So much for the old adage "third time's a charm."
For the CSU-Pueblo baseball team, the fourth time proved to be the real charm Saturday, as the Pack faced down its top nemesis in 2009, Nebraska-Kearney ace Ryan Sheldon, for the first time in four meetings this season, scoring a 12-10 win in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference semifinal match against the Lopers before closing the deal in an anti-climactic 15-1 trouncing of New Mexico Highlands in the RMAC Championship game.
The ThunderWolves, which lost its first game in the double-elimination RMAC Tournament Wednesday against Sheldon and the Lopers, won four straight games to claim the conference championship, its first RMAC title since 2004.
The Pack took its first step to a title when it faced Sheldon, who pitched a complete game against the ThunderWolves on Wednesday. Working on just three days rest, Sheldon was facing a ThunderWolf team for the first time in daytime, having held the Pack to a grand total of three runs in three previous nighttime meetings with CSU-Pueblo, all Nebraska-Kearney wins.
But Saturday showed itself to a be a different affair altogether for the Pack, as Tony Pechek (Sr., Pueblo, Colo.) torched Sheldon for a solo homer in the bottom of the first inning, giving the Pack life after starting pitcher Scott Harshman (Sr., Pueblo, Colo.) gave up three runs to the Lopers in the top of the first inning.
In each of the following three innings, CSU-Pueblo kept chipping away at the Lopers' tall righhander, as Juan Martinez (Jr., Caricuao, Venezuela) launched a solo shot of his own in the second, and Matt Wismann (Sr., Palo Alto, Calif.) matched Martinez and Pechek with the ThunderWolves' third solo homer of the afternoon. Wismann's shot gave the Pack a 4-3 lead, and the comeback was enough to make the bottom fall out under Sheldon.
In a wild fifth inning, Kearney committed three errors, shattering Sheldon's confidence as the Pack sent across four runs in the inning, giving the Pack an 8-4 advantage. Sheldon was yanked during the fifth after giving up eight runs on ten hits, and the Pack bats followed suit by staying hot and buoying the team to victory.
Harshman settled down considerably after a rough first inning, allowing just two Loper runs over the next seven innings. Kearney staged a comeback in the top of the ninth, prompting a relief appearance by Pack ace Mario Mattivi (Sr., Pueblo, Colo.), who held the comeback in check and recorded his first save of the season.
After the emotional win, the RMAC Championship tilt with New Mexico Highlands became a bit of an afterthought, as a three-run double by Wismann in the bottom of the first inning off Highlands starter Tyler Wichmann gave the Pack an early 3-0 lead, setting the done for the ThunderWolves' domination of the Cowboy pitching staff, which was cashed after a successful but tumultuous run to the RMAC title game.
CSU-Pueblo jumped out to an 8-0 lead, helped by a three-run shot by Zach Hoffman (Jr., Pueblo West, Colo.). Hoffman, who hit two homers in the tournament and hit the Pack's game-winner in an emotional 11-10 win over Metro State Friday night, was named the RMAC Tournament MVP.
Overshadowed by his team's hitters, Dustin Timmins (Sr., Alamosa, Colo.) turned in perhaps the best individual pitching performance of any starting hurler during the tournament, holding the Cowboys to just one run on five hits in seven innings of work.
With the conference title, CSU-Pueblo secures an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Central Regional tournament, which will begin Thursday at the site of the region's top seed. RMAC foe Mesa State is the likely host, despite the fact that the Mavericks fizzled out of the 2009 RMAC Tournament after two quick losses. The Pack's seed in the tournament will be revealed Monday.