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SLIAC Tournament the next step in historic season for Spalding baseball team

Having claimed first-ever share of league regular-season title, Eagles now seek first tourney crown and NCAA bid

Steve Jones

Boosted by a powerful offense, a steady pitching staff and a whole lot of positive energy and team camaraderie, the Spalding University baseball team has its sights set on adding to its historic season this weekend.

Spalding, fresh off clinching its first-ever share of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season title, will now turn its attention to trying to win its first-ever SLIAC Tournament crown.

The Golden Eagles (29-10, 18-4 SLIAC) are No. 1 seeds from the East Division in the four-team, double-elimination tournament, hosted by Greenville, and they will open play against West No. 2 Westminster (17-13, 13-8) at 11 a.m. EDT Friday in a game at SIU-Edwardsville. West No. 1 and defending champ Webster (29-10, 18-4) and East No. 2 Greenville (22-15, 14-6) will play at noon in the other first-round game at Greenville. The full tournament schedule (with Central times listed) is here.

Spalding, currently ranked No. 13 nationally in the Perfect Game Top 25, is playing in the SLIAC Tournament for the third straight year (and the second straight as a No. 1 divisional seed) but seeking its first championship in the event and its first NCAA Division III postseason bid.

“What it comes down to is that we can control our own destiny, and I think the players have taken that mindset, and it’s helped them walk in and know how important this tournament is going to be,” coach Matt Downs said, adding that he’s glad the Eagles got to experience the format and routine of the tournament in 2017 and ’18. “I think with that experience the last two years, the guys will feel really comfortable.”

Downs said he’s had a great time coaching the team, which he said has excellent chemistry, likes to have fun together on and off the field and never requires a command from him to bring energy and focus to practice.

“They have a lot of fun. These dudes create their own energy, and I’m just along for the ride with them,” Downs said. “They really enjoy each other. Everybody is on the same page. They know their roles, and they know what’s going on.”

In the clearest example of solidarity for this fun-loving team, Spalding’s players are literally the golden Eagles going into the weekend, with, as of Wednesday, 26 players  having dyed their hair blond. Downs said he’s promised them he’ll dye his hair, too, if Spalding can make the NCAA field.

“If you’d have told me 95 percent of the guys on the team would do it, I’d have not believed you,” reigning SLIAC Player of the Year Garrett Wilson said with a chuckle, his bleach-blond hair extending to his shoulders. “So I’m happy for it.”

The Eagles’ bright hair might draw some eyes this weekend, but it’s their bats and arms that will really command their opponents’ attention.

Spalding finished the regular season as the SLIAC leader in runs, home runs, RBIs, doubles, triples and stolen bases, and several players are among the individual league leaders.

Shortstop Eric Meyer has challenged for the SLIAC triple crown, tying for the conference league in homers (10, which are also Spalding’s NCAA-era school record), and finishing second in batting average (.396) and RBIs (41). He’s also No. 1 in runs (45) and doubles (14).

Teammate Quenton Brownlee is the league leader in RBIs (46), second in runs (43), third in homers (eight) and steals (21), and eighth in average (.372).

And Wilson is third in batting average (.395), fifth in runs (37) and seventh in steals.

“Offensively, what this team has done is nothing short of amazing,” Downs said, noting that Spalding’s results have come largely in the sizable confines of Derby City Field. “We have a clear-cut plan and message and culture on the offensive side that’s probably here to stay for years to come.”

On the mound, Spalding, which had to replace last year’s All-American ace, Jimi Keating, has gotten solid performances up and down the staff and leads the SLIAC in strikeouts.

Senior Dillon Sievert, a former catcher who is in his first season as a starting pitcher, is a key two-way player for Spalding. The right-hander is 6-2 with a 2.71 earned-run average and leads the team in innings, and offensively he’s fourth on the team in runs and steals.

Junior Zach Jones (7-0) is third in the SLIAC in wins and fifth in ERA (2.28), and sophomore Jack Parisi (6-0, 3.36) is No. 3 in the league in strikeouts (75).

“To think about how good (Jones and Parisi) are now, and how they’ll be back next year is very exciting,” Downs said.

Wilson said the Golden Eagles, who had an NCAA-era school-record 13 straight wins at one point this year and have been ranked as high as No. 9 nationally, are confident heading into the SLIAC Tournament and will be looking to take another step forward.

“I think we have a really good chance,” he said. “It’s been really fun, but everybody is really determined. We all have one goal: To get as far as we can possibly go. (After being eliminated from the 2018 SLIAC Tournament), Coach has sort of kept it in the back of our mind that we don’t ever want the feeling again.”