Hatters Continue A-Sun Run By Downing UNF
Mother Nature couldn’t slow the Stetson Hatters on Thursday, and senior John Fussell was not going to let a little thing like a stop sign at third base slow the teams’ roll on Friday.
Fussell sprinted past a stop sign from Associate Head Coach Mark Leavitt in the eighth inning on Friday at Lipscomb’s Ken Dugan Field, scoring the winning run in the Hatters 7-6 victory over North Florida.
The win propels the Hatters (28-29) into Saturday’s championship game where they will await either North Florida (39-18) or Florida Gulf Coast, who eliminated the host Bisons in Friday’s late game. That game is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start, with the winner to face Stetson for the title. Whichever team advances will have to beat the Hatters twice to prevent the Hatters from winning their first A-Sun Tournament title since 2006.
The win for Stetson snapped a seven-game losing skid against the Ospreys while also snapping UNF’s eight-game win streak this year.
Fussell had opened the Stetson eighth inning with a single off UNF reliever Adam Polansky (1-1) to give the Hatters a chance to break a 6-6 tie. After Kirk Sidwell delivered a sacrifice bunt, the fourth of the game for the Hatters, UNF made a pitching change, bringing in left-hander Daniel Moritz to face another Stetson senior, left-handed hitting Kevin Fagan.
During the pitching change, Stetson head coach Pete Dunn gave Fussell some words of advice for the coming play.
“I yelled out to him to know where the outfielders were playing so he could react the best he could on a base hit,” Dunn said. “He looked around but, when Fagan hit the ball that everyone in the park knew was a hit, he looked up and waited for a second. I am sure if he had gotten a good jump, Mark would have waived him home and he would have scored easily.”
Instead, he paused to make sure Fagan’s hit got down in left center before breaking for third.
“I was thinking score off the bat,” Fussell said. “Coach threw his hands up at the last minute and I just ran right through it. I couldn’t stop because I had too much emotion. Luckily, it worked out. The guys in the dugout, everyone was going nuts. It worked out.”
Fussell’s mad dash to the plate was the frosting on the cake for the Hatters, but it was Cory Reid that did the heavy lifting offensively. UNF took a 2-0 lead against Stetson starter Ben Onyshko in the first inning, but the Hatters responded in the third. Colton Lightner and Vance Vizcaino opened the frame with consecutive hits and moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Austin Hale.
Reid then turned the deficit into a 3-2 lead with a laser blast to left.
“I just wanted to help the team any way I could,” Reid said. “Obviously, putting the ball over the fence is great. It sparked us a little and got us on a roll. Once we got on a roll, good things happen from there.”
Stetson chased UNF starter Tyler DuPont in the fourth, scoring two more runs to push the lead to 5-2. Fagan singled to chase DuPont, and then Will Mackenzie, Lightner and Vizcaino delivered hits off reliever Adam Polansky (1-1) to score the two runs.
The Ospreys answered with a pair of runs in the bottom of the inning, loading the bases against Onyshko before plating a run on a ground ball and another on a Kyle Brooks hit after freshman Jack Perkins took the mound for the Hatters.
Reid gave the Hatters an important insurance run in the fifth with a solo homer, his third of the tournament and seventh of the year. The run was important because UNF scored two runs in the bottom of the inning to tie the game at 6-6. Chris Berry had the big hit in the frame with a two-out, two-run single.
With the game tied, things settled down as Stetson senior Josh Thorne (3-2) shut down the Ospreys over the final 3.1 innings, allowing just two hits. He came within one out of finishing the game, but gave the ball to closer Walker Sheller to get the last out.
“Even though, at times, Onyshko and Perkins struggled a little bit, they were able to get out of big innings,” Dunn said. “Then, we turned it over to Thorney and he did a great job. We talked about letting him finish it up because Sheller has been throwing so much. We stayed with Thorne because he was throwing the ball so well. Once we got to two outs and a runner at third, they had a right-hander coming up and I knew that if Sheller was OK for one hitter, then it was the right move to make.”
Sheller got a hot ground ball to short that Lightner fielded before throwing on the run. Mackenzie made a nice play at first to dig the throw out of the dirt to preserve the win, giving Sheller his 11th save.
The Hatters, and their coach, have struggled to come up with words for what the team has done in the tournament.
“It is a stupid game sometimes,” Dunn said. “What was it they said in Bull Durham? ‘Don’t mess with a streak.’ I am not going to try to figure it out, I am just going to keep running the guys out there who have been doing the job.”
“This is awesome and magical,” Fussell said. “It is a complete team effort because, as much as the guys on the field are doing it, it is all coming from the guys in the dugout. We have to finish this and finish what we came here to do.”
Vizcaino and Reid led the Hatters with three hits each while Fagan and Lightner had two each. Corbin Olmstead led the Ospreys with three hits.
With a chance to win a title and earn a berth into the NCAA Tournament, the Hatters want to just continue the momentum they have built through the first three days of the tournament.
“I told the guys that as good as we have been playing, and as well as we have been doing, we are back to square one tomorrow, Dunn said. “They don’t send you to a regional for being 3-0. We have to finish the job, and that is the way I am looking at it.”
Reid summed up what it will take to finish and earn a title.
“We need a lot of grit, a lot of grind and a lot of focus,” Reid said. “We need to get good starting pitching, play good defense and, hopefully, we can keep the bats going.”