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College Baseball: Catawba ends season with loss in regional final

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

MOUNT OLIVE — Catawba’s terrific baseball season ended with a draining loss on Monday.

A tiebreaking, solo homer by North Georgia catcher Andrew Perez with two men out in the bottom of the eighth decided Catawba’s 5-4 loss to the Nighthawks in the Southeast Regional championship game.

Catawba weathered three elimination games on Saturday and Sunday to reach the final contest of the seven-team, five-day event. The Indians would’ve had to beat sixth-ranked North Georgia (46-10) twice on Monday at Mount Olive’s Scarborough Field in order to advance to the D-II World Series in Grand Prairie, Texas.

“After we lost that first game, guys spent the whole tournament fighting back,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said.

Catawba finished 40-17, the program’s eighth 40-win season since 2004 under Gantt. Catawba has played in nine of the last 14 regional tournaments.

Catawba reliever Bryan Blanton, who saved two regional games, and right fielder Luke Setzer were named to the all-region team.

Setzer rapped into a double play in the ninth after Jeremy Simpson had started the inning with his third hit of the game. Then Kyle Smith flied out to end the game and Catawba’s season.

“Setzer had to protect with two strikes, and they’ve got a very good defense,” Gantt said. “It was a double-play ball, and they turned it like they were supposed to.”

In a case of Déjà vu, Catawba was facing North Georgia starting pitcher Dylan Peppers, the same hurler who shut down the Indians for eight innings in the regional final at High Point in 2015. Catawba finally won that game, 1-0, on a ninth-inning wild pitch and moved on to the D-II World Series in Cary.

Peppers, who set a school record this season with 17 strikeouts against Columbus State, was tough to hit again on Monday and was named tournament MVP. He shut out Catawba for six innings with seven strikeouts, as his team built a 3-0 lead.

Catawba got a strong start from Russ Weiker, who was pitching his last game for the Indians. Weiker allowed two runs in five innings. The Nighthawks made it 3-0 in the sixth with three singles against Catawba reliever Clay Young before Cody Fitch wild-pitched a run home. Michael Elwell relieved and got the Indians out of the inning.

Catawba got its offense going in the seventh against the North Georgia bullpen, loading the bases with no outs. The Indians cut their deficit to 3-2 on a run-scoring single by Simpson and a sacrifice fly by Setzer.

“Peppers was really good, but I really thought we were going to get it done once they went to the bullpen,” Gantt said. “We had better at-bats. We definitely had our chances.”

Setzer threw a runner out at the plate from right field in the seventh, but North Georgia still picked up one run on a two-out hit to make it 4-2.

Catawba tied it at 4-all in the top of the eighth, taking advantage of a big hit by Bryce Fowler, an error and a clutch, two-out double by Nick Coble.

“If we’d won the tournament, Fowler might have been MVP,” Gantt said.

Elwell got the first two men out in the North Georgia eighth with no problem, but Perez, who had already singled home a run in the third inning, homered to left on a 2-and-2 pitch.

“Just a hanging curveball that was up,” Gantt said. “And he didn’t miss it.”

 Setzer’s 24-game hitting streak, the fourth-longest in school history, ended. He finished the season with 102 hits, a .415 batting average and 57 RBIs. Will Albertson, Craige Lyerly and David Thomas (twice) are the only other Indians to have 100-hit seasons.

Catawba               000   000   220   — 4   10     1

N. Georgia           001   011     11x  —  5    10     2

W — Fleming (1-0). L — Elwell (0-3).

HR — North Georgia: Perez (7).

Leading hitters — Catawba: Simpson 3-for-4, Smith 2-for-5, Fowler 2 runs. N. Georgia: Perez 2-for-2, 2 RBIs, Leroy 2-for-4.

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