MARSHALL - Nearly two weeks ago, following two straight defeats at the hands of Concordia-St. Paul, Southwest Minnesota State coach Paul Blanchard gathered his team and told them they likely needed to win out in order for the team to make the conference tournament.
The team responded by winning nine of its next 10 games and with a little help from Minot State on Saturday (they took one game from Bemidji State), the Mustangs secured their first Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference birth since 2010, taking three out of four from Northern State this weekend.
Senior pitcher Steven Wehr knew they had the tools to get it done.
Photo by David Merrill
Southwest Minnesota State right
fielder Sam Haas tracks down a fly ball against Northern State during Game 2 of a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference doubleheader on?Sunday at Alumni Field.
Photo by David Merrill
Southwest Minnesota State senior baseball players (from left) Steven Wehr, Ben Korger, Jordon Kontz, Josh Hanson, Jon Elli and Ryan Ecalbarger pose for a picture after the Mustangs completed their regular season by sweeping Northern State in a doubleheader Sunday at Alumni Field.
"We've always had everything," Wehr said. "We just made the plays when it counted and made the pitches when they counted. Everything started coming together with all the hard work we've been putting in."
SMSU used a commanding mound performance from junior Brandan Alfson, who delivered a two-hit performance after tweaking an old hamstring injury while playing in Saturday's second game.
Alfson struck out four and didn't allow a walk in the contest as the Mustangs rolled to an 8-0 victory. SMSU was able to hang on for a 3-2 victory in game two as they stranded Northern State runners in scoring position in the seventh and eighth innings.
Game one also featured another Patrick Rients home run, his 18th of the season, which set the new single-season homer mark for SMSU.
Seniors big on Senior Day
SMSU got big contributions from their six seniors- shortstop Ben Kroger, third basemen Jordon Kontz, right fielder Jon Ellis, pitcher Ryan Ecalbarger, Wehr and shortstop Josh Hanson- in both games Sunday. Offensively in game one, Ellis, Kroger and Kontz combined to go 5-for-9 and drive in four of the team's eight runs.
In game two, the trio combined to go 4-for-11 with one RBI and two hits.
Wehr put the cherry on top as he came in in the top of the 9th and earned the save in his final home appearance of his Mustang career.
"It's something I'll probably remember for a long time," Rients said. "It's been a long four years and getting into the tournament and moving up to the No. 7 seed means a lot."
Ecalbarger finished his career with a 2-1 record and a 6.17 era in 35 innings pitched. He tallied 29 strikeouts against 13 walks in his career. Hanson will finish with a batting average of .280 to go with 10 RBI that included five doubles and one home run.
Blanchard was proud of what this group had accomplished in their time with the Mustangs.
"We've had most of them for four and five years," Blanchard said. "You get to know them as people and see them grow. That's the fun part of coaching. They've done well academically and have accomplished some major things on the ballfield. It's nice to see them go out on a good note that way."
Rients sets single-season HR record
Patrick Rients hit a two-run home run to right field in game one that gave the Mustangs a 6-0 lead in a game they would eventually win 8-0. The junior designated hitter has been hitting home runs at an alarming rate this season and finished with 18 total home runs.
Rients also finished second in the NSIC in RBI with 55 and doubles with six.
"That was a big thing for me," Rients said. I didn't think I was going to get close until that last week and then I started hitting a lot more. I tied it yesterday and I really wanted it. I wasn't sure if it was going to go over because it had topspin on it. I was a happy guy."
Rients passed Travis Irwin (2002) and Andrew Kinney (2009,'10), who both hit 17 home runs in a single season.
With Blanchard trying to clean up the defensive side of things, he inserted junior Jarred Carlson at third base and moved Kontz over to second. It was the first time Kontz played second base all season and he handled it well, being part of two double plays.
Switching sides of the diamond on short notice took some reaching back into the memory bank.
"I didn't know I was going to play there until this morning," Kontz said. "I hadn't played there yet in college. It was my first start at second base this year."
Kontz last played second base at Adrian Area High school where he also played at third and behind the plate at catcher.
Blanchard knew his experience at previous positions would come in handy.
"He's a real versatile player," Blanchard said. "He can catch, he can play the infield, he can play the outfield, he can pitch. He's done it all for us. We thought we'd experiment a bit and we had good results today."
The Mustangs will match up against No. 2 seed Augustana Wednesday at 3 p.m. Augustana finished 36-14 overall and 25-8 in the conference. SMSU was swept by Augustana earlier this season, playing two at home and two on the road.
Wehr knows the pitching staff is going to have a tough task ahead of them.
"They hit the ball," Wehr said. "They don't shy away from hitting. You put it anywhere, they are going to hit it, you just have to hope position players can make plays."
SMSU 8, NSU 0
Northern State 0000000-022
Southwest Minnesota State020402x-8100
Hitting: SMSU (Rients 1-for-4 home run; Kroger 3-for-4, triple, RBI, two runs; Carlson 1-for-4, double; Kontz 2-for-3, RBI, run; Stubbs 0-4, RBI, run; Haas 2-for-3, two runs; Minett 1-for-2, RBI; Ellis 0-for-3, run); NSU (Stubbs 2-for-3, double).
Pitching: SMSU (Alfson (W) 7-2-0-0-0-4); NSU (Sauer (L) 4-8-6-6-1-2; Lee (2-2-2-0-1-0).
SMSU 3, NSU 2
Southwest Minnesota State101010x-3 91
Hitting: SMSU (Kontz 1-for-3, double, run; Stubbs 2-for-4, double, RBI; Ellis 3-for-4, RBI; Tanner Neale 0-for-3, RBI; Rients 1-for-3, run; Carlson 1-for-3, run; Hanson 1-for-2); NSU (Shintaffer 2-for-4, RBI; Cornwell 0-for-5, RBI; O'Bryan 3-for-5; Nutting 1-for-5, two runs; Stubbs 1-for-4; Rocamora 1-for-3 Sporrer 1-for-4; Traxler 1-for-4; Rodriguez 1-for-3).
Pitching: SMSU (McGlauflin (W) 5-5-1-1-3-3; Hellmann 3-6-1-1-1-2; Wehr (S) 1-0-0-0-1-1); NSU (Keating (L) 3-6-2-2-1-0; Thompson 1-2-0-0-1-0; Johns 2-0-1-0-1-1; Crisman 2-1-0-0-4-2).