The old saying, “Success begats success” was proven true once again Thursday evening at Olympic Field as Lee University secured its fourth straight trip to the NAIA World Series, bringing to fruition the prediction of the man who sealed the deal for the Flames.
“(Aaron) Everett sent me an e-mail before the season started and promised we were going to return to the World Series,” Flames head coach Mark Brew related after a 9-6 victory over William Jewell College to secure another trip to Idaho.
Everett played for the University of Tennessee before having arm surgery and chose to come play his final collegiate season because of the recent success of the Flame program and a desire to play for a national championship.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder from Loudon will get that chance after earning a seven-out save in Thursday’s title game at the NAIA National Championship Group 3 Opening Round tournament.
“Everett has worked really hard and done a super job for us this season,” Coach Brew praised. “He came on and got the victory Wednesday (a 3-2, 10-inning win over South Carolina-Beaufort) and we thought going into this game he’d be good for six outs if we needed him so when the situation arose in the seventh inning we felt confident going to him for seven outs.”
Everett gave up just one hit and struck out four of the eight Cardinal batters he faced.
The former Vol was not the only hero of the night as several Flames contributed to the victory just as they had done all season long, according to Brew.
“We overcame some adversity early in the season with some players quitting, some injuries and illness,” Brew remarked. “We came to a crossroads of our season after the loss to Emmanuel in conference play. Our seniors pulled this team together at that point and the turnaround has been amazing.”
“This has been a total team effort, not only tonight but throughout the season,” he added. “Give William Jewell credit. They didn’t give up when we got ahead big (6-1 after four innings). They fought back to tie the game but our guys pulled together once again and did the job.”
Ranked fourth in the latest NAIA national poll, the Flames are now 49-11 on the season and will go after yet another 50-win season when they open play in the World Series on May 29 in Lewiston, Idaho.
“There’s no place we’d rather be,” said Brew, who has taken the team to the top level in each of his four seasons at the helm. “This will be our fifth trip there in the last six years so it feels like a second home.”
After defeating South Carolina-Beaufort by an 8-4 score earlier in the day, William Jewell (41-15) tried to get into the Flames’ heads early forcing Lee out of its home dugout for the contest.
After leadoff hitter Jon Farris ripped a double on the first pitch of the game, the Cardinals were also extremely vocal throughout the contest as they were fighting to keep their season alive.
Not letting the boys from Kansas City rattle them, the Flames opened the scoring with a single run in their second at bat, then put up a 3-spot in the third frame and tacked on two more in the fourth after allowing a solo run by the visitors in the top of the inning.
After allowing just four runs in the other 27 innings of the tournament, Lee’s pitching had its one bad frame in the top of the sixth, surrendering five runs before Everett became the fourth Flame hurler to take the hill and put out the fire.
With the game knotted at 6-all, the Flame offense went right to work as J.J. Constantino and Tanner Moore led off the bottom of the sixth with back-to-back triples to regain the lead. Moore came in to score the second run of the rally on an error.
Lee added an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh when former Walker Valley standout Taylor Comford doubled to left and Costantino picked up a RBI single to go along with his triple and double from earlier in the contest.
As he has done all season, Moore continued to spark the Flames with a double to go with his three-base knock. He also recorded a pair of RBI and, like Constantino, scored twice.
Flame cleanup hitter Jose Cuevas snapped a recent lull at the plate with a two-run homer and double. He also turned in three defensive gems from his shortstop position. One of the plays, where he ranged deep in the hole and whirled to fire to second base for an important force out as the Cardinals tried to rally in the eighth, was called a key turning point by Coach Brew. The talented Cuevas also keyed one of three Flame double plays in the contest when he made a diving stop up the middle and flipped the ball to Burstrom, who was able to complete the twin killing.
Michael Brown added a double and a single to the Lee attack. He scored in the third and drove in a run in the fourth with a one-base knock. Edgar Molina was robbed of a home run in the second inning but produced a RBI double in the third. Comford scored twice and Junior Rodriguez had a double and scored a run.
“This team overcame so much this season that even I had doubts about how far we could go,” Brew confessed. “Our seniors really came together and refused to let us lose. This club never lost its confidence and our defensive play just got better as the season progressed.”
“I've been blessed with quality athletes,” he continued. “When we started winning, we were able to recruit better players and that has carried on for the past six or seven years. The guys who contributed to our success at that time, own a fair share of what we have been able to accomplish.”
The Flames will relax for a couple of days, find out who their opponents will be in the 10-team World Series field and then likely depart for the Idaho destination on Tuesday. Over the past two years, Lee has finished second and third against some of the nation's best baseball competition.