MOUNT OLIVE, N.C. – Nick Aranas drove in four runs with a pair of bases-loaded singles and Gary Owens retired both batters he faced in the top of the ninth as No. 3 seed USC Aiken held off No. 1 seed and nationally top-ranked Mount Olive in the winner’s bracket final of the NCAA Division II Baseball South Atlantic Regional Saturday at Scarborough Field on the campus of Mount Olive College. The Trojans twice cut a three-run deficit down to one and had two runners in scoring position in the final inning.
The win advances USC Aiken to the championship game Sunday at 1 p.m. Mount Olive plays an elimination game Saturday at 7 p.m. against the winner of No. 2 seed Columbus State and No. 5 seed Belmont Abbey.
USC Aiken (47-15) took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second and added a pair of runs in the third. Jamie Benjamin doubled to right with one out on a ball that appeared to be a routine fly out and the Pacers loaded the bases on an intentional walk to Chad Jacobsen and a single by Ken Raborn. Aranas followed with a single through the right side to extend the lead to 3-0.
Mount Olive (51-6) loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the fourth on singles by Jesse Lancaster and Jason Sherrer sandwiched around a walk to Alex Vertcnik. The Trojans plated two runs on sacrifice flies by Erik Lovett and Rich Racobaldo to pull within 3-2.
USC Aiken answered with a pair of unearned runs in the bottom of the fourth as John Sherrer and Cody McMorris both reached on errors to lead off the inning. After a sacrifice moved the runners to second and third, Jacobsen was intentionally walked for the second time to load the bases. Trojan starter Michael Williams (8-2) stuck out Raborn, but Aranas lined a single to left to make the score 5-2.
The Trojans pulled within 5-3 in the sixth as Sherrer hit a leadoff single, went to second on a wild pitch and scored on Racobaldo’s single up the middle. But USC Aiken answered in the bottom of the frame on Raborn’s third home run of the regional, a solo shot over the left field fence.
USC Aiken threatened to break the game open in the bottom of the seventh off of Trojan reliever Todd Jeffreys. Owens reached on an error to lead off the inning and the Pacers had the bases loaded with two outs. But Jeffreys struck out Jacobsen to end the inning.
Pacer starter Dustin Tyra (5-2) retired the first two batters on three pitches in the top of the eighth before issuing a two-out walk to Racobaldo. Josh Harrison followed with a single to right and Racobaldo came home on Dylan Holton’s single through the right side. Pinch-hitter Joseph Westbrook drove a 1-0 pitch through the middle to plate Harrison and pull the Trojans within a run. After Mark Yarbrough replaced Tyra on the mound and ended the inning when second baseman Raborn snagged David Cooper’s sinking line drive.
Jeffreys retired the side in order in the bottom of the eighth to keep it a one-run game.
In the top of the ninth, Vertcnik singled through the right side with one out and Sherrer followed with a double down the left field line to give the Trojans runners on second and third. For the second game in a row, Owens moved from right field to the mound and got a strikeout for the second out. Racobaldo hit a chopper down the left field line that landed just foul and the game ended on the next pitch when Aranas caught a line drive at third.
The loss ended Mount Olive’s eight-game winning streak.
USC Aiken needs only one win to capture the regional and advance to the national finals May 24-31 at Sauget, Ill. Mount Olive needs to win Saturday night and defeat USC Aiken twice Sunday.