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Friday, March 16, 2007
March 12, 2007
By Glenn Tanner, Special to CSTV.com - In 1986, David Lipscomb University officially changed its name to Lipscomb University. That's a shame, because the Lipscomb baseball squad has been a David in the land of Goliaths this season. When the boys from the tiny Nashville school loaded up their 2007 baseball schedule with Southeastern Conference powerhouses, they also loaded up their slingshot. So far, their aim has been true.
The Bison upset Auburn (17-2) early in the year and gave Tennessee all they could handle last Tuesday before losing 4-3. Hanging with SEC teams in midweek games against midweek pitchers is nice, but beating a top program's top pitchers in a weekend series is a whole other story. But amazingly, this tiny private school with an enrollment of just 2,600 can brag about that, too. Two weekends ago, Lipscomb went into Alex Box Stadium and stunned the huge fanatical LSU crowds, winning 7-6 and 10-7 before dropping Sunday's game 8-4.
What makes Lipscomb's success this season more even incredible is where they started. Lipscomb is renowned as a former NAIA power. The program won national titles in 1977 and 1979, and reeled off a collegiate-record 34-game winning streak in 1984. But success has been sparse since moving to Division I in 2001. The program has averaged only 20 wins per year and has yet to produce a winning season. 2007 looked to be another downer, as the team would be breaking in eight new everyday starters and a new head coach. The Atlantic Sun preseason poll reflected that bleak outlook, as the league coaches picked the Bison to finish dead last in the ten-team conference. So far, though, those coaches look dead wrong.
Actually, the secret to Lipscomb's success is simple. First-year coach Jeff Forehand has established a new attitude on the team, and the Bison expect to win.
"I thought we were going to struggle, a rebuilding year," admitted pitcher Matt Schnelly. "But a lot of our freshman and sophomores have stepped up, and Forehand brings a lot more energy to us. He motivates us."
The Bison earned one win in a season-opening series against defending Missouri Valley champ Evansville, but really gained confidence in a 12-inning Valentine's Day win at Auburn.
"After the Auburn game, we knew we could play with anybody," explained pitcher Brandon McClurg. "Coach always talks about how there's a fine line between the good and the great. There's not an incredible difference talent-wise, and it's the little things you do that separate the good and the great."
The team admittedly melted down in a loss to top-ranked Vanderbilt, but had otherwise won seven of eight games heading into LSU. Alex Box, a stadium filled with tradition and renowned as one of the toughest places in the country to visit, has to be an intimidating place to play, doesn't it?
"It was AAAAAWWWWESOME!" roared Schnelly.
LSU annually leads the NCAA in attendance, and their fans are known to be among the most rabid anywhere. Actual attendance for the first two games exceeded Lipscomb University's enrollment. That has to be tough, doesn't it?
"The fans were great," McClurg said. "They give you a hard time, but they were awesome."
OK, but "The Intimidator," the huge billboard behind the right field wall detailing LSU's national titles, at least struck a little fear in your hearts, didn't it?
"Yeah, but then we had a couple of guys hit balls off of it," laughed Schnelly.
LSU had won 17 consecutive non-conference series and hadn't lost consecutive home games to a "mid-major" since 1981, but...
"We had a game plan set up for the hitters and we knew how to pitch them," explained McClurg. "We stuck to the game plan and got some outs and when we took the lead, the momentum swung in our favor."
Lipscomb trailed 6-4 in the opener before rallying and taking the lead in the eighth. McClurg then nailed down the win by striking out the side in the ninth. That momentum carried into Saturday's game, as the Bison scored six runs in the first two innings and never trailed. The team awoke Sunday with the chance to do the unthinkable - finish off a sweep at LSU.
"We were excited, but we knew it wasn't going to be easy," said Schnelly. "We knew they weren't going to lay down, and they were out for blood."
LSU's Jared Bradford was particularly out for blood, as he turned in a career day with 13 strikeouts to help the Tigers avoid the sweep.
Still, the Bison were extremely pleased by the weekend.
"You want to go into every game with the feeling that we're going to win this game," said Forehand. "But had we gone to LSU and lost three games, I still feel like we would have benefited. And just the opportunity to win a couple down there was huge for some confidence for our players. For us to get two wins that was icing on the cake."
Since joining the Atlantic Sun in 2003, the Bison have yet to qualify for the conference's six-team postseason tournament. Beating SEC teams wasn't Forehand's goal for the season. Making the A-Sun tournament was.
"For us to have this success is a blessing," Forehand explained. "For us, scheduling some of the teams we had played, we were just trying to open some eyes and get the players prepared for conference play. We didn't want to concentrate on the record. We just felt like it was best for us to put teams on the schedule who had been in the regionals to help us get prepared."
Eyes are definitely open and the Bison look prepared. With a 13-7 record, Lipscomb has one more weekend series before beginning conference play. They'll also get one more crack at top-ranked Vanderbilt when the Commodores visit in April, a game sure to strain the capacity of Lipscomb's 1,200-seat Ken Dugan Field. Most importantly, though, the team's expectations have done a complete about-face since fall ball.
"I think we have a bright outlook for the rest of the season," Schnelly said. "Right now we're just starting to hit our stride. More than anything, we're starting to click as a team, and every day we practice we're getting better and better and better."
"We definitely have more confidence now," admitted McClurg. "We've seen the best there is. I don't think we'll be surprised come conference-time."
It's likely that no one else will be surprised either, including those Atlantic Sun coaches who put the Bison at the bottom of their preseason poll ballot. Lipscomb has already made it clear that they can play by taking down a couple of Goliaths. With conference play upcoming, these real-life Davids only need to make sure they have plenty of ammunition for their slingshot.