GREENWOOD – Colby Painter and Thomas Berry hit home runs as the top seed and nationally second-ranked Lander Bearcats earned their 20th consecutive victory, advancing to Sunday's NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Tournament finals with a 9-3 victory Saturday afternoon over No. 3 seed Columbus State University at Lander's Dolny Stadium.
The Bearcats improved their record to 50-6 and will play Sunday for a trip to the NCAA Division II College World Series which starts next Saturday in Cary, N.C. Lander's opponent will need to win twice to keep the Bearcats from winning this double-elimination tournament.
The Cougars fell to 38-16 and would meet the winner of Saturday afternoon's Georgia College-Catawba elimination game Saturday night. The winner of the Saturday night game goes on to face Lander Sunday scheduled for 1 o'clock (though the NCAA could change the starting time due to a threat of rain).
Catawba won the second game Saturday and Columbus State pulled off a dramatic 10th inning victory over Catawba Saturday night to earn a rematch with Lander for the Regional championship.
Lander's hard-throwing starting pitcher Mason McCullough had a typical top of the first inning, walking two but escaping damage by striking out the side.
The Bearcats seized the momentum in the bottom of the first, with Erik Lunde drawing a leadoff walk, moving to second when Columbus State pitcher Bryan Headley knocked Patrick Grady's line drive down and threw to first for the out, and scored on Connor Lewis's double into the gap in right center. It was Lewis's 72nd RBI of the season, extending his school record. Cougars second baseman Jimmy Obermark robbed Graham Ramos of an RBI single to end the inning.
Painter led off the bottom of the second with his second homer in this tournament and third career NCAA Tournament round-tripper, making it 2-0. The blast over the fence in right center was his 10th of the season. He also hit one Friday versus USC Aiken and a game-winner at Mount Olive as a freshman in the 2012 Southeast Regional.
Columbus State pulled within 2-1 in the top of the third with a double play bailing the Bearcats out of further damage. Matt Nettles walked, moved to second on an error and scored when Obermark lined a single over outstretched second baseman Ramos's glove. McCullough then induced Dustin Averett to hit into a 6-4-3 double play.
Lander increased its lead to 5-1 in the bottom of the third. Grady walked, stopped at second when Lewis also walked, and scored on Berry's single to right. Lewis and Berry moved up on a wild pitch, Ramos was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Painter hit an RBI single to right, and Chris Hyatt lifted a sacrifice fly to center.
McCullough walked the bases loaded in the top of the fourth and fell behind Brendan Collins three balls and one strike before getting him to pop to first baseman Lewis on a full count pitch for the final out of the inning.
McCullough pitched into the sixth inning for only the second time this season but gave up a leadoff single and hit the next batter, prompting the Bearcats to bring reliever Cam Hokanson into the game. Hokanson got Blaine Miller to hit into a 6-4-3 double play and retired Carson Bowers on a pop up to shortstop Lunde for the final out of the inning.
Lewis hit a one-out single in the bottom of the sixth and Berry followed with a two-run homer off the bottom left corner of the scoreboard in right field, increasing Lander's lead to 7-1. It was Berry's sixth homer of the season.
The Bearcats added two more runs in the sixth. Weston Lawing hit a double down the left-field line and scored when the Columbus State second baseman made a wide throw to first on Painter's infield single. Painter went to second on the play and scored on Hyatt's single to right center, making it 9-1.
The Cougars missed another big rally opportunity in the top of the seventh, settling for one run after loading the bases with nobody out. Nettles singled, Collins reached on a bunt single, and Jackson Oliver walked to load the bases. Hokanson struck out Obermark, Averett hit a sacrifice fly to right to pull Columbus within 9-2, and Mike McClellan hit a soft liner to second to end the threat.
The Cougars scored once in the eighth when Bowers singled, stopped at second on a single by Nettles, moved to third when Collins walked, and scored when Oliver reached on a fielder's choice.
McCullough (5-0) was credited with the win. He worked five-plus innings and threw 111 pitches, allowing one run on two hits while walking six, hitting one batter and striking out five. Hokanson allowed one run on four hits in 2.2 innings. Bryce Clifton got the final out in the eighth and Matt Thorpe pitched a scoreless ninth to close out the win.
Headley (9-3) worked just three innings and took the loss for the Cougars, allowing five runs on four hits, four walks and a hit batsman with two strikeouts. Shawn Thomas allowed four runs on seven hits in 2.2 innings of relief. Robert Hayes, Riley Presnell and Caleb Kutsche and finished up on the mound for Columbus.
Leading hitters for Lander were Painter, 3-for-4 with a homer, two runs scored and two RBI; Lewis, 2-for-3 with an RBI and two runs; Berry, 2-for-3 with a homer, two runs and three RBI; and Hyatt, 2-for-4 with two RBI.
Nettles was Columbus's leading hitter, going 2-for-2 with two walks and two runs scored.