The Walk-on Walk-off

It’s a scenario every baseball-loving kid has played out a million times in their head: The bottom of the ninth. Tie game. The championship is on the line. A single swing of the bat can win the game.

And the former walk-on Steele Netterville got to live that childhood dream.

On a 2-1 count… Netterville popped out to the shortstop.

If that doesn’t quite sound right, it’s because that’s what happened a year ago. In the championship match against Old Dominion, Netterville had a chance to take home the trophy (or rather, keep the trophy in Ruston), and failed.

But on a 2-2 count in 2022, Netterville did not fail again.

Watching the game on CBS Sports, everything almost happened too quickly to process. The pitch. The swing. We see Steele take a single step before the TV production switches over to the wide shot. The ball bounces just over the first base bag and just inside the foul line.

Riggs Easterling, pinch-running here to take advantage of his speed, is already a third of the way home. The camera zooms and tracks the ball as it rolls all the way to the wall. The first base umpire, almost out of frame now, sticks his right hand out and points fair.

The Bulldogs have won the Conference USA tournament.

Of course, the broadcast doesn’t end there, even if the length of this game has cut into CBS Sports Network’s coverage of the PWBA Twin Cities Open bowling tournament in Minnesota.

The next angle we see is a close-up of Easterling, whose speed allows him to cross the plate well before the camera has time to change back to see him. His helmet bounces to the ground beside him. A jubilant smile on his face, Riggs sprints out of frame to join his teammates in the dogpile near second base.

But the broadcast doesn’t switch to view the celebration spilling out onto the outfield grass just yet. Instead, the camera pans over to the UTSA dugout, where some of the Roadrunners just stare down the first baseline in disbelief.

It’s a familiar feeling. The Bulldogs have experienced similar heartbreak routinely throughout their nine years in Conference USA. The Louisiana Tech football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and baseball teams (the so-called “money sports”) have played in a combined six conference championships before yesterday’s game.

There was the 2014 football loss to Marshall. The 2014 men’s basketball loss to Tulsa. The 2016 football loss to Western Kentucky. The 2021 baseball loss to Old Dominion. The 2022 women’s basketball loss to Charlotte. The 2022 men’s basketball loss to UAB.

But the seventh time is the charm. 

With Southern Miss, Old Dominion, and Marshall bailing for the Sun Belt and the academic calendar coming to a close, this was the final championship in the final year of this iteration of Conference USA. Tech will remain in C-USA (for now), but this was one last chance to win a championship in the version of the conference that we’ve come to know (and often hate).

It was a high fastball that was delivered to Steele Netterville at 5:17 PM on May 29, 2022. UTSA’s Braylon Owens was going for the strikeout with this 2-2 pitch.

A swing-and-a-miss and the game goes to extras. A swing-and-a-miss and UTSA has a chance to win in the same fashion that ODU did a year prior. A swing-and-a-miss and Louisiana Tech athletics may have finished 0-and-7 in C-USA Championship games.

But Steele Netterville didn’t miss.

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