ONE AT A TIME: Postseason run driven by MSSU's senior leadership

May 17—With a 7-6 walk-off victory Thursday night in the opening round of the Central Region tournament at Warren Turner Field, Missouri Southern State University pushed its winning streak to six games, and, more importantly, moved into the winners' bracket of the regional.

Now, just two more wins and the No. 2 seed Lions will be moving on to play in a super regional.

But the baseball team isn't looking ahead.

Not even one game ahead.

"We have to focus on one game at a time. Trying to stay in that winners' bracket is huge," MSSU senior shortstop Henry Kusiak said.

Southern is guided by the veteran leadership of Kusiak and his seven fellow seniors: Kyle Stoddard (out for season with injury), Jacob Davis, Garrett Rice, Brandon Overman, Cale McCallister, Tyler Ferguson and Drew Davis.

Head coach Bryce Darnell has spoken this year about the importance of these guys and not only the ones getting all the playing time but those on the bench as well to stay ready and to be lively in the dugout cheering the team on.

Even for a guy like Stoddard, who knows his career has come to a close, sticking around and being a teammate have been beneficial.

"We have great senior leaders. And that leadership isn't just on the field," Darnell said. "I can't say enough about the way our seniors conduct their business."

Some of those senior leaders, like Overman, McCallister and Davis, are pitchers, so they spend the majority of games in the dugout or bullpen lifting teammates up.

MSSU's six straight wins have all been in the postseason. It ended the regular season dropping its last game with the University of Central Missouri at Warrensburg. Since then, it has beaten Northwest Missouri twice (12-1, 10-4), Pittsburg State University (9-5), Washburn University (8-4) and UCM (18-16) — all in the MIAA conference tournament.

That win over UCM was a statement victory for the Lions.

"It was a big win for us to show them that we're meant to be there and see what we can do further on," MSSU outfielder Davis said.

The Lions have had to grind out the last two wins in the 34-run battle with UCM last Saturday and then the walk-off win Thursday. That shows a bit of how much it means to this team and its seniors.

"It means everything. We've put a lot of work in and a lot of hours. It's kind of cliche, but this team's put a lot of hours in together and I think we have the experience now," Davis said.

That experience Davis is referring to is after hosting the Central Region last year. The Lions dropped their second game in 2023 and had to fight back, making it tougher to win the region. They reached the championship but couldn't pick up two wins over Minnesota State-Mankato.

Now, the Lions have that experience in the regional tournament after not making it at all since before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 2019 was the last time MSSU made the regional before 2023.

"I think that puts us ahead of the game for sure. Like I said, I think last year we were a little behind," Davis said. "Now we know winning those first two games is huge, and if we can do that I think we have a great shot at winning it all (regional No. 2)."

MSSU likes to look at how it has responded all year as a sign of where this team is at. It has only lost 13 games, and only three times has it dropped back-to-back contests. The Lions haven't lost three games in a row at any point in the season.

"It's a baseball season, so we've had some rough patches. How are you going to respond to those? How are you going to answer those. That's a lot of what it's about and how we are as a team," Kusiak said.

Knowing this team rarely drops back-to-back games and the fact its on a six-game streak could work as some momentum in the postseason.

"I mean, you hope so. But momentum is only good until you play your next game," Darnell said. "You feel like some of our guys are playing their best baseball right now, which is what it takes to advance in the playoffs, but at the same time we have plenty of work to do."

The Lions' next game is set for 5 p.m. Friday against No. 6 in the Central Region field in Arkansas-Monticello (33-22). Monticello has won its last two games. That was a Great American Conference championship win over Arkansas Tech a week ago and then a Central Region opener win over Arkansas Tech on Thursday afternoon. Tech was seeded third in the region and Monticello sixth.

The Lions faced Monticello on Feb. 3 in a neutral-site game and won 10-6.

The leadership turns into a will to go and win every single game. The six-game winning streak has improved the Lions' record to 43-13 overall. On Wednesday, the NCBWA had them up from No. 7 in the country to No. 6.

"I feel like this group has great leadership. I feel like this group has a great desire to win," Darnell said. "That doesn't mean it's going to happen but I feel like we always give ourselves a really good chance. Credit to the guys' willingness to do whatever it takes to win."


They aren't looking ahead. It's just one game at a time, like Kusiak said. But he admits they've talked about the big goal everyone wants to accomplish.

"We've talked all year that we have the group that can go to Cary (North Carolina). If we're there, we'll see what we can do, right? We've talked about going there and that's what we're trying to do," Kusiak said.

Regardless of whether the Division II College World Series is in the cards for the Lions, it's all about enjoying this run while it's happening.

"We have a good group of guys who enjoy each other and have fun," Kusiak added.

Check for the latest scores, which were not available at press time.