GREENVILLE, S.C. —Rodney Hennon’s emotion after the game told the story.
The Georgia Southern coach had trouble composing himself after his Eagles were eliminated from the 2013 Southern Conference tournament Saturday night at Fluor Field.
Third-seeded Elon held off a bases-loaded rally in the bottom of the ninth to win, 7-6, and advance to the SoCon title game for the first time since 2009.
According to soconsports.com, Elon defeated The Citadel, 6-5, on Sunday to claim the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. The Phoenix open their tourney play Friday by facing UNC-Wilmington in Charlottesville, Va.
The seventh-seeded Eagles (27-31) were eliminated in the semifinals after making the championship game three of the past four years and winning it all in 2009 and 2011.
Hennon wasn’t thinking about wins and losses, especially after his senior ace, Justin Hess — the projected starter if GSU made it to the title game — threw two scoreless innings and struck out the side when he entered the game in the eighth. Hess already had thrown 141 pitches at the tournament during a complete-game shutout against Charleston on Thursday.
“I couldn’t be more proud. It starts with (Hess),” Hennon said as he struggled for composure. “The record does not define the character of those, of those kids. I’m proud of them. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
The Eagles, trailing a by a run in the final frame, looked to be all but assured of their second ninth-inning comeback of the tournament.
Scooter Williams (2 for 3, RBI) beat out an infield single to start the ninth.
Ben Morgan (2 for 4), who hit safely in all four tournament games, attempted to bunt Williams over, but Elon first baseman Ryan Kinsella overthrew the bag, allowing Williams to take third and Morgan to reach safely with nobody out. Morgan followed that up by stealing second.
Elon got its first out of the frame when Robbie Dodds grounded out to pitcher Dylan Clark, freezing the runners in place. On the previous pitch, Dodds hammered a towering, 350-foot drive down the left-field line that curled foul.
“There’s no quit in this team,” Hess said.
Clark, who pitched five scoreless innings and struck out six in what was his first appearance since April 26, intentionally walked T.D. Davis to load the bases.
Elon got its second out when Chase Griffin hit a grounder to third base, and Chris Bresnahan went home to force Williams out at the plate on a close play.
The game came to an end when Stryker Brown hit a sharp line drive to center that Sebastian Gomez dove to catch.
“Everyone on this team should hold their head up high,” Hess said. “We showed a lot in this tournament here. We may not have had as high of expectations as everyone else, but I think we performed as well as anybody here.”
The Eagles led, 6-2, before Elon struck the only big blow it needed with five runs in the seventh.
The Phoenix sent all nine batters to the dish in the frame and scored five times on five hits off of GSU reliever Kyle Rowe, including a two-run double by shortstop Antonio Alvarez.
The bleeding stopped in the seventh inning, when Hess entered the game and struck out the side on 11 pitches.
“I was pretty pumped up,” Hess said about his final appearance. “The adrenaline kind of took over at that point. When you come out of the bullpen, it’s easy to get your blood flowing. I really don’t feel the pain too much when your blood’s flowing like that.”
The Eagles got to Elon starter Jacob Baker early, plating all six runs on six hits in the first four innings. Three of the first four batters of the game scored, with Griffin and Tyler Avera driving in runs with base hits and Stryker Brown driving in a run on an RBI groundout. Davis walked and scored on a Brown single in the third, and Williams hit an RBI double and scored on an error in the fourth off of relief pitcher Brandon Kacer.
The season marks the first in Hennon’s 16-year career as a head coach in which he didn’t win at least 31 games.
Georgia Southern lost, 11-4, in the morning game against Elon after leading, 4-1, in the sixth.
As GSU starter Josh Stevenson approached 100 pitches in the top of the sixth, Elon took full advantage. The Phoenix ripped four singles from their first five batters, plating two runs on RBI hits from Danny Lynch and Chris King.
That was it for Stevenson (1-5), who went 6 1/3 innings and struck out three, allowing five runs on nine hits.
Elon wasn’t done yet.
The Eagles sent two more pitchers — Chris Myers and Evan Challenger — to the mound, and the Phoenix tacked on four more.
When the dust cleared, Elon held a 7-4 advantage.
The Phoenix tacked on three more runs in the seventh and one in the eighth to seal the deal.
Courier staff contributed to this report.