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'I hope they win the whole thing': Texas moves on after beating Air Force for regional crown

Danny Davis
Austin American-Statesman

On Sunday night, the Texas baseball team won for the 45th time this season.

Two more victories and the Longhorns can book a trip to Omaha.

After jumping out to an early lead, Texas cruised and closed out the weekend with a 10-1 win over Air Force at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. With the victory, the 45-19 Longhorns claimed the Austin Regional title and advanced to the super regional section of the NCAA Tournament.

With a trip to the College World Series on the line, Texas will face East Carolina this upcoming weekend. The Longhorns will travel to Greenville, N.C., for the super regionals since the Pirates defeated Coastal Carolina 13-4 in the Greenville Regional final. Texas has never faced East Carolina.

"Regional champs is something pretty special," Texas coach David Pierce said. "We don't take that for granted."

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The designated visitors on Sunday, Texas quickly dictated the evening's tone. During a game-opening half-inning that lasted 26 minutes, Texas outlasted two reviews and a pitching change while recording five hits, five runs and some history.

That history came in the form of a two-run homer by Ivan Melendez. That home run was the 30th of Melendez's sensational season. The last Division I baseball player to hit 30 home runs was San Diego's Kris Bryant in 2013.

Between Melendez's homer and regional MVP Skyler Messinger fielding the game's final groundout at third base, Texas was never challenged. Two solo shots by Dylan Campbell and RBI doubles from Silas Ardoin and Trey Faltine helped UT pad its lead.

Texas finished with 13 hits. Over its three games at the Austin Regional, UT averaged 8.7 runs and 12 hits.

"They're a great team and I hope they win the whole thing so we can say we lost to the champion," Air Force outfielder Gabriel Garcia said.

Texas infielders Murphy Stehly, left, Ivan Melendez, center, and outfielder Dylan Campbell celebrate a home run by Melendez during the Longhorns' 10-1 win over Air Forice to win the Austin Regional on Sunday at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. Melendez's shot was his 30th of the season.

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Pierce opted to not pitch Zane Morehouse, who had started the third game of UT's final two series in the regular series and the Big 12 Tournament. Instead the committee of Travis Sthele, Jared Southard, Andre Duplantier II and Lebarron Johnson Jr., shut down an Air Force offense that was averaging 8.4 runs per game.

Pierce knew that Texas would lean on the tag-team of Sthele and Duplantier on Sunday. The surprise star was Southard, a product of nearby Rouse High who allowed one hit over three innings. Southard struck out the side in the fourth inning and finished with a career-high six strikeouts.

Southard is now 4-1 with a 2.81 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. In his postgame press conference, the redshirt sophomore said he had been struggling mentally but a recent trip to his old high school helped. Southard was taken aback by the admiration he felt from the current players at Rouse. And while "it's gonna sound really weird," Southard said he picked up a new superstition when one of the Raiders handed him a blue Gatorade.

"I only drink that now," Southard said.

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Sunday marked the fourth time in its last six games that Texas has used a bullpen approach. The strategy did not work over two outings at the Big 12 Tournament. However, it did yield positive results both on Sunday and during a meeting with Oklahoma State that decided who would advance to last month's Big 12 title game.

Texas reliever Jared Southard throws a pitch during the Longhorns' 10-1 win over Air Force to win the Austin Regional on Sunday at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. The Rouse graduate pitched his best game of the season, striking out six over three innings.

"We've been through a lot as a bullpen," Southard said. "A lot of things fall on us, but we kind of just got all together and we were just like, we're not done. We know if we're going to keep going in the postseason, we're going to have to step up and that's what we've done so far."

Key play: Air Force had a chance to counter UT's first-inning outburst and put runners on the corners with two outs in the inning's bottom half. Sthele got Jake Greiving to ground out to end the threat.

Over his first three games against Texas this season, Greiving drove in six runs. Two of those RBIs came on a homer that he hit off Sthele on April 20.

Notable number: 11. Under Pierce, UT is 11-2 in regional games. The Longhorns won regional titles in 2018, 2021 and 2022. Texas reached the championship game of the Long Beach State regional in 2017.

Texas missed the NCAA Tournament in 2019. Because of the pandemic, no postseason tournament was held in 2020.

Up next: Texas won't know what is next until East Carolina (44-19) and Coastal Carolina (39-19-1) meet at noon tomorrow. The Longhorns have never played a game against either the Pirates or the Chanticleers.

An NCAA Tournament participant for the first time since 1969, Air Force finished its season with a 32-29 record and a 2-2 showing at the Austin Regional. Air Force coach Mike Kazlausky said the Falcons will return to Texas for a midweek game next April.