record for hits today in a single season,” Gordon said. “So, that’s a bigger deal than just me getting a hundred hits.”

The run in Jackson also allowed JSU to play an NCAA regional game in front of 10,394 fans Saturday, an experience that 12 seniors will long remember. Non-seniors can benefit from it, should JSU play in a regional again next year.

“That’s the key is getting back with the same group,” Case said. “For most of these guys, I think we had two guys that had played in a regional that was on this team. You need to get back quicker than that. You need for them to experience it, because the next time, they’ll handle it probably a little bit better and a little bit differently.

“It’s a difficult thing when it’s the one time you’ve done it in your career. The more you do it, the easier it gets, I believe.”

 Though JSU went two-and-out in Oxford, Case saw a hint of the team that made its OVC tourney run. That hint came in the ninth inning against Georgia Tech, after Tech broke a 1-1 tie with three runs.

“I felt like the last inning, that was kind of our team,” Case said. “You fall behind three and get your heart broke a little bit, and we get the bases loaded and no outs, and we have a chance at the end.

“That’s been a characteristic of our team. We don’t quit. We weren’t able to come back and win it today, but I still was proud that we didn’t just lay over and go 1-2-3 and go home.”

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