MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The “Pack” is back.
Will Veillon drove in the go-ahead run with a one-out RBI double in the top of the ninth inning and reliever Brandon Talley came into a pressure-packed situation to get a game-ending flyball to as the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns Baseball team capped off a thrilling 7-6 victory over No. 25-ranked Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game on Sunday at Riverwalk Stadium.
Kyle DeBarge, Julian Brock, Jonathan Brandon and Max Marusak each had two hits and Louisiana (36-21) earned its fifth Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship and first since 2016.
Carson Roccaforte drove in a pair of runs as Louisiana rallied from a five-run deficit to tie the game in the seventh before scoring twice in the ninth to erase a 6-5 Georgia Southern lead.
The come-from-behind win sealed Louisiana’s 17th appearance in the NCAA Regionals, which begins on Friday at 16 sites. Louisiana will learn its regional site when the remainder of the 64-team field is released on Monday at 11 a.m., on ESPN2.
“Just very, very thankful to the Lord for putting us in this situation and bringing us all together,” an emotional Matt Deggs said. “This is a family and a tight, tight, tight knit team, as tight as I’ve had in a long time. These boys have all been raised the right way, and they’ve got a lot of grit and a lot of heart and a lot of fight and you saw it all year. They’re uncommon in everything they do, and they play like savages, man, they just don’t give in.”
It didn’t look good early as Georgia Southern (40-18), which was playing in its third straight SBC Championship game and looking to secure hosting an NCAA Regional, bolted out to a 5-0 lead after three innings.
A pair of solo home runs by Noah Ledford and Sam Blancato staked the Eagles to a 2-0 lead in the second inning before JP Tighe led off the third with a solo blast. Ledford would add an RBI double in the third to give Georgia Southern a 4-0 lead before Austin Thompson’s RBI single scored Ledford for an insurmountable 5-0 advantage.
But as reliever Bo Bonds came in to replace starter Jeff Wilson, Louisiana’s “Pack Mentality” would eventually take over.
Bonds, who went 4.2 innings, retired 12 of the next 13 batters after giving up hits to Ledford and Thompson. The right-hander would fan six batters during his second appearance in the tournament before being lifted for Jake Hammond in the eighth.
Louisiana, which won its second game of the season when trailing by five runs and its first in 19 tries when trailing after eight innings, began its comeback in the fourth as it got to Georgia Southern starter Jaylen Paden.
A single by Brock and a walk to Veillon would start a three-run inning for the Ragin’ Cajuns before Marusak laced an RBI single into left field to put Louisiana on the board. DeBarge would load the bases two batters later when he was hit by a pitch and Roccaforte would respond with a two-run single that glanced off the gloves of Jason Swan and Jesse Sherrill.
Brandon led off the sixth with a triple and was nearly stranded as Eagle reliever Jay Thompson got Marusak to hit an infield grounder before fanning Kimple. The southpaw went ahead of DeBarge 0-and-2 before the freshman shortstop hit an opposite-field double down the right-field line to get Louisiana to within 5-4.
The Ragin’ Cajuns added the tying run in the seventh when Tyler Robertson was hit by a pitch before Heath Hood reached when his hard grounder up the middle was booted to put runners on the corners.
One batter later, Brock would tie the game as his sacrifice fly would score Robertson from third and create a new game.
The Eagles would regain the lead in the bottom of the eighth as Christian Avant lined a single just inside the third-base bag before moving to third on Thompson’s one-out double to left to chase Bonds.
Jarrett Brown would then lift a sacrifice fly to right to put Georgia Southern ahead, 6-5, and seemingly set to claim its first-ever SBC crown.
However, Louisiana would have other answers in the most “Uncommon” way.
Hood would be hit by a pitch with one out from reliever Thomas Higgins (2-3) before moving to third on Brock’s perfectly-executed hit-and-run to put runners on the corners. Louisiana then attempted a double steal with Brock taking off for second. Brock would slide into second ahead of the throw and allowing Hood to score from third standing up to knot the game at 6-6.
Then Veillon, celebrating his 22nd birthday, would give Louisiana its biggest present of the day when he lined a double into the gap to score Brock and give the Ragin’ Cajuns their first lead of the day.
“So, I had a feeling that Coach Deggs might do matchups, and I heard him tell CJ (Willis) to get out of the bullpen and come down and get warm,” Veillon said, “so I had it in the back of my mind that he may try to pinch hit for you.
“In all honesty, when I saw the conference championship was on my birthday, I had already made up my mind I’m going to get a walk-off hit, and that’s the truth. So after that hit-and-run, he said ‘Will, I’m pinch hitting for you, CJ’s going to hit for you,’ and I said no you’re not. And he kind of looked at me and said, all right, get it done, and I said I will. He (Higgins) came with the slider again, 1-1, and I knew he had to come with fast ball and I was ready for it, got good contact, drove it in the gap.”
Georgia Southern would keep fighting in the ninth after Hammond (3-1) fanned Parker Biederer and Tighe for the first two outs. Sherrill would keep the Eagles alive as his single up the middle got past the glove of a sliding DeBarge before Swan would draw a walk.
After both runners moved into scoring position on a wild pitch, Avant would draw a walk to load the bases and bring the switch-hitting Ledford – the SBC’s leader in RBI to the plate.
Louisiana would counter with Talley, the starter in Friday’s 9-1 win over South Alabama and the senior left-hander would get Ledford to fly out to Marusak and center field and begin the celebration.
And in an ending that could have been written in Hollywood, it was only fitting the final out of Louisiana’s 36th victory – the uniform number worn by Hall of Fame coach Tony Robichaux who passed away in 2019 – came right at 4:36 p.m.
“It’s all about these boys, man, they just changed the trajectory of this program, a proud historic program with the best fan base in the country,” said Deggs. “I came here three years ago to take over for one of my best buddies (the late Tony Robichaux), been waiting a long time for this moment and I couldn’t be any more proud than to celebrate it with these kids right here.”
The SBC title was Louisiana’s fourth in the state of Alabama and first since a dramatic 5-1 win over South Alabama in the 2015 Championship Game in Troy, Ala. Senior pitcher Jacob Schultz, who got Louisiana to the championship game after a complete-game performance in Saturday’s 3-2 win over top-seeded and No. 11-ranked Texas State, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament.
Schultz was joined on the All-Tournament team by DeBarge, the hometown product Robertson and Bonds.
“That’s a tribute to who they are,” Deggs said. “We don’t have any tiny hearts on our team, we’ve got a bunch of big hearts. We started with 40, maybe 41 players, we’ve got 28 guys here. They went through the hardest fall I’ve put on in a long time, and it was an old school grinder because we had to get that edge back.
“The guys that are still standing are standing for a reason because they have some grit, and they drink out of that water hose and they’re not afraid to roll up their sleeves and go to work, they don’t care who gets credit.”
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AJ Henderson. Sun Belt Conference
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The “Pack” is back.