NORTH MANCHESTER, IND. – Looking back at three close-knit wins in three days, Manchester University head coach Rick Espeset pointed to a key reason for the Spartans gaining the program's second successive Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament title Saturday, May 11.
"We have a group of guys that don't let their emotions get too high or too low," he said. "They keep a steady approach to the game. I think a big reason for that is because of our seniors. They've been through this, having been in past tournament championship situations."
Holding a 12-5 lead in the top of the eighth, the Spartans were in the catbird seat. However, Franklin (24-20) didn't back down. Senior catcher Jesse Wilson cracked a grand slam over the right field fence, cutting the deficit to 12-9. The Grizzlies also got a runner on in the ninth with nobody out after a leadoff single, but senior Bryce Murphy (Ossian, Ind.), as he has done throughout the season, worked around the threat, forcing a game-ending grounder to sophomore second baseman Trevor Kimm (Anderson, Ind.) that he flipped to senior shortstop Corey Marchant (Fort Wayne, Ind.) for the second out and then was whisked to senior first baseman Brad Murphy (Fort Wayne, Ind.) to conclude a double play and close the contest.
"(Winning both the conference championship and tournament championship) speaks to what these guys have been working towards all season," Espeset said. "It continues to make a remarkable season even more special."
The top-seeded Spartans (35-5-1) got out of the quickly en route to their 12-9 win over third-seeded Franklin College at Gratz Field. After an unearned run put the Grizzlies in front 1-0 in the first, MU answered with two in the first, courtesy of a moon shot two-run home run off the bat of junior third baseman Jordan Nieman (Michigan City, Ind.), and six in the second.
The second inning rally was produced around six hits off FC starter Taylor Glaze. Run-scoring singles from senior outfielders Austin Rieke (Fishers, Ind.) and Bryce Murphy, a two-run safety to left center from senior first baseman Brad Murphy and another prodigious blast from Nieman made the count 8-1. The visitors, as they did throughout the weekend, bounced back.
Franklin plated three quick runs in the third and one in the sixth to trim the margin to 8-5. MU's offense interceded for a key rally-killing sixth of their own, as Kimm launched a two-run rocket that cleared the left field fence for a 10-5 score. An inning later, Marchant drove a single up the middle that scored two runs to make it 12-5, setting up the final two and a half innings.
Six Black and Gold players ended up with multiple-hit efforts. Nieman's two home run, four-RBI output led the way, while Schell had three hits. Bryce Murphy, Rieke, Marchant, and Kimm each wound up with two-hit games. Junior starting pitcher Dylan Padgett (Kirklin, Ind.), who limited the hot-hitting FC lineup to just five runs over seven innings before Wilson's eighth inning grand slam, took the win while striking out six. Bryce Murphy earned his 10th save, striking out two in one and a third innings of work.
NOTES: The Spartans placed three players on the all-tournament team. Marchant, Schell and Murphy represented the team.