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Catawba ends season

Staff report
Catawba’s baseball season ended with a 9-8 loss in the championship game of the South Region tournament to Tampa on Sunday afternoon.
Catawba led the two-time defending national champions 5-0 in the early going, but it couldn’t hold off the Spartans and couldn’t push across a run the last four innings against Tampa’s bullpen.
Tampa (42-9-1) advances to the Division II World Series in Sauget, Ill. Catawba finishes 43-18.
Had Catawba knocked off Tampa, it still would have been required to beat the Spartans a second time Sunday in the double-elimination event.
The pivotal game of the tournament was Catawba’s 12-7 loss to Tampa in the winner’s bracket final on Friday afternoon. Catawba led midway through that one after a three-run homer by Ryan Query.
Catawba beat SAC rivals Tusculum and Carson-Newman and a strong Florida Tech team to qualify for the final.
Catawba also reached the regional championship game in 2006 but lost to Tampa 15-5.
“I felt like we were closer this time,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “We had a real good team in 2006, but Tampa had a great team that year. They were even better in ’06 than they were this year.”
David Thomas and Chad Baker opened Sunday’s game with singles, and Catawba picked up runs on groundouts by Jerry Sands and Craige Lyerly.
Thomas’ two-run single in the second made it 4-0. It was his 101st hit of the season, breaking his own school record. Baker’s sac fly made it 5-0.
Blake Ketner, who started Thursday’s regional opener, took the mound on two days of rest. He was the first of seven Catawba pitchers. He left in the fourth, but the Indians still had a 6-4 lead after four.
When Lyerly and Brett Hatley knocked in runs in the fifth for an 8-4 advantage, Catawba appeared to have weathered Tampa’s comeback.
“This was tough because I really thought we had it,” Gantt said. “But we made a couple of baserunning mistakes, dropped a couple of throws.”
The little things added up, and Tampa showed why it’s the national champion. The Spartans scored three times in the seventh, with two runs coming on a homer by second baseman Jesus Barroso, who won Regional MVP honors.
A Catawba error triggered Tampa’s decisive, two-run rally in the eighth. After a double and an intentional walk filled the bases, the Indians got the groundball to shortstop they wanted and nearly turned a double play, as the tying run scored.
“A really close play at first,” Gantt said. “Bang-bang. We didn’t get the call, but Tampa did what they needed to do.”
The go-ahead run scored on a groundout to second.
Baker opened the Catawba ninth with a single and advanced to second on a groundout by Sands, but Tampa closer Anthony Perez retired Query and Lyerly to end the game.
Kepley had three of Catawba’s 15 hits, while Thomas, Baker, Sands and Query had two apiece.
“We made a good run, had an outstanding season because guys played together from the start to the end,” Gantt said.
Lyerly, Thomas, Chris Ahearn, Alex Fairweather and Tim Holmes represented Catawba on the All-South Regional team.
Catawba seniors Thomas, Baker, Kepley, Bubba Morris, Tim Smith and Matt Seabolt finished up a successful run that included three SAC championships and two regional trips. In their four seasons, Catawba was 157-70 overall, 59-25 in the SAC and 75-18 at Newman Park.
Thomas and Baker were four-year starters, while Morris and Kepley earned full-time roles as seniors. Seabolt and Smith, who set the school record for victories, were key pitchers throughout their careers.
“They all graduated on time,” Gantt said.” That’s hard to do with baseball, with all the travel, as many games as we play.”
Baker, the second baseman, hit .361 this season, while Kepley finished with a flurry to bat .329. Morris finished at .278. Smith was 6-3 on the mound. Seabolt had four saves.
Thomas was simply one of the great players in school and league history.
His final career numbers include school records for runs (281), hits (344) and stolen bases (91). He batted .435 this season and .386 for his career.
He had 67 doubles, 14 triples and 48 home runs. The 14 triples tied a school record set by Harvey Black in the 1930s.
Usually the leadoff man, he drove in 188 during his career.
Maybe the most staggering Thomas stat of all. Despite all those extra-base hits, he walked more times (99) than he struck out (86) in his career.
“We lose some guys that we just can’t replace,” Gantt said. “We lose one guy that we may never have another one as good as he was.”
Gantt said Thomas will stay in the area the next few weeks, working out and waiting to see what happens with the Major League Baseball draft.
Sands, a gifted junior who belted 24 homers and knocked in an amazing total of 85 runs, is also eligible for the draft and many expect him to be chosen in the early rounds.
Smith is also a potential draft pick. Gantt said he has workouts for several teams lined up, and he’s also been accepted for grad school.
Kepley is headed to graduate school at UNC Greensboro, while Baker and Morris will join the work force. Morris plans to stay in the area and could be coaching and teaching in Rowan County this fall.

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