Going into the final week of the Scenic West Athletic Conference baseball season, the race for first place is finally clear.
Western Nevada College needs to sweep a four-game series from College of Southern Idaho to win the regular-season title outright for the first time since 2011. The SWAC champion serves as the host for the May 7-10 Region 18 Tournament.
WNC wrapped up at least second place in the SWAC by winning three of four games from CSN over the weekend. The Wildcats (19-9) could win three games from the Golden Eagles this week and gain a share of the title, but Salt Lake would (22-10) win a first-place tiebreaker because it has a better record against third-place CSN than WNC: 7-1 vs. 6-2. Under the SWACâ€™s tiebreaker rules, the first tiebreaker wouldnâ€™t break the deadlock since the teams split their season series, 4-4. Thus, the second tiebreaker comes into play: how the teams fared against the next-highest finisher in the conference.
â€œWe have a sliver of hope,â€ WNC coach D.J. Whittemore said. â€œSalt Lake is in the driverâ€™s seat and has earned that right by being the most consistent team all year.â€
After sweeping a twin bill from the Coyotes on Saturday, the Wildcats ran into a concerted hitting attack by the visitors on Sunday morning. The Coyotes banged out 14 hits against four Wildcat pitchers to cruise to an 11-4 victory.
However, WNC kept its title hopes alive behind the one-hit pitching of Conor Harber en route to a 2-1 victory in game two.
â€œI threw 90 percent fastballs,â€ Harber said. â€œI moved it around and missed a lot of (bat) barrels and mixed in a few changeups and curveballs. Now we have a chance to sweep CSI to host the tournament and sleep in our own beds.â€
In Sundayâ€™s opener, the Coyotes pushed three runs across the plate in the first inning and never trailed. After WNC crept to within 4-2 in the third inning, CSN scored twice in the fifth and three in the sixth to pull away.
James Young delivered three extra-base hits, including a pair of doubles and a triple, and knocked in four Coyote runs. Curtis Heyman homered and drove home two runs for CSN.
Spencer Greer (6-4) started for the Wildcats and lasted three innings, giving up five hits and only one earned run.
Three WNC errors led to four of the Coyotesâ€™ 11 runs being unearned.
WNC tried to battle back behind an 11-hit output. Connor Klein and Austin Andrews each knocked out two hits. Joey Crunkilton and Sam Hall doubled for the Wildcatsâ€™ only extra-base hits.
WNC made sure its sophomores won their final regular-season home game, putting the lopsided defeat behind them.
â€œThey did that by themselves,â€ Whittemore said of the motivation to win the second game. â€œThere isnâ€™t much to say this time of the year, period. The team has forged its own identity. They have put in the hours. They motivate themselves. At this point, weâ€™re just managing the game and putting players in positions to be successful.â€
With Lucas Hunter touching home plate in the third inning, CSN scored first in the second game. Billy Santiwan singled during the rally for the only hit off Harber.
However, Harber gave the Coyote hitters little chance to score thereafter as he faced three batters over the minimum. Harber fanned 11 and walked one as he won his seventh game in as many decisions. The only run off Harber was unearned.
â€œHarber was really clutch when we needed him,â€ Whittemore said. â€œIn my opinion, he is the leading candidate for (SWAC) pitcher of the year going into the final weekend.â€
Both of Harberâ€™s parents and his sister were present on sophomore appreciation day.
â€œIt was definitely nice to have them there in the stands, and you always want to do better when you have them there,â€ Harber said.
The Wildcats tied the score at 1 in the fourth inning when Rayne Raven homered for the third time this season. Alex Fife doubled with one out but was stranded on second base.
In the sixth inning, the Wildcats manufactured the decisive run. Jake Bennett singled, advanced to second on a passed ball and took third on Ravenâ€™s sacrifice bunt. CSN walked the next two Wildcat hitters, setting up Kleinâ€™s go-ahead sacrifice fly to center field.
Having Raven bunt after he homered in his previous at-bat is part of what Whittemore expects out of his players.
â€œThatâ€™s what you have to do if you want to win. You have to be a complete player,â€ Whittemore said. â€œOne-trick ponies donâ€™t have a lot of value in the Scenic West Conference.â€
Three CSN pitchers held the Wildcats to five hits.
Whittemore honored his 11 sophomores between games. A ceremony, which included the playersâ€™ parents, recognized sophomores Greer, Hall, Harber, Klein, Raven, Crunkilton, Fife, Tony Roque, Christian Stolo, Jeremy Alderman and Spenser Dorsey.
â€œIt was the first time in nine years that I had to talk about the players immediately after a loss,â€ Whittemore said. â€œIt was particularly frustrating because we gave up a season high in runs and it was only the third time in 48 games where we gave up more than six runs.
â€œBut we try to have a big-picture approach to how much those players have accomplished; itâ€™s a lot more than just one game. When all 11 are graduating on time, that speaks volumes on them as a group and individually. Iâ€™m not going to compare this to a tour of duty, but itâ€™s not easy to make it through this program two straight years. They have high character, great work ethic and a love and passion for the game of baseball.â€
The Wildcats (34-14 overall) conclude the regular season with doubleheaders Friday and Saturday at CSI in Twin Falls, Idaho.
â€œThis yearâ€™s schedule has been the most difficult weâ€™ve ever played and to be 34-14 right now is pretty remarkable,â€ Whittemore said. â€œThey deserve all of the credit. Their sweat equity, their buy-in, their chemistry, thatâ€™s allowed them to be so successful.â€