LITTLE ROCK — Catching up on the University of Central Arkansas’ improbable run through the Southland Conference baseball tournament, Tiger Woods’ rally at the 1994 U.S. Amateur came to mind.
The more I thought about it, comparing UCA’s accomplishment with Syracuse’s performance at the 2006 Big East basketball tournament is more apropos.
Six down with 23 holes to play against Trip Kuehne, Woods had some wiggle room. At Madison Square Garden in ‘06, Syracuse was a No. 9 seed and a bubble team at best for the NCAA Tournament. To be certain of a spot in the NCAA, the Orange had to win four games in four days. Led by Gerry McNamara, Syracuse’s total margin of victory was eight points.
UCA, a No. 7 seed in Sugar Land, Texas, lost its opening game in the double-elimination tournament. Ranked in the top 25 early in the season, the Bears’ only way into the NCAA field was to win five in a row. Mission accomplished.
Never personally involved in a back-against-the-wall comeback by a team, I have witnessed the same by an individual. The first year my favorite golfer won a state championship, he was two holes down on the back nine. Every tie tightened the noose. It must have been the same for the Bears each time another inning was complete and the result was in doubt.
For instance, the Bears trailed 3-1 until the seventh inning of one game, were tied through six in another, and were behind 4-0 through four innings of a third game.
Explaining his team’s success in the string of elimination games, UCA coach Allen Gum took the safe route and cited intangibles.
To an outsider, it was the weird routine that worked for the Bears.
After they lost their opener, the Bears played three straight days at 9 a.m. Every day, the wake-up call came at the same time. Every day, the bus left the hotel at the same time.
The hotel did not offer a free breakfast so Gum drove to some nearby golden arches each day, ordered breakfast for almost 30 athletes, plus the coaches, and brought it back to the hotel for consumption.
Most of UCA’s opponents, including Oral Roberts in the semifinals, had not experienced a first pitch at 9 a.m.
The victory over ORU completed a cycle. Early in the season, UCA was on a roll, including handing No. 3 Mississippi State its first loss after an 18-0 start and making a first-ever appearance in the polls. There was premature talk of the NCAA Regionals and speculation about whether UCA was the best team in Arkansas.
Then, UCA opened conference play against ORU — a newcomer to the league and a perennial power — and went 0-3. The Bears bounced back and won five straight series, but lost nine of their last 12 games, including getting swept by No. 1 seed Sam Houston State at the end of the season.
No college team has enough pitchers for six games in four days and that was the Bears’ path to the tournament title. Normally, the Bears start Caleb McClanahan in the first game of a weekend series and fellow senior Jeffery Enloe in the second game. McClanahan lost Wednesday and came back in the semifinals on Saturday morning. Enloe wanted to double up and pitch in the finals on only one day’s rest.
Instead, Gum started freshman Connor Gilmore — a mid-week guy who made five starts and only nine appearances all year — hoping to get four or five innings. Enloe was next up and then anybody and everybody. Enloe warmed up a couple of times, but Gilmore kept going, retiring the final 11 hitters.
Although UCA is not expected to get out of the Regional this weekend in Starkville, the Bears will compete. They proved that last week.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.