Late-game heroics lift Howard to second JUCO title

Howard Junior College wins the 2009 JUCO World Series.

howard college’s zach neal was the real deal at JUCO, throwing fire for the Hawks, who defeated Santa Fe in the championship game Friday night.

Dale Murphy signs autographs at Alpine Bank at a JUCO pre-party.

Fireworks at 2009 JUCO

What they accomplished will sink in one day, losing only one game in a 64-game season.

But Friday night, all that mattered was that 63rd win, the one that brought the Howard (Texas) College Hawks the only thing they wanted all along. Howard claimed its second Alpine Bank Junior College World Series championship with a 7-4 win against Santa Fe (Fla.) College in 10 innings.

“This was the goal all along and we said that,” Howard coach Britt Smith said. “We played a ton of games like that and I’ll tell you what, a lot of people around the country had their own opinion and that’s fine. Some said we didn’t play anybody and this and that. We knew what we were made of and our kids remained focused. They were unselfish and remained focused for an entire season. That’s something that hasn’t been done, not to this extent. It’s utterly amazing.”

Howard had to fight off a determined team from Santa Fe (Fla.) College, a team that refused to let a ninth-inning home run by tournament MVP Anthony Collazo be the one that ended its season.

Instead, the Saints came back to tie the game on a double to the gap in right-center by Keon Broxton, which was nearly the game winning hit. Tyler Cook, who had walked, was thrown out on a bang-bang play at the plate.

In the 10th, Nick Popescu singled with two out and a runner on first, and Caleb Nine walked to load the bases against Andy Mee.

Mee then walked Will Calhoun on a full count and Collazo drove a two-run single to left for the cushion the Hawks needed.

Each team scored one run in the first, and Howard took a 3-1 lead in the top of the third on a two-run single up the middle by Monk Kreder.

Back came the Saints, with Ryan Mathews leading off with a double, one of four in the game for Santa Fe. With two out, Jardian Thomas doubled down the right-field line for one run, then came home when Travis Yeckering singled to center.

After that it turned into a good old-fashioned pitchers’ duel and defensive contest.

Collazo saved a run in the fifth when, with two out and a runner on third, he sprinted behind second base to glove a ground ball by Mathews and threw him out.

“We picked it up after we had a lot of mental errors,” Collazo said. “We just forgot about it.”

Smith talked to his club about throttling things down after making 11 errors in two games.

“I told the kids after the Shelton State game, ‘Everybody go home tonight and think about playing about 85 percent instead of 110 percent,’ ’’ he said. “Four of those errors came from trying to do too much.”

The Hawks entered the JUCO World Series with a target as gaudy as their won-loss record. Their only loss came in the Southwestern District tournament, which they avenged the next day by rallying to beat Temple in the title game.

“We never talked about it,” said center fielder Runey Davis, who caught the final out.

“We’d talk about it at night and the next day was a new race, a new day. It was almost like we didn’t know how to lose. We got that loss out our system, which is good.”

Once the Hawks’ winning streak hit about 25 games, they noticed every team they played was coming out just a little more determined to win. That didn’t change in Grand Junction.

“Everybody here wanted to play us,” Smith said. “Everybody wanted that opportunity to knock us off. I’m glad we responded. We didn’t play our best baseball early in the tournament but to overcome that many mistakes and still be able to go through the tournament undefeated says a lot about these kids.”

And the kids were hesitant to leave Suplizio Field. Nearly an hour after the game ended, they were still milling around the infield, not quite ready to see that magical season end.

“I could handle the national championship part of it, but 63-1 is stupid,” pitcher Zach Neal said. “That is something that doesn’t happen, but everyone’s been a witness. It’s been unbelievable.”


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