The University of Lynchburg baseball team punched its ticket to the NCAA Division III national championship with a win over Shenandoah in the Lynchburg super regional on Saturday.
Avery Neaves hit a two-run, go-ahead home run to left field in the eighth inning scoring Benton Jones. Mason McDowell earned the win on the mound after Brandon Pond pitched six innings of one-run ball.
Jack Bachmore tallied his 13th save, stranding two runners on base in the top of the ninth. He got Shenandoah’s Gavin Horning to pop out to Ryan Long at first base and secured the 3-1 win.
The Hornets will compete in their first national championship in program history beginning Friday, June 2, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Avery Neaves went 1-2 with three walks and an RBI in Lynchburg’s win over Shenandoah in game 1 of the NCAA baseball championship super regional on Friday.
Despite his seemingly successful day at the plate, the two-time All-American was on the phone with assistant coach Oscar Garcia following the win.
“He called me up and asked, ‘can we go to the cage?’ ’’ Garcia said. “We stayed in the cage for 30 minutes trying to figure stuff out and working more on the mindset at the plate.”
Neaves said his swing “just felt a little off. I was a little out of sync. I knew there wasn’t much to fix. I went right after the game because I didn’t want to get cold after dinner or something.”
After working with Neaves, Garcia called up his close friend and baseball coach from a local high school. “He told me, ‘A kid like that is a swing away,’ ’’ Garcia said.
That one swing came in the bottom of the eighth, with Lynchburg trailing 1-0 in game two of the super regional on Saturday.
After a Benton Jones single, Neaves took a short swing and ripped a line drive over the left field wall to give the Hornets a 2-1 lead. It was his 34th career homer and his first in seven games.
As Neaves rounded first and second, it was clear this was not his typical home run trot.
The program’s leader in dingers usually puts his head down and runs purposefully around the diamond. This time, however, Neaves was looking around, eyes wide open, as he took in the moment and admired the scene he had caused.
He eventually started gesturing toward the Lynchburg crowd to pump them up, but this trip around the bases was different and carried a lot of emotion for the Reston, Virginia, native.
“There isn’t a better one in my career,” Neaves said. “This is the most-special home run by far because of how much it meant for the team and the fans here that come out to support us. It’s sending us to Iowa for the first time ever. It’s something this team has always talked about and believed.”
Neaves made Lynchburg’s dream a reality with one swing.
“When you do everything the right way and you work as hard as that kid, things happen,” Garcia said. “Results happen.”
Neaves’ homer was exactly what Lynchburg needed after trailing 1-0 over the first seven innings.
Shenandoah scored its only run of the game on a wild pitch in the fifth off starting pitcher Brandon Pond.
The run was Pond’s only blemish as he went six innings with four Ks. “I was trying to be locked in for each batter,” Pond said. “That is a crazy lineup. Huge respect for those guys and the talent level they have. You have to take it pitch-by-pitch.”
Hours before locking in, at 6:30 a.m., Pond found himself in the athletic training room with the team’s assistant athletic trainer Dan Bower. “He’s kind of had this routine all season,” Bower said. “Any day he pitches, he’s coming in early and getting a normal routine.”
Bower noted Pond wanted a little extra treatment before the big start, but it was pretty much business as usual. Pond missed most of the 2022 season with an injury but returned to the rotation and pitched to a 2.68 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 47 innings.
Bower felt good about the righty as the graduate student exited the athletic training room for the ballpark.
“The only thing I’m nervous about with him is how much he’s getting in his own head,” Bower joked.
However, the biggest concern with Pond came in the fourth inning, when he wore a leadoff single off the ankle and then had to field a bunt in the next at-bat.
“My feet feel fine,” Pond said. “I mean, the guy hit it right where he’s supposed to: right off me. It slowed me down a little, but in that kind of game, you don’t really feel it. I feel it a little bit now, though.”
Pond came out of the game after the sixth, and freshman Mason McDowell came on, looking to keep Shenandoah within reach as Lynchburg trailed 1-0.
McDowell only allowed one hit in two innings of work and kept Lynchburg in the game. After stranding a runner on second in the eighth, McDowell was the pitcher of record for Lynchburg’s rally in the bottom of the inning. Lynchburg’s pitching staff limited Shenandoah to eight hits.
After Neaves put the Hornets up 2-1, Sean Pokorak kept the line moving with a single.
“The at-bat of the game is Sean Pokorak [in the eighth],” Garcia said. “He found a way to hit a ball hard and get on base. Eric [Hiett] putting the bunt down … those at-bats there are huge.”
Hiett bunted the pinch runner Logan Webster over to second, then Webster got to third on a passed ball. Gavin Collins gave Lynchburg some insurance with a sacrifice fly to score the sophomore and put Lynchburg up 3-1.
Jack Bachmore came on in the ninth, but walked the first two batters. After a sacrifice bunt, the 2023 Old Dominion Athletic Conference pitcher of the year retired the final two hitters with a strikeout and a harmless infield popup. He earned his 13th save of the season and second of the super regional.
After Ryan Long caught the final out, Lynchburg celebrated on the infield dirt of Bank of the James Stadium. Pandemonium ensued as the Hornets stormed the field for the third weekend in a row.
“It shows the resilience of this program,” Pond said. “We came from winning 19 games when I first got here to punching a ticket to the World Series. It shows our grit and how much we grind. This year was the year, and we knew it.”
“It means everything,” Neaves said. “These guys are my brothers. I’ve found lifelong friends here.”
Neaves, Pond, and the Hornets will head to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the NCAA Division III baseball national championship, which begins Friday, June 2.
When asked if he’ll be in the cage again to get more work ahead of the championship, Neaves said, “Yeah … but maybe not tonight.”
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