As long as UNO was busy completing its improbable run to the Summit League baseball championship, can anyone think of the best way to clinch the title?
Walk-off homer? Sure, why not?
“You can’t script it any better than that,” Mavericks coach Bob Herold said.
Ryan Keele’s two-run, opposite-field homer gave the University of Nebraska at Omaha a 6-4 victory against South Dakota State on Friday in the opening game of a doubleheader, giving the school its first Division I championship of any kind.
“It’s storybook,” Keele said. “We’ve got two games left, but to win a conference championship that way … I don’t know. I’m just blessed to be a part of this team.”
The Jackrabbits won the anticlimactic second game at the Ballpark at Boys Town 12-5.
The Mavs (26-22, 19-6 Summit) clinched a share of the title with a win in Thursday’s series opener. South Dakota State (31-20, 16-9) needed to win the final three games of the series to tie for first.
Keele, a senior from Bellevue East who transferred to UNO after one season at Northwestern State (La.), moved into position for the Summit’s home run lead and batting title with his sixth homer of the year by lining a low-and-away fastball off former Papillion-La Vista South pitcher Stephen Bougher (7-2).
“Wind, blow it out,” Keele said he was thinking.
Left fielder Paul Jacobson stood straight up coming out of his defensive stance, then turned to run toward the wall, and then stopped when he realized it wasn’t coming back.
“I knew it was out — he’s so strong,” Herold said. “When we take batting practice here, he hits them on Dodge Street.”
Herold was kidding, we think. Dodge Street is a good half-mile beyond the left-field wall.
“I just did what I could with the pitch,” Keele said. “At first … it was up in the air pretty high, but it just kept going back and back. And the cheers started.”
Keele, who was 3 for 4 in the opener, is battling teammate and former Bellevue East teammate Cory Buckley for the Summit’s batting title.
Buckley went 4 for 4, driving in two runs with a second-inning double. Buckley singled in the final inning to set the stage for Keele.
Each finished the opener with a .383 average.
“Those two guys have been in competition the whole year,” Herold said. “They push each other.”
The Mavs were six outs from winning, but South Dakota State rallied for two sixth-inning runs to tie the game.
“That was tough, but this team has been through tough times,” Keele said. “The first 10 games we had, that was tough. But it got us ready for this point.”
Jacobson led off the sixth with a double, moved to third on a wild pitch as Matt Tew struck out Aaron Machbitz and — after Steven Autenrieth drew a walk — scored on Andrew Melton’s sacrifice fly. Eric Danforth drew a walk, then Al Robbins singled to left to score pinch runner Zach Coppola with the tying run.
UNO opened the season 0-6, was 3-7 after 10 games and 6-15 before winning its first eight league games.
“Last year, we were on the road all the time, we got hurt (seven regulars were out most, if not all, of the year), and then we got the crap beat out of us,” Herold said. “I knew, when we got to the end, that we weren’t going to win many games.
“But this year, when we started slow, we didn’t get down. The ship turned and here it is.”
Last year, in their first season in Division I, the Mavs went 12-36. They were picked to finish last this year, their first in the six-team Summit.
“Now we build on this,” Herold said. “This should help our recruiting.”
Since it is transitioning to Division I, UNO isn’t eligible to compete in the postseason until 2016, so Saturday’s 2 p.m. game is the end of the season. Meanwhile, South Dakota State is moving on as the top seed for the Summit tournament.
“We don’t have any more after this weekend, but this is a heck of a way to end it,” Herold said.
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