Losing the opener and winning four straight elimination games is not the preferred method of reaching the final of any baseball tournament.
But that's exactly how the USC Beaufort Sand Sharks got to today's championship of the NAIA Opening Round Tournament against Sun Conference rival St. Thomas at Hardeeville's Richard Gray Sports Complex
The Sand Sharks (39-17) and Bobcats (45-13) have split two meetings in the tournament and will play again at 1 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Avista-NAIA World Series from May 25-June 1 in Lewiston, Idaho.
"There's definitely a rivalry there," Kyle McCullough said of St. Thomas on Saturday.
After the Bobcats beat USCB and ace Michael Heesch in Thursday's opener, it's been a total team effort for the Sand Sharks to win four straight and get this far.
Among the contributors: Mike Galvin had his best start as a Sand Shark, striking out 11 and allowing three earned runs in seven innings to beat top-seeded Faulkner on Friday. Pinch hitters Blake Cilwick and Dom Hayes have come through several times. Cilwick had pinch hits in three of the four elimination games, including two that drove in the eventual go-ahead run. Hayes had pinch hits during the ninth-inning rallies in both of Saturday's come-from-behind wins. Ty Main has turned on the power, hitting a three-run home run Thursday against Asbury and a go-ahead, no-doubter Saturday against St. Thomas to take the team lead with five. McCullough, in an all-hands-on-deck situation, threw six innings of three-run relief to keep USCB in the game and earn the win Saturday against Union.
"I knew our team had been battling all tournament," McCullough said. "I just had to give them a chance to do it." Brandon Collins drove in six combined against Faulkner and Union, including the three-run home run that cut the Bulldogs' lead to 5-4 and started the Sand Shark's improbable comeback. And the senior turned in a key sacrifice bunt, as well, Saturday. Gabe Torres, who atoned for an eighth-inning error that led to two unearned runs against Union by singling in the tying and winning runs in the ninth.
"I was sitting in the dugout, just trying to stay positive, hoping I would get another chance," Torres said. "Once I saw them walk Conald (Mansfield), I knew it was my chance, and this was what I was here to do."
For an encore, Torres singled to lead off the ninth inning and scored the winning run in the next game against St. Thomas. And last but not least is Dylan Nasiatka, who on top of his stellar work behind the plate that included throwing out two would-be base stealers against Union, has had a couple of key hits, including his first home run for USCB, a three-run shot against Asbury.
"Nasiatka has done the best job behind the plate," coach Bryan Lewallyn said. "He has done above and beyond what we could have expected. He doesn't get enough credit. It's just been an outstanding job."
When asked Saturday if Heesch would come back on four days rest to start the championship game, Lewallyn said he should be available, but he'd wait and see. This might be another everybody contributes kind of game.
Just like the last four.
NAIA OPENING ROUND TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP
USC Beaufort vs. St. Thomas
1 p.m. today
Richard Gray Sports Complex, Hardeeville