AIKEN --- Kenny Thomas is hurting.
When you put this story down, the USC Aiken baseball coach will still be in pain.
Fans will walk up to Thomas in the coming days and weeks and congratulate him on another 40-win season and a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Division II Regionals. The praise, he said, will be hard to accept. Last year, the Pacers advanced to the regional championship series but lost twice to fall just short of the College World Series. On Sunday, at home no less, USC Aiken had another opportunity to punch their World Series ticket.
Instead, the fifth-ranked Pacers watched Belmont Abbey's players form a large red dogpile after their 11-5 victory in the Southeast Regional championship at Roberto Hernandez Stadium.
Unranked Belmont Abbey (38-24) advanced to its first College World Series, which starts Saturday in Cary, N.C. USC Aiken ended its season at 42-19.
"It was a pretty good season. But for me, it's tough," Thomas said. "I want to get over that hump.
"Last year after we lost, I felt like I let the whole city of Aiken down. This year, I feel like I let myself down a little bit."
After dropping the regional opener Thursday to Belmont Abbey, USC Aiken rallied for four consecutive victories to advance to the finals. The Pacers, playing their third game in 20 hours, needed to defeat the Crusaders twice to keep their season alive.
USC Aiken never gave itself a chance to force another game. The top hitting team in the Peach Belt Conference managed eight hits the first seven innings against John Meritt (3-1). When the Pacers got on base early, they bungled their opportunities -- something Thomas said could have stemmed from fatigue.
"We should be able to play on emotion if we're tired," he said. "When we got here this morning, I thought they were ready to play."
Former Evans standout Ken Raborn's RBI double gave USC Aiken a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Later, with Raborn at second and Nick Aranas at first with two outs, Jamie Benjamin blasted a one-hop single to right. Raborn circled too far around third, while Aranas charged hard toward third. Raborn was tagged out in a rundown.
In the second, Gary Asbill led off with a walk and moved to second on John Sherrer's sacrifice. Asbill later was picked off at second to end the inning.
"It's no big secret that we're aggressive," Thomas said. "But there's a little bit of a difference between stupid base-running and being aggressive."
USC Aiken starter Jeremy Smith pitched 7q innings, allowing six runs on 10 hits. The junior right-hander (6-4) got into trouble in the third when he allowed an RBI double to Tyler McKenzie. Daniel Kassouf followed two batters later with an RBI single. Then, Danny Brion launched a fastball over the right-center fence. The Crusaders led 4-1.
Belmont Abbey got into the regional as the sixth and final seed by winning the Conference Carolinas Tournament. The Crusaders won four consecutive games to advance to the eight-team finals.
"This might be the biggest thing that's ever happened to our athletic department," said Belmont Abbey coach Kermit Smith, whose team entered the regional with one previous postseason win.
"We all knew we could do it," said Kassouf, the regional's Most Outstanding Player. "It was just a matter of putting it all together."
USC Aiken, which defeated Belmont Abbey twice in the regular season, left 23 men on base in two regional games against the Crusaders. The Pacers, who averaged 9.4 runs a game, scored 10 runs total in those losses.
Pacers first baseman Travis Howard, who tied the Peach Belt record for RBI in a season (103) Saturday, needed one more to tie the national record. He went 1-for-5 with no RBI.
USC Aiken's lone consolation prize was four players named to the all-regional team: senior second baseman Raborn, sophomore third baseman Aranas, sophomore right fielder Alex Franklin and senior pitcher Justin Fry.
Thomas was in no mood for consolation after the game. He could only think of what might have been.
"I'm really disappointed with being a bridesmaid," he said. "That's going to be hard for me live with for a while.
"It'll be a hard summer."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org