GREENWOOD – The Lander Bearcats aren't finished yet and have earned another "bus ride." Lander needed to win its regular season finale Sunday afternoon to qualify for the Peach Belt Conference post-season tournament and got the job done, beating the University of North Georgia 7-3 behind Mike Fitschen's four RBI and Chris Sheehan's strong pitching performance.
Lander improved to 16-32 overall and finished 9-21 in the PBC, winning the eighth and final tournament berth over Francis Marion (also 9-21) due to a tie-breaker. The Bearcat sweep over Francis Marion March 23-25 helped them earn the tie-breaker.
Lander's next action will be in the Peach Belt Tournament May 11-13 at Flagler University in St. Augustine, Fla. The Bearcats will be the eighth seed.
"I thought our guys played really hard," said head coach Jason Burke. "Chris Sheehan gave us such a great start and the offense was able to scrap up a couple of runs early and have the big inning late. Robbie Hoyt came in and gave us a big inning and [JD Cook] close the thing out. Super proud of the guys for continuing to fight and doing what they needed to do."
North Georgia fell to 29-18 overall and 16-11 in the PBC. The Nighthawks, who have already clinched a berth in the league tournament, end their regular season next weekend with a Peach Belt series versus Columbus State.
Lander entered the weekend's final series needing to win two of three. The Bearcats rallied from a 6-0 deficit to take Friday's opener 14-6 at Dolny Stadium before losing 3-2 on a ninth-inning run Saturday.
Lander gave the ball to senior transfer graduate Sheehan for Sunday's win or stay home game and he came through, allowing only one run on four hits in seven innings. Sheehan (4-6) walked two and struck out six.
North Georgia starting pitcher Kyle Luigs (3-3) took the loss.
The Bearcats took a 1-0 lead in the first after Colton Yeager reached on an infield single to third, Zack Moore singled to center, and Nathan Schreckengost singled to short left center to load the bases. When Carson Jones struck out, North Georgia catcher Andres Perez made a wild pickoff throw to first, allowing Yeager to score as the ball rolled into right field. Moore also tried to score on the play but was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.
Lander shortstop Yeager made two big plays in the top of the third to preserve the 1-0 lead. He jumped for a high throw from catcher Moore and swiped would-be base stealer William Mapes at second base for the second out. The next batter Crews Taylor hit a ball that center fielder Conner Davis misplayed into a three-base error. But Davis retrieved the ball in deep center and hit cutoff man Yeager, who made a strong throw to the plate to easily retire Taylor as he tried to come all the way around to score.
Lander increased its lead to 2-0 in the third when Bo Richey tripled over the center fielder's head and scored on Fitschen's sacrifice fly to left. North Georgia left fielder Taylor made a twisting, leaping catch on the play.
Taylor drew a two-out walk and scored on Perez's double to deep left, pulling the Nighthawks within 2-1 in the top of the sixth. It was North Georgia's first run of the series that did not involve a homer.
Sheehan escaped a two-on, one out jam in the top of the seventh, retiring Jake Arnold and Mapes on fly outs to end the threat.
The Bearcats padded their lead in the bottom of the seventh with three runs, making it 5-1. Davis led off with a single to left center, Brice Kirven walked, and Richey reached when his sacrifice bunt attempt was bobbled by the pitcher for an error to load the bases. Fitschen smacked a two-run single to left and after Yeager's bunt advanced the runners to second and third, Moore's ground out to second plated Richey.
Hoyt relieved Sheehan to start the eighth and allowed a pair of runs despite striking out the side. Chase Sudduth and Bill LeRoy walked, Conner Corbitt reached on an infield single to load the bases, and Steven Tomlinson hit a two-run single to make it 5-3.
But Lander answered with two runs in the bottom of the eighth, increasing its lead to 7-3. Jones singled and Alex Conaway walked, and each moved up on Davis's sacrifice bunt. Jones beat the throw home as Kirven reached on a fielder's choice while Fitschen added an RBI single. It gave him a career-high four RBI.
Cook pitched a scoreless ninth to close out the victory.
Fitschen was Lander's leading hitter, going 2-for-4 with four RBI. Schreckengost was also 2-for-4 while Richey went 1-for-4 with a triple and two runs scored.
Perez and Tomlinson had two hits apiece for the Nighthawks.