2016 Region Champs! Now, on to College World Series

The Lander Bearcats downed USC Aiken, 5-3, to win the 2016 NCAA Division II Southeast Region championship. (Photo by Ski Giczewski)
The Lander Bearcats downed USC Aiken, 5-3, to win the 2016 NCAA Division II Southeast Region championship. (Photo by Ski Giczewski)

COLUMBUS, Ga. – Lander relief pitcher Brandon White recorded a swing-and-miss for the game's final out, threw both his glove and cap in the air, was tackled on the mound by catcher John Mangum, and the rest of the Bearcats quickly joined in for yet another celebratory NCAA Southeast Regional Championship dog pile. (Photo Gallery)

Lander outlasted USC Aiken 5-3 Monday afternoon at Columbus State University's Burger King Field to win the NCAA Division II Southeast Region Tournament, earning its second trip to the NCAA Division II College World Series in just three years.

White recorded his school-record 13th save of the season in relief of Will Jones, who came up big in the most important game of his career and would wind up Southeast Regional MVP.

Mason Dodd, a freshman, was credited with the game-winning hit as the Bearcats broke a 2-2 tie with three runs in the bottom of the seventh.

Lander, 13th ranked nationally and seeded second in the Southeast Regional, improved to 42-14. The Bearcats will join seven other regional champions in the NCAA Division II College World Series, May 28-June 4, in Cary, N.C.

USC Aiken, the 19th ranked team in the nation and No. 4 seed, finished its season 40-18.

Lander went 4-0 in the Regional and placed Mangum, first baseman Colby Lusignan, third baseman Dodd, and starting pitchers JD Waite and Jones on the Southeast Regional All-Tournament team.

Jones (10-2) pitched seven outstanding innings, allowing two runs on seven hits while striking out 10 and walking only one on just three days rest.

Lander head coach Kermit Smith is making his third College World Series trip, having taken Belmont Abbey in 2009 and the Bearcats in 2014. Smith's assistant coach Britt Johnson is also making his second trip.

Though this is Lander's second College World Series appearance in three years, it is mostly a different team. Designated hitter/first baseman Thomas Berry and pitcher White are the only players who were major contributors in both 2014 and '16.

Infielders Zach Giczewski and Sage Cornatzer (with a combined 39 at-bats in 2014), and pitchers Waite, Cam Hokanson and Matt Thorpe were also on both teams. Waite pitched seven shutout innings on Sunday to send Lander to Monday's Regional final. Giczewski missed the season due to injury.

After falling all the way to 10-20 in the Peach Belt in 2015, the Bearcats rebounded in a big way this spring and are packing their bags and headed back to Cary.

Aiken opened Monday's scoring in the top of the first when Chaz Pal launched a solo homer to left, his 10th of the season.

But Mangum tied it in the bottom of the second with a blast over the left-field fence, the Lander catcher's third homer of the Regional and 12th of the season.

The Bearcats took a 2-1 lead in the fourth when Zach Daly singled, moved to third on Berry's single, and scored when Taylor Kellner hit a two-out, first-pitch bloop single to short right.

The Pacers tied it in the top of the fifth when Tyler Ammerman singled, moved to second when Luke Westerberg was hit by a pitch, and scored on Pal's two-out bloop double to short right center that dropped between sprinting outfielders Daly and Alex Conaway.

Aiken threatened in the top of the seventh when Ammerman and Mitchell Price reached on singles. But Pal, already with two RBI in the game, popped out to Daly in short center to end the inning and set the stage for Lander's go-ahead rally.

The Pacers replaced starting pitcher Joe Marlow with Cole Lee, who immediately ran into trouble and a bit of bad luck in the bottom of the seventh. Kellner reached on an infield single and raced to third when Lee fielded Conaway's bunt and threw inside the baseline, with the first baseman unable to handle the throw as the ball and Conaway arrived at the same time. Dodd followed with an RBI single to center to put the Bearcats ahead for good. But they were just getting started.

Matt White reached when the Aiken shortstop fielded his high hop and dropped the ball before he could throw it, loading the bases. Daly's single to right scored Conaway and Lusignan drew a bases-loaded walk, extending Lander's lead to 5-2. Trevor Hutto replaced Lee on the mound and got the final two outs.

White replaced Jones in the top of the eighth in search of the six-out save. But it wouldn't be easy.

The junior right-handed closer allowed Max Schoen's two-out double in the eighth but struck out Jonathan Banks to end the inning.

White hit Skylar Mercado with a pitch to lead off the ninth, but Bearcats left fielder Kellner made a diving catch of Ammerman's sinking liner. Westerberg reached on an infield single and then Price singled to left. But pinch runner Joey Smithers rounded too far past third base as the coach put up the stop sign and was thrown out for the second out of the inning. Pal's single through the middle scored Westerberg, pulling Aiken within 5-3.

Pacers cleanup hitter Zach Moon stepped to the plate and fouled off a 1-1 pitch, setting the stage for one final pitch. White threw one to the outside corner and Moon waved and missed for the swinging strikeout, setting off the wild celebration at approximately 2:36 p.m. in Columbus.

Two years ago, Lander clinched its CWS appearance on its home field beating Columbus State 5-2, recording the final out at 1:34 a.m. after a long rain delay forced a late start.

Kellner and Daly were Lander's leading hitters, each going 2-for-4.

Pal was Aiken's top hitter, going 3-for-5 with three RBI. Ammerman and Schoen were each 2-for-4 while Price went 2-for-5.