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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Cinderella Can Play Ball

UE makes an unprecedented run in this season’s NCAA tournament

This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Evansville Living.

For a few days in June, the University of Evansville was the darling of college baseball. The Aces stunned No. 1-ranked Tennessee 10-8 in the second game of the Knoxville Super Regional on June 8, the first time a regional No. 4 seed had defeated the No. 1 overall seed in NCAA tournament history.

UE achieved the “America’s Team” moniker by being the smallest school, by far, to reach this year’s Super Regional round.

“It’s the most incredible experience I’ve ever had,” says UE coach Wes Carroll. He spoke to Evansville Living for its May/June 2024 issue about hosting the Missouri Val- ley Conference Tournament, which UE also won for the second time in the program’s history. “The fact that we captured the country’s imagination and were labeled ‘America’s team’ is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of.”

The next day, the Volunteers eliminated UE 12-1 in the Super Regional championship game on the road to its eventual College World Series victory. It appeared UE, and especially its pitching staff, had run out of gas.

“We knew we had a very challenging game Sunday,” Carroll says.

But what an unprecedented ride it was for the Aces. They captured an NCAA regional championship for the first time, after earning the MVC tournament title in its host role at Braun Stadium-German American Bank Field. At the close of June, the Aces were ranked 23rd in the USA Today Top 25 Coaches’ Poll.

“This created a tremendous amount of momentum, in terms of recognition for the athletic department and the university,” Carroll says. “It was triggered by the gift from Kyle Freeland and hosting the Missouri Valley Conference tournament for the first time since 1998.”

Carroll says he knew he had a talented team. It was a matter of getting healthier, getting better pitching and believing in themselves. Suddenly, it developed into a season for the ages.

“We had a special group of seniors who reshaped the culture of the team,” Carroll says.

Evansville was set up for success, hosting the MVC tournament for the first time at Braun Stadium; it also hosted the 1998 tourney at Bosse Field. The Aces seized the opportunity but had even greater ambitions.

Freeland’s $3 million donation, believed to be the largest gift in UE history, gave the program a tremendous shot in the arm. The No. 8 selection in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies, Freeland hasn’t forgotten his roots. Carroll said the Freeland Clubhouse, which will contain a brand new locker room and coaches office near Braun Stadium, is scheduled to be completed by August 2025. Freeland, a left-handed pitcher, was promoted to the Rockies in 2017.

Evansville loses 11 seniors, including American Baseball Coaches Association/ Rawlings third team all-American Mark Shallenberger, named in a vote of collegiate head coaches. Shallenberger, an outfielder, batted .374 with 17 home runs and 64 runs batted in. Fougerousse, a designated hitter, hit .348 with a school-record 22 homers and 71 RBIs. Kenton Deverman, a left-handed pitcher, earned second-team Freshman All-America honors by the National College Baseball Writers Association. Deverman, who posted a 9-2 record with a 4.22 earned run average for the 39-26 Aces, joined Shellenberger and Fougerousse on the all-Region team.

The ABCA also named Carroll the Midwest Regional Coach of the Year on June 25.

“We return a good amount of impactful players,” Carroll says. “We want to build [on this year’s success and recruit] with the right kind of players who fit our core culture. We want to compete for the Missouri Valley Conference title, year in and year out.”

Since Jan. 1, UE’s baseball program has generated more than 12 million impressions on X. Carroll hopes this surge of interest in a tiny school of 2,100 from Southwestern Indiana will serve as a springboard for success for years to come.

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