Above photo of Hunter McQuary by CJ Halloran/@cjhall_photography
RICHARDSON, Texas- UMHB baseball’s return trip to the ASC Tournament was long overdue.
But, then again, it made Thursday morning’s victory all the more sweeter.
Facing No. 4 seed Concordia (TX) to open the conference tournament, the fifth-seeded Crusaders won the first-round contest by a score of 6-3, marking the first ASC Tournament victory for UMHB since 2014.
It moved the Cru into the winner’s bracket, as head coach Mike Stawski’s team will face the winner of Thursday afternoon’s duel between No. 8 seed LeTourneau and No. 1 seed UT Dallas.
“I feel like each day this program hits the fast forward button,” Stawski said postgame. “Today was no different. The guys expect to win when they step on field, that’s the biggest difference.
“I’m very proud of this group for so many reasons. They deserved this today.”
An enormous amount of credit for the victory goes to UMHB starter Andrew Acierni, as the first-year Crusader did yeoman’s work on the mound, firing a complete game. The transfer from Brookhaven College was nothing short of dominant, as 71 of his first 112 pitches were strikes. Through nine innings, the right-hander allowed six hits, one walk and three earned runs. He kept the Tornadoes on their toes, with four strikeouts, and was still throwing with high velocity as he sent Concordia into the loser’s bracket with a three-up, three-down ninth inning.
“His talent gets a bunch of outs, but his mentality wins games,” Stawski said postgame of Acierni. “He was never coming out of that game. We were going to win or lose with our best.”
With consistency on the mound, the UMHB bats went to work, rattling off 10 hits. The Cru scored first, as first baseman Malek Bolin pulled a double down the left field line in the top of the first, scoring catcher Hunter McQuary from first base with two outs. Despite hitting with two strikes, Bolin stayed aggressive at the plate, a quality evident from the UMHB lineup throughout the contest.
Concordia tied the score in the bottom half of the opening frame, as the Tornadoes put runners on first and third with two outs. Left fielder Grayson Lee then drove an 0-1 pitch to left field that pushed Concordia’s first run of the game across.
Behind great pitching and due to a few missed opportunities, the contest remained tied at one until the sixth inning, when UMHB took a 5-1 lead in a four-run frame.
The sixth inning was the turning point, as the Cru flashed its speed on the basepaths and drove the ball well through the infield. After center fielder Dawson Shibley reached on a base hit with one out in the frame, shortstop Caimyn Holiday swung on a 2-1 pitch, and sent the ball down the left field line, scoring Shibley from first. Holding a 2-1 lead, the Cru did not let up, as Holiday scored on a single to center field from McQuary in the following at-bat.
A pitching change did little to quiet the Crusader bats, as Concordia reliever Thomas Houle entered the game and promptly allowed a single off the bat of Bolin to place runners on first and second. A wild pitch put runners on the corners with two outs, and, in a daring move, McQuary stole home with designated hitter Mateo Calle at the plate. The bold steal paid big dividends for the visitors from Belton, as it widened the lead to 4-1, and gave the Cru a burst of momentum that was felt throughout the ballpark.
Concordia’s counter fell short, as the Tornadoes scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth, but were held scoreless for the final three innings.
The defining moment of the contest came on the game’s last play, as a hard hit grounder to the left side of the infield was fielded and fired to first by third baseman Rhett Grosz. As the ball hit Bolin’s mitt at first, securing the victory, it felt as if you were rewatching the 2016 World Series-winning 5-3 groundout as the Chicago Cubs snapped a 107-year championship drought.
Of course, this was not for the world series, and the drought was just six years, but the reaction was the same. As the UMHB bench cleared and the Crusaders joyously gathered in the infield, it was obvious the team knew it had accomplished something special.
But at the same time, the Crusaders know their work in Richardson is far from over. Friday will bring about another game, and another opponent. And the mission will be the same: win and advance.
“While this is an outcome based tournament, we still are a processed based team,” Stawski said. “If we play the way we are supposed to, the outcomes will happen.”
Box Score: ASC Tournament: UMHB vs. Concordia (TX)
W: Andrew Acierni (7-2)
L: Easton Migl (1-4)
UMHB top performers: Hunter McQuary (3-for-5, 2 R, 1 RBI), Blake Harmon (2-for-4, 1 R), Malek Bolin (2-for-3, 1 R, 1 RBI)