One day before he trotted out of the bullpen at Lee-Hines Field, ready to shut down a hot-hitting opponent and lead Prairie View to the championship game of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, Steven Lunsford got a message.
He and his catcher, Evan Richard, had gone to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Lunsford cracked open his fortune cookie and showed it to Richard.
It read: You will have plenty of opportunities. Make the most of them.
Saturday afternoon, in a compelling 8-5 victory over Texas Southern that vaulted the Panthers into the title game, Lunsford entered the game in the top of the third inning, his team already in dire straits, trailing by four runs.
At 1 p.m. Sunday, the Panthers (27-23) will face upstart Mississippi Valley State (17-38), with an automatic berth in the NCAA regionals at stake.
“We did a great job of closing this game out today,” said Prairie View fourth-year coach Waskyla Cullivan, a former Southern outfielder, who will try to win his first title Sunday as a college head coach.
“Texas Southern started off with the momentum. ... We just had two big innings, and it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. We’re one game away.”
Sunday, the Panthers will face Valley, a ballclub that surprised everyone this week.
The Delta Devils, who dropped nine consecutive games to finish the regular season, reached the title game after three straight wins — including two against host Southern.
After his team dumped SU on Friday afternoon, longtime coach Doug Shanks wept, recalling many road trips on which his shoestring-budget team ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to save money.
“We took some whippings early. We kept the faith and stayed with it, stayed with it,” said Shanks, who hasn’t been to the title game since ’04, when Valley lost to Texas Southern. “It’s just incredible what this means. I’ve been at this for 13 years, and this’ll be my third time to the championship. I haven’t won it yet. So maybe (the) third time’s a charm.”
Prairie View, the No. 2 Western Division seed, is in the championship game for the first time since winning back-to-back titles in 2007 and ’08 under Michael Robertson — who, as the current coach at archrival Texas Southern, lost to his old team Saturday.
The Panthers won their first two games in this tournament but suffered a 2-0 loss Friday to TSU, the No. 4 West seed.
That forced another game Saturday. Prairie View prevailed, largely because of Lunsford’s performance.
“I was just trying to get ahead of the hitters,” he said.
Cullivan had to go to Lunsford after his starter, Sean Hollis, gave up four runs in 2.2 innings.
Lunsford came in with a plan: Throw first-pitch fastballs for strikes, then throw low curves to get groundball outs.
With his first pitch of the day, he got a double play, ending the top of the third. From there, he kept throwing and getting outs.
By the end of a humid, 88-degree afternoon, he had fired 6.2 innings, giving up one run on four hits. His teammates rallied for five runs in the bottom of the third inning and three more runs in the sixth.
“We worked all year for one game,” said Richard, the catcher. “I told him, ‘Come on with it. We’re not going to lose for you. If you keep it close, we’re going to bring it home.’ That’s what we did.”
Now, the Panthers face upstart Valley, hoping for one more day of good fortune.