Houston Tops Marshall, 3-2 To Win C-USA

To say no one expected to see the Thundering Herd in the Conference USA Championship game, except perhaps for the coaches and players at Marshall, would be an understatement. But ask Tulane, who hosted the tourney and fell to the Herd twice. Ask Southern Miss, who won 40 games but lost to MU on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. For that matter, ask Houston who got the title with a 3-2 win.

Steve Blevins was one of four Herd players to be named to the Conference USA All-Tournament team, winning one complete game against Tulane. photo from HerdZone.com

Marshall, the No. 6 seed (30-30-1), battled the Cougars up to the end of the game, but Houston (39-22), the No. 4 seed, had an answer for everything the Herd did. MU scored one run in the top of the third an Nate Lape's sac fly, and UH answered with a run in the bottom of the inning when Bryan Pounds drove in Chris Wallace. Back came the Herd with one in the sixth on Kurt Lipton's single to drive in Jeff Rowley, but only scored one run in an inning they had five hits but two runners thrown out trying to go first to third. Houston answered with a run in the bottom of the inning on Zak Presley's single to drive in Ryan Lomand. Finally, Marshall nearly scored in the bottom of the eighth when senior Matt Helm, in to run for freshman Victor Gomez, was on third when Lipton hit a line drive that Cougar shortstop Blake Kelso laid out to glove behind second second base to deny the Herd a run and rally.

Houston got what would be the winning run when the Herd's defense let down for one of the few times in the whole tournament. Jake Stewart reached on a throwing error by Adam Yeager at short, pulling Josh Valle off the bag. Pounds followed with a walk and MU sent in Arik Sikula, who had a win and save so far, to replace Andrew Hancock, who had not allowed a hit. Sikula got Jimmy Cesario to fly out to right for the first out, but Stewart tagged and went to third. Lomand hit a pitch to third and Brandon Casamassima went to second to try to turn an inning-ending double play, but the relay to first was a bang-bang play that went to Houston for a 3-2 lead. Sikula then got Presley out on a grounder to Blake Sanders at second, and that was the only time the Herd got Presley out in the title game. Hancock would get the loss on one-third of an inning pitched, giving up one unearned run.

Nate Lape was named to the C-USA All Tournament team. The junior finished the season batting around .390, and in the tournament had three home runs and ten runs batted in as well. photo from HerdZone.com

Despite the loss for the Herd, there are certainly many things to take from the run to the title game, though coach Jeff Waggoner had made the Herd's goal for the 2008 season was to reach an NCAA Regional, something the program had not done since 1978. Marshall won 30 games without actually playing a game in Huntington, hosting C-USA games in Charleston for the third straight season and having "home" games in Louisa, Ky., Montgomery and in Wayne County just outside of town at Spring Valley High School.This title game was MU's first trip to a championship since falling to Western Carolina in the 1989 Southern Conference tournament final.

30 wins is a new single-season record for MU baseball, and the 30-30-1 finish is the first non-losing season since the 2004 team was 27-27. Marshall's last winning season was in 1994, and the last win in a tournament was the 1995 SC Tournament as MU never made the MAC Tournament (1998-2005). Marshall was beaten in its first C-USA Tournament 9-1 by Houston and 12-1 in eight by Tulane in 2006, and finished ninth in 2007 and didn't make the tournament.

Yeager set a C-USA Tournament game and Marshall record with five steals in the first win over Tulane, and Marshall as a team was 20-for-22 on stolen bases, another tournament record (12 in 2001 by Tulane in six games was the former record). Yeager set a new MU single-season record with 47 steals on the season. Lape had ten runs batted in, and he and Casamassima each had three home runs. Lape, Yeager, Steve Blevins and Dan Straily were all named to the All-Tournament team and Marshall brought home the runner-up trophy, the first trophy for MU baseball since winning the SC in 1981.

Dan Straily, who pitched the final two innings of the morning win over Southern Miss and the first 5.2 innings of the championship against Houston, was named to the C-USA All-Tournament team with three other teammates. photo from HerdZone.com.

Straily was sensational on Sunday, closing out the Southern Miss win in the morning with two innings of one-hit baseball to get the win. He then gave the Herd 5.2 innings in the start in the title game, allowing just four hits and two runs with a walk and two strikeouts. Andrew Blain, who also pitched in relief of Blevins in the a.m. win over the Golden Eagles, came back in against UH and allowed no hits in two-thirds of an inning. Sikula pitched the ninth and did not allow a hit versus the Cougars, winning one game and saving another in the tournament. Blevins nine wins ties the MU record, set in 1998, while Sikula's eight saves is also a new school record. Lape and Lipton drove in runs, while Valle was 2-for-3 in the championship game. Rowley closed out his career with a 1-for-3 day, scored a run and put down a sac bunt while fellow senior Tommy Johnson was 1-for-2 and scored a run. Marshall's other seniors are Helm, Hancock and reliever Adam Dobies, who pitched earlier in the tourney, so much of the runner-up team will return for a run in 2009. Yeager, Lape, Blevins or others may also have a decision in June if they are choosen in the Major League Baseball Draft.

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