Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- There are times when moments in sports seem to play out in exactly the way they should happen.
In the ninth inning of Saturday’s regular season finale against Howard Payne, Cayden Musgrove was called on to pitch. It was not an opportunity he had been expecting. After all, the Arizona native had gone 39 games without seeing the field. But in the final inning of the last home game of the 2022 season, UMHB head coach Mike Stawski decided to change that.
“It was already the top of the eighth, I wasn’t really expecting it,” Musgrove said, recalling the moment Stawski told him he would make his season debut.
But he was prepared. His “go-to pitch”, a slider, broke away sharply from the right-handed batters. He fired a high volume of strikes. And he struck out two batters, including HPU’s Taylor Griner for the final out, as UMHB claimed an 11-4 victory, and the series win.
“I know he’s been through a lot and everyone was rooting for him,” Stawski said. “It was a moment for him to see it all through.”
Adversity might not even be the word to describe Musgrove’s spring. On the baseball field, things went according to plan. But in late February, his life was dramatically altered. It was then that his mother, Sonya, was diagnosed with cancer, and 17 days later, she passed away. It was unexpected and devastating, and yet, Musgrove, supported strongly by his teammates, coaches, and family, did not falter. He returned to Belton weeks later, and on this particular afternoon, with his father, having made the trip out to surprise him, watching from the stands, Musgrove pitched with unmatched confidence.
“Obviously we’ve been working since the day I got to campus,” Musgrove said. “Later in the season, you’re like, ‘I still haven’t gotten an appearance.’ Then once your name gets called, you forget about it all.”
“I was nervous,” Stawski added. “We were up by seven, but it had nothing to do with winning and losing. I wanted him to do well. I said before the game, ‘People get what they deserve.’ He deserved that moment.”
Musgrove overcame the adversity thrown his way this spring. And for the Crusaders as a whole, they did the same. As Stawski spoke just outside the dugout, his team and coaches behind him, and a crowd of UMHB supporters in front of him following the game three victory, he gave a heartfelt message about the tenacity of his team, which has battled through injuries and highs and lows.
“This is a really special group,” the third-year head coach said. “Every week, we’ve had another thing thrown our way. It’s been a tough year. Whatever happens at the end of the season, I’ll be very proud of how we’ve handled ourselves on and off the field.”
The Crusaders’ season is not yet over, a message senior Malek Bolin echoed as the senior day celebration unfolded at Red Murff Field. Friday’s 8-2 victory, highlighted by Robert McCall’s grand slam in the first inning, solidified their spot in the No. 4 vs No. 5 seed game of the ASC Tournament on May 5. UMHB faces McMurry at 4 p.m. in Marshall, Texas on Thursday.
McMurry holds a place of significance in the story of UMHB’s 2022 season. The Warhawks were the last team to beat the Cru in a series finale. Since that disappointing series sweep Feb. 18-19 in Abilene, Stawski’s squad has been unbeatable in game three situations, winning nine straight.
Saturday was an excellent example of that. After HPU’s bats powered the Yellow Jackets to a 9-2 lead by the third inning, and the eventual 9-6 win, the series came down to game three. And backing up the recent track record, the Cru played its best baseball in the most critical of situations, breaking what had been a no-hitter with a six-run third inning. They tacked on two more in the fourth and another in the fifth for a 9-0 lead that left no question as to who the stronger aggressor was.
“We have a deep lineup,” Stawski said of the game three success. “Our bullpen is good too, so when we have to get into a little bit of a deeper bullpen, I think we have the advantage over the other team. Then their bullpen is going up against our offense. And you add our run game in. You add in us playing good defense. I think all the advantages rest on us in game three.”
It certainly seemed that way. The victory on Saturday extended UMHB’s overall record to 23-17, as starting pitcher Rahul Champaneri picked up his second consecutive win on the mound. HPU struggled with timing against Champaneri’s pitches, as he allowed just two hits and zero walks in five innings.
Storylines through the series
UMHB’s hitters took advantage of HPU’s pitching: The Yellow Jacket pitching staff entered the series with the second-highest team ERA in the conference (7.49). The Cru took advantage of the matchup, with two 10-plus hit games, and in the first inning of the series opener, scored seven runs. The high octane offense of UMHB was even productive in the lone loss, with seven hits, including a two-run homer from Hunter Jones with two outs in the seventh that made it 9-6. Kaden deBerardinis and Rhett Grosz each had at least one hit in all three games.
Acierni’s debut: The ace for much of last season, Andrew Acierni was sidelined with injury for most of this year as well. But in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, the Waco native made his first start of 2022, which is expected to be a building block leading up to the ASC Tournament. Though he allowed eight hits and six earned runs over 2.1 innings, that was not Stawski’s main takeaway.
Stawski: “Having him back is critical. He came out, and had no pain. Everything felt good for him. The outcomes are what they are. The fact that he felt strong through the whole thing [is more important]. I’m not worried about his confidence. He is confident in what he does. Inserting him into our staff makes everyone stronger.”
Seniors end on high note: Five seniors were honored for their impacts on the program following Saturday’s win. In a fitting final performance at Red Murff Field, UMHB shortstop Caimyn Holiday, a three-year starter, went 3-for-5 with three RBIs at the plate. Jacob Dellipoali started his first game of the year, playing first base. Bolin started both games, and both senior pitchers: Trevor Ripke and Alex Klepac, recorded at least an inning on the mound.
As mentioned, UMHB will play McMurry in the “Blue Bracket” of the ASC Tournament on May 5. The bracket, hosted by ETBU, is one of two brackets in the tournament, with the winners of those two brackets meeting the following week in a best-of-3 championship series. Armed with tremendous depth, Stawski likes his team’s chances in Marshall.
Stawski: “‘I’ll say this, I said it this morning, I don’t think anybody wants us in their bracket. We pitch it and throw strikes, we’re as good of a power team as anyone in the league, we run bases. I wouldn’t want to play us. We have good teams in that bracket, and they’re going to be competitive, but we’ll be a tough team to beat. I’m excited about playoff baseball.”