Rain and lightning kept pushing back the first pitch of the Conference USA championship game between FIU and the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers on Sunday afternoon.
But once the rain stopped and the lightning passed, the red-hot Panthers jumped out to an early lead and blasted three home runs in an 8-2 victory over the sixth-seeded Blazers to win the C-USA championship and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA regionals, their first invitation since 2011.
The Panthers (29-29) are the first No. 8 seed to win the C-USA championship tournament. The last time FIU claimed a conference title was in 2010 as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The Blazers fell to 33-25.
“Sometimes when you’re waiting that long in a delay you lose your edge, but our guys knew what they were playing for and they came out swinging,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said in a phone interview.
After a 1-hour and 40-minute rain delay, the game between two teams few expected to face off for the conference title finally got underway in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
But in the bottom of the first, after the Panthers led off the inning with back-to-back singles, storm clouds rolled in again and forced both teams back into their respective dugouts for another delay — this one lasting an hour and three minutes.
Once the game resumed, the Panthers picked up where they left off and scored four runs in the first inning to take a lead they would never relinquish. Austin Rodriguez, who hit a grand slam a day earlier in the semifinals, hit a two-out single to drive in runners on second and third base to make it a 4-0 game.
With two outs in the bottom half of the third inning, FIU third baseman Josh Anderson took a fastball left over the plate by Blazers starter James Naile and blasted it off the left-field foul pole for a solo home run.
Shortstop Julius Gaines ended Naile’s outing and sent the Blazers looking to their bullpen for relief in the fifth inning, leading off with a solo home run that went off the top of the scoreboard in left-center field to make it 6-0 game.
While the FIU lineup took care of business at the plate, Panthers starter Chris Mourelle pitched five scoreless innings before giving up the first UAB run in the top of the sixth inning and another in the seventh.
But the Panthers’ ace struck out one batter in seven innings of work to earn his seventh win of the season.
Stephanie Wagner of the University of Miami women’s tennis team fell to Jamie Loeb of North Carolina 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals of the NCAA Singles Championship in Waco, Texas.
“Even though Steffi lost that match today, I’ve got to say she played great. She was incredibly poised,” UM coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She played really the smartest I’ve ever seen her play against Loeb, which is what you need to do.”
Loeb came out strong in the final set, winning each of the first three games. Wagner battled back though, taking two straight games to get within one.
Wagner was not able to get closer than that and Loeb won each of the final three games to take the match.
Wagner finished her junior season as an All-American, a First Team All-ACC selection and the ITA National Player to Watch. She went 21-8 in singles matches, including a 16-5 mark in dual matches, 11-3 in ACC play and 14-8 against ranked opponents.
Yunior Rosete Torres and Adriana Rendon Ventura won the men’s and women’s Half-Iron Triathlon at the Mack Cycle Miami Man Triathlon at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
About 300 participants in three different events: the Half-Iron Triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run), the International Triathlon (.6-mile swim, 29-mile bike, 6.6-mile run), and the Half-Iron Duathlon (1-mile run, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run).
Both triathlons started in the infield lake at the Speedway, while the bicycle and running portions for all three took place around the track, as well as the streets of Homestead. Each race finished on pit road, adjacent to the start-finish line.
Torres of Miami finished the men’s half-iron triathlon in 4:01:34. Ventura of Key Biscayne finished the women’s in 5:19:04.