By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
Coy Polk received the painful phone call Saturday on the bus ride back to Abilene.
The Wildcat baseball team had just won two of three games over West Texas A&M in Canyon, but it was the one loss-a 2-1, 3-hit performance in Friday’s nightcap-that secured Texas A&M-Kingsville a share of the Lone Star Conference South Division championship with ACU and a right to host the LSC Post-Season Tournament next weekend.
The salt in the wound came, however, when Polk’s cell phone rang. The caller was ACU redshirt pitcher Kade Simmons, and his news was this: Kingsville had just dropped two of three games to division cellar dweller Eastern New Mexico in Portales, N.M. In other words, ACU was two runs and one win away from clinching the South and acting as tournament host.
“I was hacked,” said Polk, a junior reliever. “We had a chance to host the tournament and to win the conference outright. It was in our hands and we blew it. But that’s really our season in a nutshell; we have opportunities to win and just can’t get it done.”
Kingsville and ACU each finished the season with a 16-8 division-leading record, but TAMUK earns the right to host based on its 4-2 record against the Wildcats this year.
ACU won Friday’s first game 10-9 and Saturday’s game 6-4. The Cats rapped 16 and 11 hits, respectively, in those wins, but had an uncharacteristic lapse in Friday’s 2-1 Game 2 loss.
Despite a good effort by ACU sophomore starter Ben Brockman (6.0 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 4 K), the Wildcats mustered just three hits off Buffaloes starter James Schroeder, who gave up one run and tossed three strikeouts to improve to 6-6.
“It wasn’t as if the pitcher was amazing,” junior designated hitter Chris Judkins, who went 0-for-3 in the loss, said. “I was seeing the ball well. I really don’t know what happened that game. That was really frustrating as a hitter.”
Judkins, who transferred to ACU from Brookhaven College before this season, said he was disappointed in the news relayed in the phone call, which was promptly relayed to the rest of the bus.
“That really got to me for a while,” he said. “I came from a junior college where we didn’t win anything, and I came here to win. Knowing that we were one game away from winning our conference [outright] was upsetting.”
Still, ACU retains a share of the LSC South Championship, something it has earned in four of the past five years.
“I was very happy,” head coach Britt Bonneau said. “A lot of people say this is a down year for ACU baseball, but we were still good enough to win the conference.
“Hosting the tournament was not the biggest concern for me,” he said. “Two of the last four we’ve won were on the road, and we’re going to be prepared.”
Kingsville and ACU will represent the South as the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the tournament, which runs Thursday through Saturday. East Central (29-19, 14-6) and Central Oklahoma (32-14, 12-6) will be the first and second seeds from the LSC North.
ACU starts things off 2 p.m. Friday against East Central. If the Cats lose, they play the loser of the Kingsville/UCO game 11 a.m. Saturday. If they win, they play the winner of that game 3 p.m. Saturday. The consolation game will be 7 p.m. Saturday, and the championship will be 1 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re still going down there thinking we can take this thing and win it,” Judkins said. “We need to continue hitting the ball hard like we have been. As long as we play like we should, we shouldn’t have any problem this weekend.”
Unfortunately, the Wildcats’ season will likely be over after the Tournament, regardless of how they perform.
To qualify for the playoffs, ACU needs to be ranked in the top four in its region, the South Central Region. In the latest regional poll released by the NCAA April 18, ACU wasn’t even listed in the top eight.
“All we can really do is go down there and win it and try to end on a high note,” Polk said. “Unless something huge turns around, we won’t have a chance to go to regionals.”