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May 14—After two years of waiting, the MIAA postseason baseball tournament is back.

“I guess it seems like it’s been longer,” Missouri Southern coach Bryce Darnell said. “But it was great for us and the rest of our league this year to get all of the games in — besides about three — in the regular season. A year ago, I’m not so sure we all would have thought that would happen. But playoff baseball is here, and we’re looking forward to getting started.”

The third-seeded Lions (29-11) open the conference tournament on Friday at 3 p.m. when they play the first game of a best-of-three series against sixth-seeded Central Oklahoma at Warren Turner Field. The conference didn’t have a postseason tournament last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Southern is 16-6 this season on its home field.

“It’s always better if you’re given the choice to play at home than on the road,” Darnell said. “But UCO is an outstanding opponent. We have a ton of respect for their program. They’re a battle-tested program the last five or six years, and there are no gimmes in this league. So it’s going to be a hard series for both teams.”

The quarterfinal series will continue with a game at 1 p.m. Saturday. and pending a split in the first two games, a third game would be played at the same time on Sunday.

Southern, ranked 25th in the nation, took two of three games against the Bronchos in a conference series in mid-March.

“We’ve obviously played UCO several times in recent years, and we’re familiar with their guys just like they’re familiar with us,” Darnell said. “That being said, it’s all about who’s playing well at the time. Hopefully we’ll play well and play to our capabilities.”

The Lions are coming off a 2-1 series triumph over Rogers State and won five of their last six outings of the regular season.

Earlier this week, 10 Southern players picked up MIAA season honors. Among them were pitcher of the year and Gold Glove winner Zach Parish, freshman of the year Tommy Stevenson (C), first-team all-conference honoree Troy Gagan (OF), second-team honoree Jordan Fitzpatrick (OF), third-team honorees Will Bausinger (P), Joe Kinder (SS) and Henry Kusiak (3B), and Gold Glove awardee Matt Miller (1B). Scott Duensing (P) and Dexter Swims (2B) were both honorable mentions.

“What an honor for Zach Parish to be pitcher of the year like the last time the award was given out in 2019,” Darnell said. “It’s also really cool for Tommy to get freshman of the year … and I’m not so sure if he wouldn’t have gotten it in 2020 if the season wasn’t cancelled. Plus, it’s pretty cool that Dexter Swims got the freshman award in 2019. So that bodes well for the future, and it shows all of the work Coach (Nick) Tuck puts in with recruiting and projecting these young guys.

“It’s hard for players to make all-conference in our league, and it’s always an honor to make it.”

Parish (10-1) became the NCAA Division II all-time career leader in strikeouts last week after fanning eight in a win over the Hillcats. He now has 479 strikeouts in his career.

Southern has five players in the starting lineup hitting better than .300 this season in Gagan (.394), Fitzpatrick (.376), Kusiak (.343), Stevenson (.329) and Kinder (.324). Kinder has a team-high 13 home runs, while Stevenson leads the team with 49 RBI.

UCO is led by Garrett Takamatsu with a .373 batting average and five home runs and 29 RBI. Kyle Crowl leads the team with 11 homers and 36 RBI, while Phillip Scott has a team-high 17 doubles. Brayden Nelson is 6-2 with a 3.23 ERA and 40 strikeouts, while Luke Anderson leads the team with 68 strikeouts.

Anderson and Crowl were second-team all-MIAA selections for the Bronchos, while Takamatsu was a third-team pick.

Contact Jared Porter on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.

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