by Anthony Harrison
Spartans fans peppered the navy seats behind the home plate of UNCG Baseball Stadium. Some munched popcorn as the PA system pumped generic hard rock. The boys in white and dark-blue pinstripes warmed up by throwing from base to base.
But while the Spartans wore the same, familiar uniform, the seated faithful sported different garb: Hoodies, knit caps and boots subbed in for the familiar jerseys, baseball hats and sneakers of a summer game. Because it was chilly. It’s February, after all.
The visiting Binghamton University Bearcats — of Vestal, NY, near the Pennsylvania border — may have been more acclimated to playing in the weather on Feb. 26, but on paper, they weren’t ready for a team of UNCG’s caliber. Statistically, UNCG had the game in the bag.
The first inning reinforced that prediction.
In the top, the Spartans defense shuffled out the first three Bearcat batters without breaking a sweat. The hometown offense busted confidently out of the gate as well. Junior catcher Jake Kusz drove a Texas leaguer into shallow right field, batting in sophomore shortstop Tripp Shelton and freshman first-baseman Michael Goss after both simultaneously stole third and second off a strike. Their speed caught Binghamton’s sophomore catcher Jason Agresti off guard.
But after Binghamton found themselves on the board, they also found some momentum.
UNCG had some nice at-bats over the next two innings, but couldn’t get much going as Bearcats fielding halted any opportunities to pad their lead. The Spartan defense kept up their end of the bargain, as well, even recording a clutch 4-6-3 double play in the top of the third.
But they had no idea of the coming storm.
At the start of the fifth, UNCG junior right-hander Hunter Smith’s throwing became scattered. He walked sophomore shortstop Paul Rufo. After a wild pitch, Rufo stole second. Then Spartan junior second-baseman Ben Spitznagel muffed a play, allowing what could have been a routine out at first to turn into an RBI single, with Rufo the tying run.
The floodgates opened.
Bearcats senior third-baseman David Schanz hit an RBI single two batters later. Next, senior second-baseman Reed Gamache drove in another run. So did junior first-baseman Brendan Skidmore. Agresti stole home.
A short mound visit led to a change in staff after the side restarted. Sophomore right-hander Andrew Wantz took over pitching duties.
But changing horses midstream helped nothing.
After senior leftfielder Eddie Posavec walked, Rufo shot a single to left field, batting in two more runs.
By the time the Spartans threw out freshman rightfielder Chris McGee at first, Binghamton had demolished any memory of UNCG’s lead. The score stood at a seemingly insurmountable 8-2.
“After the fifth inning, I got the guys together,” Spartans head coach Link Barrett said after the game. “I told them, ‘Half the game’s over, but we got half a game left to play.’”
When freshman left-hander Zach Kuchmaner took the mound for the Spartans, he slowed Binghamton’s tempo, striking out the third batter to retire the side.
“Yeah, Cooch!” a fan yelled. “There you go, take it to ’em!”
As the sun set, the Spartans fought back with their namesakes’ vigor.
Senior third baseman Collin Woody slammed a comfy double just inside the centerfield wall. He was driven home after a Spitznagel hit bounced off Rufo’s glove. When UNCG’s junior designated hitter Dillon Stewart got beaned at the plate, three men were on base, and Binghamton replaced senior right-hander Mike Bunal with sophomore right-hander Dylan Stock.
Freshman centerfielder Andrew Moritz next stepped up for the Spartans. Boy, did he ever step up.
Stock’s first pitch saw Moritz float a double directly between left and center, and three UNCG runners crossed home.
The rookie had put his team back in the game. The Spartans didn’t let up on the aggression with their second lease on life.
Senior rightfielder LJ Kalawaia batted in another run with a single, then demonstrated a base-running clinic, stealing second and third, positioning himself as the tying run.
Woody stepped up to two outs. The new Bearcats pitcher, right-handed junior Nicholas Liegi, looked to strike him out. He kept Woody at home for a full count.
But Woody showed him that Greensboro is Sparta, slamming a two-RBI single.
Like that, the Spartans led 9-8.
Stewart padded UNCG’s lead with an RBI off a sacrifice fly after the seventh-inning stretch.
At the top of the ninth, the Spartans still held a two-run lead.
Binghamton senior third-baseman David Schanz secured a grounder single off Spitznagel’s glove. Sophomore right-handed reliever Chad Sykes walked Gamache. Then Agresti put Schanz in scoring position with a sacrifice bunt.
The entire infield joined Jarrett at the mound for a conference. I couldn’t read Sykes’ lips, but his coach gave him an encouraging butt pat, and Sykes didn’t leave his post.
There was no conversation after Skidmore hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield, giving Schanz time to cross home. No one in the dugout flinched when a wild pitch put Gamache on third as the tying run.
Instead, Sykes stared down the Bearcats DH, sophomore Pat Britt.
Swinging strike. A close ball drew boos from the crowd. Another swinging strike, one that Britt wanted to see fly over the wall.
Britt swung hard again — strikeout.
The tiny crowd erupted. Final score: 10-9, Spartans.
UNCG faced this formidable foe for the next two days, both victories: 5-2 on Saturday and a decisive 19-4 Sunday win.
“It’ll be more of the same,” Barrett said on Friday night. “We’re gonna have to pitch. We’re gonna tighten things up defensively to keep damage to a minimum.
“But we were down 3-0 the other day [against Elon University],” he added. “Two games in a row, to come back from behind? That’s a unique trait for a team to have.”