Senior Shane Prance's back must be soar. All he did was put the Panthers on his back and carry them to the postseason for the first time since his freshman year in 2009.
The Panthers needed to win their final three games over an impressive Trinity Christian College team in order to advance to the CCAC Tournament and did just that yesterday and today.
Prance, who was dominant in a complete game 4-2 victory yesterday against the Trolls, came on and earned the save in the first game and the win in the second game in two masterful appearances in a day that featured numerous clutch performances by the Panthers.
In the first game PNC rolled out to a 2-0 lead behind a 2-run homer from junior Ched Gaskin in the 1st inning. It was Gaskin's team leading 7th homer of the year and moved his PNC single season RBI record to 66.
TCC added 1 in the 2nd while the Panthers pushed 1 across in the 5th on an RBI single by junior Greg Toliver to make it 3-1. However, the Trolls responded with 3 in the bottom half to take a 4-3 edge before senior Nate Hall tied it with a run-scoring single in the 6th inning.
Sophomore Kevin Gates gave the Panthers the lead for good with a solo homerun to leftfield with 2 outs in the 7th for the final margin. It was just the 2nd homer of the year for Gates and his first since the first game of the season 53 games ago.
Senior Tony Hoolehan started the game and went 4.2 innings, giving up 4 runs on 10 hits and 4 walks while striking out 3. He needed help from junior Mike Bradley to get out of the 5th but not before TCC had taken the lead.
After PNC tied the score in the top of the 6th TCC threatened again as they had runners on 1st and 3rd with no outs and the heart of the batting order up. Bradley induced a pop-up to TCC's #3 hitter before freshman Cody Jansen entered. Jansen managed to get the #4 hitter to fly out to senior leftfielder Nate Hall who subsequently threw out the runner trying to tag from 3rd for an inning ending double play.
Jansen, who earned his first collegiate win, gave up a lead-off single in the 7th before Prance recorded the final 3 outs for his 2nd save of the year.
Gaskin led the Panthers with the homerun, 2 RBI's and 2 walks while Hall (2 hits, RBI) and Gates (HR, RBI, walk) also reached multiple times. PNC was outhit 12-6 and committed 2 errors to none for the Trolls, but made the big plays and pitches when necessary. The Panthers stranded just 2 runners while TCC stranded a whopping 11.
In the second game the Panthers fell behind quickly but chipped away to take their first lead in the 4th in a back-and-forth affair.
TCC scored 2 in the 1st, 2 in the 2nd, 1 in the 3rd, 2 in the 5th and 1 in the 6th for 8 runs on 13 hits, 4 walks and 1 PNC error. They left 8 men on base.
After not scoring in the first inning, the Panthers danced across the plate in each of the next 6 innings for the difference. They scored in 1 in the 2nd, 3 in the 3rd, 2 in the 4th and 1 each in the final 3 innings. PNC did their damage on 15 hits, 4 walks and 1 TCC error. PNC left 10 men stranded.
In the 7th inning Gates was the instigator again as he led off the 7th with a single through the box. After freshman Ty Taylor hit into a fielder's choice, fellow freshman Eddie Moldenhauer executed a perfect hit and run to put runner at the corners. Sophomore Colin Willis did the rest with a deep sacrifice fly to centerfield for the winning run.
Junior Tim Newman started for the Panthers and gave up 2 runs on 2 hits and 2 walks in .2 innings. Bradley came on for the second time in the day and proceeded to give up 3 runs on 4 hits in 1.2 innings. Freshman Jordan Polito took the baton and gave up 3 more runs on 6 hits and 2 walks while adding a strikeout.
Hoolehan came on to start the sixth but didn't record an out before Prance came in with the bases loaded to perform his magic. He escaped the jam with just 1 run scoring on a sacrifice fly and the Panthers were happy to enter the 7th 7-7.
