LAKE CHARLES — With Nicholls trailing UNO by two runs in the fifth inning on Saturday, eight-hole hitter Wes Toups forced Jacob Mead to throw 11 two-out pitches, coming close to line-drive hits down both lines but watching them land foul.
Toups, in his third year with the team after transferring from LSU, straightened the ball out on the last one, driving a run-scoring double to right field.
The Colonels never looked back on their way to their first Southland Conference tournament championship since 1998, going ahead for good on nine-hole hitter Kaden Amundson’s two-run double down the left-field line, extending the lead with three more runs in the sixth and beating the Privateers 6-3 at Joe Miller Ballpark.
It was another typical performance. Nicholls backed up its regular-season title, doing whatever it took to win during a 4-0 run through the tournament and completing a dramatic turnaround under second-year coach Mike Silva. The Colonels (34-22) had only one base-runner until the fifth on Saturday, and that one was erased immediately on a double-play grounder.
“That was typical us,” Silva said. “It didn’t look pretty and looked like it was going to get away from us, and then we got timely hits like we did all week. I’m just really happy for our kids, our program and our community. I really don’t know how to put it in words right now.”
Once Nicholls took the lead, UNO (35-24) was in trouble despite leading the Southland in runs scored during the regular season. In the sixth, the Colonels turned to their impeccable bullpen, with Nico Saltaformaggio extending their tournament-long scoreless string to 16⅓ by blanking the Privateers through three innings before giving up a solo home run to Miguel Useche leading off the ninth.
UNO, which scored five runs in the ninth to rally past Northwestern State on Friday night, could not work the same magic against Nicholls closer Cade Evans. He struck out Anthony Herron, coaxed an easy groundout from Jeissy de la Cruz and struck out Tejeda on three pitches, leading to the second wild on-field celebration in front of the Privateers in eight days. The Colonels clinched the regular-season championship at Maestri Field last Friday.
“The bullpen scuffled a little bit in the middle of the year, but they got their confidence down the stretch,” Silva said. “We felt like if we were going to win this thing that they were going to have to shut the door for us. It’s huge.”
Starter Michael Quevedo (4-2) got the win, pitching five innings.
Fourth-seeded UNO, which won two of three from Nicholls last weekend, lost both matchups with the Colonels in Lake Charles, falling 5-3 in the winners’ bracket final early Friday.
“We just got outplayed,” coach Blake Dean said. “They walked four guys all tournament, and we gave up the hit-by-pitch and a four-pitch walk after two outs (in the fifth) and couldn’t get out of it. We had to get the zero. They made the plays when it mattered. We didn’t.
“From where this thing was eight years ago before I got here, the guys have done everything they can do to make this university the best they can.”
UNO starter Brandon Mitchell did what he could, throwing three shutout innings before leaving on a pitch count after going eight innings in Wednesday night’s opening-game victory against Lamar. The Privateers went ahead 2-0 on Jorge Tejeda’s two-out, two-run homer to left field off Michael Quevedo.
The Colonels saw that two-out damage and went one-run better in the same situation off Blanchard and Mead (1-1).
“The energy from our fans in the stands and listening to my teammates just cheer me on from the dugout, I just really didn’t want to give in and let them down,” Toups said of his momentum-changing hit. “I just kept grinding it out and eventually got a pitch that I could handle and put a good swing on it.”
Amundson’s double went right over the third-base bag, making the score 3-2. The Colonels did their damage in the sixth on a bases-loaded double by Austin Cain and another double by Garrett Felix.
Pitching and defense took care of the rest. Cain made an outstanding diving play and throw to first for the initial out of the seventh inning, preventing the Privateers from starting a rally.
By then, the Colonels could taste their first regional appearance in 25 years in front of a throng of fans who made the two-and-half hour drive from Thibodaux.
Nicholls will find out where it headed Monday on the NCAA selection show.
“For this team and this community, it’s indescribable,” said Southland tournament MVP Xane Washington, who finished 6 for 14 with four walks in Lake Charles. “We had a great season last year building the foundation, and to get it done this year is special.”