May 17—John Martin's heart was pounding so rapidly he thought it might burst through his chest.
The Central Oklahoma head baseball coach said it was the result of an adrenaline-filled moment as he watched his 5-hole hitter, Shane Nixon, blast a grand slam over the wall in left field to give the Bronchos a 10-7 lead over Missouri Southern in the top of the eighth inning.
"It almost gave me a heart attack, but in a good way obviously," Martin said, laughing. "I have a few more gray hairs after this one."
As soon as the third-seeded Lions claimed momentum in the decisive Game 3 of the first-round MIAA tournament series on Sunday, sixth-seeded UCO stole it right back en route to an 11-7 win at Warren Turner Field.
A five-run seventh by MSSU (30-13) put the Bronchos (24-19) in a 7-3 hole before they responded with a seven-run showing on four hits in the eighth. Central ended up plating eight unanswered runs to close the contest, clinching a 2-1 series win to punch its ticket to the semifinals of the conference tournament later this week.
"Our guys fought," Martin said. "Just like we did (Saturday), they fought their butts off. It would have been really easy for our guys to quit today. They didn't."
The Bronchos will take on seventh-seeded Rogers State, a 2-0 series victor over Northeastern State, on Thursday at 4 p.m. in Joplin.
For Southern, Sunday's setback knocked it out of the conference tournament and likely marked the end to its accolade-filled season. The Lions will wait and see if they sneak into the six-team field of the NCAA Division II Central Region Championship next week.
"With six teams going instead of eight this year, there's probably not a great chance of us making it," MSSU head coach Bryce Darnell said. "A lot of things would have to fall our way.
"The sad part is you don't want it to end. A lot of these guys meant a lot to our program. We have some hall-of-famers in this bunch that will be in our Athletic Hall of Fame. It's hard to see them go, but it always comes to an end."
After a slow offensive start — two runs and two hits through the first six innings — the Lions seemingly gained control of the ballgame with its five-run eruption on three hits in the bottom of the seventh.
The Lions had the bases loaded with no outs when second baseman Dexter Swims hit a grand slam to left field to give MSSU its first lead of the day at 6-3. Jordan Fitzpatrick made it a 7-3 lead later in the inning on a solo home run to right field.
The first five hits the Lions logged in the game included four home runs and a double. However, Central ended up outhitting MSSU 15-7.
The Broncho's surge in the eighth saw Ryan Harrel and Joe Mondragon log one-run singles before Nixon's grand slam opened up a three-run lead. UCO went on to plate one insurance run in the ninth on a sacrifice grounder by Harrel.
"We took the lead there, and I guess we just didn't have enough in the bullpen to hold them down," Darnell said. "Credit to UCO. After we hung a 5-spot, they put up a 7-spot. That's the difference."
UCO reliever Beaux Bonvillain was credited the win after surrendering two earned runs and two hits in one inning. Starter Brayden Nelson picked up the no-decision after limiting MSSU to three earned runs and three hits while striking out five in six innings.
"Brayden isn't a guy who is flashy or will throw up big numbers on the radar gun, but he can pitch," Martin said. "He deserves a lot of credit for keeping them off guard for as long as he did."
MSSU used six different arms in the game. Reliever Ryan Paschal was charged with the loss after allowing two earned runs and one hit in 1/3 of an inning. Cole Woods had the longest stint on the mound for the Lions, allowing one earned run and five hits in 4 1/3 innings.
Southern's first two hits were solo home runs. Tommy Stevenson blasted one to right-center field to tie the game at 1-1 in the first, and then Fitzpatrick sent one out to right-center to trim UCO's lead to 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth.
Hunter, a senior, finished 2-for-4 with a homer and four RBI to pace the MSSU offense. Fitzpatrick finished 2-for-5 with two homers and two RBI.
Contact Jared Porter on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.