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Golden: Poise under pressure pushes Horns to Omaha's doorstep

  • The Horns will start senior right-hander Tristan Stephens in Game 2.
  • Texas is one win away from capturing the super regional and playing in a record 37th College World Series.
  • Righthander Ty Madden threw 6 2.3 innings of shutout ball, in what was probably his last start at Disch-Falk Field.

If the players in the home dugout at UFCU Disch-Falk Field had ducked following Friday’s super regional opener, we all would have understood.

Instead, the No. 2 Texas Longhorns were engaged in a wild postgame celebration after a 4-3 win over would-be giant killer South Florida pulled the program to within one win of returning to the College World Series for a record 37th time.

More:Texas 4, South Florida 3: Walk-off win inches Longhorns closer to the College World Series

More:NCAA baseball: Texas vs. South Florida Game 1 highlights

Eric Kennedy, a nine-hole hitter with plenty of pop in his bat, was the most sought-after person of the 7,000-plus assembled at Disch-Falk Field after his ninth-inning walk-off double not only saved his team from a possible crushing collapse but earned him the title of young closer Tanner Witt’s new best friend.

The other Longhorns chased Kennedy around the outfield and tore off his No. 30 jersey because they just wanted to grab him, shake him and do whatever it is young athletes do to teammates who just delivered the goods at crunch time.

Texas left fielder Eric Kennedy, center, celebrates his walk-off hit against South Florida with catcher Silas Ardoin (4) on Saturday at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. Kennedy's ninth-inning double scored Ardoin in Texas' 4-3 win in Game 1 of the super regional. The Horns are one win from qualifying for the College World Series for a record 37th time.

During his postgame interview on the field, Kennedy, as is the custom in baseball circles, received a conquering hero’s face full of shaving cream, courtesy of teammate Zach Zubia.

“That stuff burns,” he said to reporters after a quick trip to the clubhouse sink. But it didn’t sting nearly as much as an opening loss to a prohibitive underdog would have, especially with the Horns emerging as a sexy pick to win a seventh national title after such a dominating performance in the Austin Regional last weekend.

As for the rest of the team, ducking was certainly in order because the Horns, quite simply, avoided a 15th round knockout blow thrown by the college baseball version of Buster Douglas. Unlike Mike Tyson, an indestructible champion who was knocked out by Buster, a 42-1 underdog, the lone Big 12 heavyweight remaining in the NCAA Tournament climbed off the canvas to turn back the upset bid.

The Bulls, as it turns out, are tons better than their 31-29 record and played nothing like the bunch that stood at 22-26 just a couple of weeks ago before reeling off nine wins over their next 11 games — including killers over Miami, Florida and South Alabama in the Gainesville Regional last weekend.

The Bulls are a free-swinging bunch who couldn’t figure out a way to come up with the clutch hits they needed to get after Texas staff ace Ty Madden. He pitched 6 2/3 innings of scoreless yet uneven ball and left to multiple hugs, a standing ovation and a curtain call in what was likely his last start at the Disch before becoming a top-10 pick in next month’s MLB draft.

Texas catcher Silas Ardoin greets pitcher Ty Madden on the mound before he exits the game against South Florida on Saturday. Madden threw 6  2/3 innings of shutout ball in what was probably his last start at Disch-Falk Field.

All appeared to be in order after Witt, a savvy, sturdy freshman who is the prime candidate to take over Madden’s Friday night starting role next season, left runners stranded to end the seventh then came back to sit the Bulls down in order in the eighth.

Daniel Cantu’s homer to lead off the ninth caused a ripple but served as little more than touch-up because Kennedy’s eighth-inning sacrifice fly had brought in Trey Faltine with an important insurance run for a 3-0 lead. Things appeared to be back in order after Witt retired the next to batters, but Drew Brutcher’s towering, two-strike blast cleared the right field wall with plenty of room to spare to tie the game.

Any air that was in Disch-Falk before Brutcher’s swing left seconds before it bounced off Comal St.

Challenges like these reveal a team’s character and the Horns — as is the custom with really good teams — went back to work as if they give up ninth-inning leads as often as they take BP.

Kennedy’s heroics will go down in Disch-Falk lore, but his first-pitch drive off the base of the centerfield wall would not have happened had catcher Silas Ardoin not beaten the throw to first after South Florida shortstop Nick Gonzalez, an extremely slick glove, bobbled his two-out chopper.

Maybe it was the presence of Longhorn legends Cliff Gustafson, Keith Moreland and Greg Swindell in the stadium. Maybe it was a filled Disch-Falk Field. Or perhaps, the Horns just understand that effort and confidence are the best of companions and when combined, can lead to baseball magic.

Coach David Pierce understands the psychology of the sport and knows his team received the best kind of wakeup call, though the Horns were far from sleepy. They just had problems getting a handle on the pitches USF starter Jack Jasiak, who held the Horns to three hits though the first five innings.

Credit Texas for responding on short notice to a real crisis — in their own house no less —  and more importantly, for not hitting the panic button after bad things took place.

For a roster awash in young players, the 46-15 Horns showed veteran grit at a time the fans in attendance were busy trying to pinch themselves to make sure the Bulls had actually tied the game after being held at bay for most of the night.

“It didn’t faze us,” Pierce said. “We weren’t perfect — we never are — but that’s what we strive for. But I’ll tell you this ... I’ll go to bat with these guys any day. Tough as nails.”

With only two players on the roster with postseason experience before this season, the Horns are pretty new at this, but they showed an old school maturity when their mettle was tested at the most unlikeliest of times and on a night they could only muster six hits.

Now they’re on the doorstep of making it to a stage thousands of kids in America dream of performing on before a national television audience. Rosenblatt Stadium was the mecca of college baseball, but now it's TD Ameritrade Park. Either way, the Horns are aching for the program’s first trip to the final eight since 2018.

Pierce expects his to arrive for Game 2 prepared to handle business with expectations of a play-to-the-death attitude coming from across the field in a tough-minded visitor’s dugout.

The Bulls got Texas’ attention. The Horns had better not give them the oxygen they need to force a one-game playoff for all the marbles. I would favor Texas in that scenario, though the Horns understand by now that USF has already slain some notable dragons just to make it to Austin.

“I just think they’re going to be ready to go (in Game 2),” Pierce said. “I don’t know all their emotions right now except that they’re pumped and they want to go to Omaha.”

Their confidence will be up for sure.

And those chins had better be down this time.