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May 19, 2010
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Sporting a newly-trimmed Mohawk, senior Matt Branham (Columbia, S.C./Spring Valley) did some mowing of his own on Wednesday night in the final game of his collegiate career, as he struck out eight to set two USC Upstate baseball team records to lead the Spartans to an 8-6 win over William & Mary in the season finale at Harley Park.
Branham (6-3) won his 17th career game by tossing seven strong innings, allowing just two seventh-inning runs. In between, he struck out eight batters, first tying his own single-season strikeout record with a third inning leadoff strikeout of Derek Lowe. In the fifth, he broke the record he set in 2009 with his 83rd punchout of the year with a leadoff strikeout of Sean Aiken.
"I knew about the records before, but strikeouts weren't what I was trying to do," Branham said. "I was just trying to help the team win, but I had a couple chances to get the record-breaking strikeout and I didn't get it, so after I got that one, I was glad it was over."
In the sixth, he broke the school's career strikeout record, passing Scott Eckard (2005-08) with his 262nd career K, striking out Tadd Bower swinging.
"Scott Eckard is a great guy," Branham added. "I roomed with him on the road my first two years here and I still talk to him. He came down to watch us play a couple times when we were in Florida. I look at him as the best pitcher that has been in this program. I look at it as something special to break a record he had." After that, he added two more punchouts to give him eight in the game, 86 on the season and 264 in his career.
"Matt was focused (Wednesday)," senior Jimmy Tanner (Fayetteville, Ga./Starr's Mill) said. "He had his mindset that he was going to do something and he did it. He brought his best stuff."
Branham wasn't the only senior to post a special night, as both seniors Brian Dempsey (Montverde, Fla./East Ridge) and Tanner also did damage to the tune of five hits, four RBI and two runs combined for Upstate (19-37 overall). Senior Tyler Oliver (Lawrenceville, Ga./Collins Hill) shut the door on the Tribe (27-21 overall), tossing the final two innings of the game and getting out of a jam with the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning.
Dempsey got Upstate started early, blooping a single into right to lead off. After a flyout, Tanner lined a single into right field to move Dempsey to third, where he scored on a fielder's choice after sophomore Tyler Cook (Bloomington, Ill./University) was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
"It's been obvious that I've been inconsistent over my four years," Dempsey said. "To be able to help us get this last win, to be the firestarter (Wednesday), it meant a lot."
The Spartans added to the lead in the second inning, as junior Andre Harris (Grand Rapids, Mich./Grand Rapids C.C.) led off with a first-pitch rip up the middle. After freshman Tyler Miller (Fort Mill, S.C./Fort Mill) was hit by a pitch, freshman Brody Greer (Honea Path, S.C./Belton-Honea Path) reached on a fielder's choice, beating out an infield ground ball double play attempt.
Dempsey followed with a single through the right side on a hit-and-run, scoring Harris from third and Greer scored on a single through the right side by freshman Gaither Bumgardner (Fort Lawn, S.C./Great Falls), giving the Spartans a 3-0 lead.
Upstate added three more runs in the fourth inning as Harris led off with a walk. After a strikeout, Greer singled up the middle and both moved up a base on a wild pitch, enabling Harris to score on a groundout. Bumgardner followed with a single through the left side to score Greer, then Bumgardner stole his team-leading seventh base of the season, setting up an RBI single through the right side by Tanner.
"It always helps when people are on base ahead of you," Tanner said. "I feel more comfortable. The defense works towards my favor when runners are on base and I feel like I have a chance to move them around out there."
The Spartans added two more runs in the sixth, as Miller led off with a walk and moved to second on a wild pitch. After a flyout, Dempsey delivered his team-leading 14th double of the year to score Miller and then he scored after stealing third, trotting home on an error on the throw to third to give the Spartans an 8-0 lead.
The Tribe finally combined three hits for two runs in the seventh inning, taking Branham out of the game. In the ninth, the Tribe scored four runs off Oliver, with a three-RBI double from Chris Forsten providing the big blow, but Oliver settled down to get a strikeout and a groundout to end the game.
Dempsey went 3-for-5 with two runs, a double, a stolen base and three RBI to lead the Spartans as he finished with a career-high .308 batting average.
"The coaching staff really helped a lot," Dempsey said. "When I came in, I was really raw, so really, everything that I've accomplished has been because of them. I am a fiery guy, but somehow they got me to calm it down and once I did, I listened to what they said and I came down here and worked every day. What they are selling works and I think I am proof of that."
Tanner added two hits and an RBI to finish his season with a career-high .364 average. He also finished his career with a school-record 259 hits.
Bumgardner also added two hits, a run, a stolen base and two RBI for the Upstate offense and Harris and Greer each scored two runs.
The Tribe were led by four hits from Derrick Osteen, who added a run and RBI and Jonathan Slattery also added a 2-for-5 game.
The Spartans finished the season with a 19-37 overall record. Prior to the game, the team's five seniors, Branham, Dempsey, Oliver, Barrett Stover (Durham, N.C./Lenoir C.C.) and Tanner were honored in a Senor Day ceremony.
"This night was huge for me," Dempsey said. "This is the most four-year seniors we have had in my time here and the fact that all of us put a mark on the program is special. Those guys are not just my teammates, I was really close to them, so I can't really explain how it feels."