Demons start fast, clinch SLC Tournament berth with win at Sam Houston State

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas – The Northwestern State baseball team left the drama of making the Southland Conference Tournament at the front door of Don Sanders Stadium on Friday afternoon.

The Demons jumped on Sam Houston State starter Dominic Robinson and watched senior left-hander Ridge Heisler work 7 1-3 strong innings as Northwestern State clinched a berth in next week’s conference tournament with a 9-4 win in game one of Friday’s split doubleheader.

The Demons dropped the back end of the twinbill, falling 5-4 in a game that allowed Sam Houston State to clinch the conference regular-season title.

“We did a really good job of coming out and setting the tone offensively,” third-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “We’ve been really good offensively the last couple of weeks, and we need to keep that going into the postseason.”

Unlike Thursday night when Northwestern State (30-23, 15-15) had a chance to put up multiple runs in the first inning and could not, the Demons capitalized on those chances in the opener of the doubleheader.

Caleb Ricca’s one-out double set in motion a four-run first inning and a four-hit day for the junior shortstop. Ricca scored on a Jeffrey Elkins single before Tyler Smith drilled a mammoth two-run home run to right field to extend the lead to 3-0.

“(Sam Taylor) got us going last night, so I tried to pick us up today,” said Ricca, whose 37 career doubles are 10th in school history. “He gave me a big pep talk last night, and we got it going. We came to party. That’s our job at the top of the lineup to get the guys going.”

That four-run first inning made things more comfortable for Heisler (4-5), who slowed a high-powered Bearkats offense that exploded for 11 runs and 17 hits in Thursday night’s series opener.

Heisler scattered 10 hits in 7 1-3 innings, allowing four runs, before Jerry Maddox came in and struck out the final two hitters of the eighth inning to preserve Northwestern State’s five-run lead.

Sam Houston State (31-23, 20-10) touched up Heisler for a run in the first and two in the fourth, cutting a 6-1 lead to three before Heisler regrouped and shut out the Bearkats across the next three innings.

Those zeroes loomed larger and larger as Sam Houston State left-hander Dominic Robinson (3-1) settled in after allowing six runs in the first two innings. Robinson retired 12 straight batters from the third through sixth innings.

“In the bullpen, there wasn’t anything too hot,” Heisler said. “Once we got the four spot in the first, I had to give it all I got. There was no way (Barbier) was taking me out of the game short of seven innings. It didn’t matter what I threw, the whole defense was making plays.”

Quiet for the middle part of the game, the Demons offense responded by extending the lead on Ricca’s two-out RBI triple in the seventh and added two more in the eighth on Kunert’s RBI groundout and a Marshall Skinner sacrifice fly.

That proved to be enough as Maddox came in and sealed the win, allowing one hit and one walk in 1 2-3 scoreless innings of relief.

“Ridge was really good against a tremendous lineup, and then Jerry there at the end,” Barbier said. “It was good to extend the lead and take the pressure off. It was a really good win for the Demons.”

In the nightcap, the Bearkats broke a scoreless tie with a three-run third inning and led 4-1 after Jordan Cannon’s solo home run in the seventh.

With two outs in the eighth inning and no one on base, J.P. Lagreco and Austin Stegall singled off Cole Wesneski (1-1) before Lenni Kunert launched a game-tying, three-run home run to left center.

In the ninth inning, Colton Cowser’s one-out single down the third-base line against Jose Vasquez (2-2) gave the Bearkats the walk-off win.

Northwestern State will be either the No. 6 or 7 seed in the Southland Conference Tournament, which begins Wednesday at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas. The Demons are the defending tournament champions, having won the event for the first time in school history in 2018.

Northwestern State 9-4, Sam Houston State 4-5

Game 1

NSU 420 000 120 – 9 12 1

SHSU 100 200 010 – 4 11 2

W – Ridge Heisler (4-5). L – Dominic Robinson (3-1). 2B – NSU, Caleb Ricca 2. SHSU, Clayton Harp; Jack Rogers. 3B – NSU, Ricca. SHSU, Riley McKnight. HR – NSU, Tyler Smith (10). Highlights: NSU, Ricca 4-5, 2 2Bs, 3B, RBI; Smith 2-5, HR, 2 RBIs. SHSU, Harp 2-5, 2B; Rogers 3-4, 2B, RBI.

Game 2

NSU 000 100 030 – 4 8 0

SHSU 003 000 101 – 5 11 1

W – Cole Wesneski (1-1). L – Jose Vasquez (2-2). 2B – NSU, Tyler Smith. SHSU, Clayton Harp, Hunter Hearn. 3B – SHSU, Riley McKnight. HR – NSU, Lenni Kunert (2). SHSU, Jordan Cannon (4). Highlights: NSU, J.P. Lagreco 2-4; Austin Stegall 2-4, RBI; Kunert HR, 3 RBIs. SHSU, Cannon 2-5, HR, 2 RBIs; Colton Cowser 2-4, RBI; Harp 2-4, 2B; Hearn 2-2, 2B, 2 RBIs.

Records: Northwestern State 30-23, 15-15; Sam Houston State 31-23, 20-10.

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