CARY, N.C. -- Wow. Just … wow.
Every championship tournament should end like this, with this kind of heart-stopping finish. The score was tied 2-2 and just one run was all Southern Indiana or Colorado Mesa needed, inning after extra inning.For Southern Indiana, the big moment finally came in the top of the 12th inning. The bases were loaded with one out when Matt Bowles stepped to the plate. He took a called strike, followed by ball one … and then ball two, three and four. That was it. As the Southern Indiana faithful erupted in cheers, Andrew Cope trotted down the line from third base and triumphantly stepped on home.
It was just enough. The Screaming Eagles held on in the bottom of the inning to give Southern Indiana the hard-fought win, and its second title in the last five seasons under head coach Tracy Archuleta.
"What a great baseball game," a visibly relieved Archuleta said minutes after the final out. "I think every fan here got a lot of excitement. Colorado Mesa had a heck of a year. They're a class act. I'm so proud of our guys, every single one of them. If you go look at our stats and you look at what we've hit during these last two weeks, I guarantee you it wasn't above .250."
That said, it would seem rather fitting that the game was decided on a bases-loaded walk of all things. A senior sports management major, never again would Bowles bat in another college baseball game.
His last appearance at the plate was by far his biggest and most important one of all.
"I just got up on the plate, and I knew if I found a way to get on base, that we'd get a run across," Bowles said. "If I had to stick an elbow out there and get hit by a pitch, hit a ball in the outfield or whatever I had to do, I was going to try to do it. I wasn't going to let my last college at-bat end in failure. I was going to find a way to get on base and get a run across."
As momentous as Bowles' walk turned out to be, teammate Matt Chavarria picked up the victory with four epic innings in relief of starter Ben Wright. Beginning the game at shortstop, he got three hits in five trips to the plate and picked up a RBI.
Afterward, Chavarria was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
"In a game like that, you never know what's going to happen," said Chavarria, a native of Carlsbad, N.M. and one of the few players on the Screaming Eagles roster not from the Indiana-Illinois-Kentucky tri-state area. "You just hope the team comes through, and it did tonight.
"I was prepared to throw however many innings I had to. I mean, it's the national championship game. I wasn't holding back anything. I left it all out there, and my teammates left it all out there."
The guts Chavarria displayed here Saturday were the kind he's shown all year, as both a shortstop and pitcher.
"Matt's been doing this all season for us in different situations," Archuleta said. "I'm very happy, very glad he chose Southern Indiana. He's made the most of it. Everybody around him feeds off of him at practice, and it shows up on the field. Hey, he's a competitor."
Through it all, Archuleta watched intently from the dugout. It was the best seat in the house, and maybe also the worst. He lived and died with each hit, each out, each inning and all he could do, really, was watch.
"At first, you're trying to figure out how we could get back in it," Archuleta said. "Time and time again, it was just by quality at-bats. It's why you want to be a coach, why you want to compete, it's why these guys want to be here. It's a lot of fun and it's very competitive. That's why I want to be a part of it."
Southern Indiana's run here this week began with a win against Tampa, which came into the tournament with a record of 51-2. Most would have picked the Spartans to win it all, but when they went down in the opener, it gave the Screaming Eagles that all-important factor.
Momentum. A loss Thursday to Minnesota State-Mankato was followed by the next day by a win against the same team to put Southern Indiana into the title game.
"I think the confidence level of our guys after we got through that was huge," Archuleta said. "For us to be beat them that first game gave our guys a little bit of extra confidence that we could get the job done. It shows a lot about these guys."
What it showed was that they would never quit. Ever. And here this week, that was good enough for a national championship.