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College baseball: Catawba reaches SAC tournament championship game

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

KODAK, Tenn. —  Catawba two-way player Hunter Shepherd is tied for second in the South Atlantic Conference in homers (12) and tied for third in RBIs (50), but he didn’t make the All-SAC first team.

Or the second team.

Or Honorable Mention.

Shepherd, a powerful junior, hasn’t complained about that snub. He doesn’t say he has a chip on his shoulder. He’s just gone out and taken care of the things he can control.

He’s had a great SAC tournament at the plate — 7-for-11 — and on Sunday, he pitched into the sixth inning of a 2-0 victory over top-seeded Newberry (41-13) that kept Catawba (41-12) unbeaten in the double-elimination event. He put the Indians in today’s championship game.

“The All-SAC stuff doesn’t really bother me at all,” Shepherd said. “It’s just a game, and my job is just to help my team win. I don’t worry about individual stuff. We just want to win this tournament. That would mean a whole lot more to me than All-SAC.”

While Shepherd, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound, 21-year-old lefty, has swung the bat with authority all season, his pitching peaked early. He struggled in April. Before Sunday’s victory, he hadn’t won a game since March 23.

“He pitches, he hits, he plays first base, and he’s a dedicated student in the classroom,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “He’s a special player, and we ask a lot of him. It’s taxing to be a two-way player, but he’s had some time off since he last pitched. He’s been working on things in the bullpen, but the big difference in him today and the latter part of the regular season was just sheer rest. He looked fresh. He was good. He had his good fastball.”

Shepherd, who bumped his record to 6-4, agreed with that assessment.

“My fastball was livelier and my curveball was working,” Shepherd said. “I just took it pitch by pitch. I had good focus, and I was able to work inside and outside. I hit more spots than I have in a while, and (backup catcher) D.J. Laxton called a great game.”

Catawba shortstop Jeremy Simpson was Catawba’s only first team All-SAC pick. He probably had his worst game of the season on Saturday — 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and two errors in the field, but he made up for it on Sunday. His two-out, two-run homer in the third inning, with Heath Mitchem on base, provided the only runs of the game. Simpson drove a 1-and-0 pitch over the fence in left.

“Jeremy is very tough mentally,” Gantt said. “We never doubted he’d come right back today and play well. He was good in the field as well as at the plate. He’s All-SAC for a reason. He wasn’t just hot for a week or something. He was good for several months.”

Simpson’s homer gave Shepherd something to work with it.

“I didn’t think that would be the last time we’d score, but I was glad to get that huge homer,” Shepherd said. “That allowed me to relax, to pitch with the lead.”

He maintained that 2-0 lead until the sixth when the Wolves put together back-to-back, one-out singles to put runners on the corners. Shepherd had thrown only 76 pitches, but the Indians believed this was where the game would be decided and turned to standout reliever Riley Myers. Myers picked the runner off first base. Then Simpson gloved a grounder and the Indians were out of the inning, still leading 2-0.

“Our bullpen was great — they did today what they’ve done all year,” Shepherd said.

Myers had a 1-2-3 seventh, but he got into some trouble of his own in the eighth when Newberry managed back-to-back singles with one out. Myers got a swinging strikeout on a 3-and-2 pitch for the second out and got a flyball to end the threat.

“One of the critical things we did today was to get Newberry’s leadoff hitter out eight out of nine times,” Gantt said. “Newberry is an excellent team and they are exceptional at the short game. They execute on bunts, steals and hit-and-runs, but if you can get that first man out, it limits some of the things they can do.”

Catawba flamethrower Peyton Williams nailed down the save with a 1-2-3 ninth.

“It was big that Bryan Ketchie gave us a complete game Saturday, and we were able to give Williams a day off,” Gantt said. “He was throwing hard.”

Third-seeded Catawba was swept by Newberry 5-2, 9-5 and 4-2 late in the regular season. In that series, Shepherd was knocked out in the second inning by the Wolves, but Sunday was a different story.

“It was good to finally be able to beat Newberry,” Shepherd said. “That’s a great team, but we played a really solid game defensively.”

Newberry    000   000   000    — 0    5   1

Catawba       002   000   00x     — 2    9   2

W — Shepherd (6-4). L — Charlie Fessler (6-5).

HR — Catawba: Simpson (7).

Leading hitters — Catawba: Simpson 2-for-4, 2 RBIs; Lee Poteat 2-for-4.

NOTES: If Catawba had lost Sunday’s afternoon game, the Indians would have had to play again on Sunday night. … After Wingate eliminated Lincoln Memorial in a late afternoon game, Newberry rallied with four runs in the ninth to beat Wingate, 6-5, late Sunday night.  … So it will be Catawba vs. Newberry again today at 1 p.m. for the championship and the automatic regional berth. If Newberry wins that 1 p.m. game to stay alive, the teams will have to play a decisive second game. … Catawba has 41 wins now, so the Indians should be in the Southeast Regional even if  they don’t win today. “Getting to 40 wins was crucial,” Gantt said. “But right now they only thing we’re thinking about is winning the tournament.” … Catawba was declared tournament co-champ in unusual circumstances in 2016, but it hasn’t been a solo champ since 2014. … Sawyer Strickland will start on the mound for Catawba  today. The staff is available except Ketchie and Shepherd. Greg Brown, who started Catawba’s opening game in the tourney, could be used in short relief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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