After PNC went ahead, TCC led off the 7th inning with a double and the runner was advanced to 3rd on a sacrifice bunt. Prance got nasty and struck out the next batter for the second out and retired the final batter on a harmless fly ball to centerfield to end the game. It was his 6th win of the year and the punch-out moved his PNC single season strikeout record to 88.
Every player but Toliver, who had a hit and a key RBI, reached multiple times for the Panthers including Taylor (2 hits, 2B, RBI), Moldenhauer (3 hits, 2B, RBI), Willis (2 hits, RBI), Gaskin (2 BB's, RBI), senior Jeff Strbjak (2 hits, 2B, 3 RBI), Hall (hit, BB), junior Brad Dubois (pronounced Due Bwa, 2 hits, RBI) and Gates (2 hits).
The win moved the young Panthers to 27-28 overall and a final conference mark of 16-14, including an impressive 11-5 record over their final 16 games. It was also Head coach John Weber's 200th career victory at PNC in 8 years. It's the 6th time in 7 years during his tenure the Panthers have surpassed 25 victories or more, significant because the single season wins record was 22 before he started at PNC. It's also the 5th time PNC has reached the postseason under Weber which only happened once beforehand.
The Panthers, the #6 seed, will now start the six team, double-elimination CCAC Tournament on Tuesday at 10 a.m. verses #1 seed Judson University (42-10, 25-4). #2 Olivet Nazarene (33-14-1, 24-6) will play #5 Robert Morris (38-16, 19-10) at 2 p.m. and #3 St. Francis (33-15, 23-10) will take on #4 St. Xavier (34-21, 20-10) at 6 p.m. The tournament starts on Tuesday, May 1st and runs through Friday, May 4th and will be played at Oil city Stadium in Whiting, IN.
Ironically, a new rule benefited the Panthers this year after an old rule cost them a spot in the Tournament last season. Last year the top 3 teams from the North and South divisions within the CCAC advanced to the Tournament. Despite finishing 17-11 last year (25-23 overall) and not playing their final 2 games due to mathematical elimination, the Panthers stayed home to a North Division team that finished 12-15.
This year the rule was changed to put the top 2 teams in from each division and then the 2 teams from either division with the next best winning percentage.
The winner of the CCAC Tournament earns an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship - Opening Round unless Judson University claims the crown. The Eagles have already locked up one of two bids guaranteed to the conference by virtue of winning the regular-season title. Thus, the second bid would go to the team that finishes second in the tournament if Judson was to prevail. The Tournament winner will receive the higher bid from the NAIA in the National Tournament.
For the second straight year, all games in the tournament will be webcast. Go to http://client.stretchinternet.com/client/stritch.portal# for all the details when they become available.
Listed below is the complete tournament schedule:
TUESDAY, MAY 1
Game 1: No. 6 Seed Purdue North Central (27-28) vs. No. 1 Seed Judson (42-10) --- 10:00 a.m.
Game 2: No. 5 Seed Robert Morris (38-16) vs. No. 2 Seed Olivet Nazarene (33-14-1) --- 2:00 p.m.
Game 3: No. 4 Seed Saint Xavier (34-21) vs. No. 3 Seed St. Francis (33-15) --- 6:00 p.m.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 2
Game 4: Loser-Game 1 vs. Loser-Game 2 --- 9:00 a.m.
Game 5: Winner-Game 1 vs. Loser-Game 3 --- 12:30 p.m.
Game 6: Winner-Game 2 vs. Winner-Game 3 --- 4:00 p.m.
THURSDAY, MAY 3 (If four teams remain after Game 6)
Game 7: Winner-Game 5 vs. Winner-Game 6 --- 10:00 a.m.
Game 8: Winner-Game 4 vs. Loser-Game 6 --- 2:00 p.m.
Game 9: Loser-Game 7 vs. Winner-Game 8 --- 6:00 p.m.
FRIDAY, MAY 4
Game 10: Winner-Game 7 vs. Winner-Game 9 --- 11:00 a.m.
Game 11 (if necessary): Loser-Game 10 vs. Winner-Game 10 --- 3:00 p.m.