Elon junior outfielder Ryan Cooper’s game-changing and funk-ending swing almost didn’t happen.
Cooper hit a grand slam in the sixth inning of Elon’s 7-6 win at No. 21 Liberty University May 14 to end a six-game losing streak and an eight-game road losing streak. But Elon coach Mike Kennedy almost took Cooper out of the game in the previous inning.
After two walks to start the inning, Cooper came to the plate with Casey Jones, the Southern Conference’s best hitter, on deck. Cooper bunted to move the two runners up, which left first base empty.
Liberty intentionally walked Jones, taking the bat out of Elon’s top hitter.
“I had (David) Lowrey go get loose,” Kennedy said. “I was so mad at (Cooper). Casey is Casey, I don’t want a base open for him. It was a bad baseball play, and we let him know that when he got back to the dugout.
Cooper had an inning to reflect on the mistake, and that paid off. With the game tied 3-3 and the bases loaded, he floated a 2-1 pitch to left field, and it carried just enough for the grand slam.
“For me, I haven’t been hitting well,” Cooper said. “To get one like that, hopefully the next couple days I’ll get some more confidence built up.”
Cooper is one of just two Elon players to start all 52 games this year. He’s hit in a number of spots in the lineup, mostly at No. 2 or No. 6. Cooper is fourth on the team with a .267 batting average, and has eight doubles and 34 RBIs.
“He’s a good kid, but he puts so much pressure on himself offensively,” Kennedy said. “The challenge for us coming into next year is to get all of our guys to understand that the bat in your hand, that’s not the only thing you do out here. If you quit putting so much pressure on that, you can enjoy this game and probably play it a little better.”
With the end of the year in sight, that grand slam will be looked to as a promising sign for Cooper.
“It gets him going,” Jones said. “A good swing like that will get you right back in a groove.”
For the first time, Elon finished below fourth in the SoCon during the regular season. The Phoenix ended up falling to seventh place after Wofford College swept a doubleheader with Samford University on Saturday. If Samford had won either of those games, Elon would have been the No. 6 seed in the SoCon Tournament.
The No. 6 seed was much more favorable, considering teams seeded seventh through 10th have to play in an elimination game Tuesday to begin the tournament. From then on, it’s a double elimination tournament.
Elon will face No. 10 The Citadel at 3:30 p.m. May 20 in Charleston. No. 8 Furman University will play No. 9 University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the other play-in game.
Elon swept The Citadel in late March. Should Elon win Tuesday, the Phoenix will play No. 2 Davidson College at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Western Carolina University earned the No. 1 seed. Also on Wednesday, No. 4 Georgia Southern University will play No. 5 Appalachian State University and No. 3 Samford will play No. 6 Wofford.
Following the win over Liberty, which avenged an early-season loss to the Flames, Elon players insisted that the victory would give the team some momentum heading into the SoCon Tournament.
Prior to that game, Elon had lost 13 of its last 16.
“It’s something we’ve never experienced here,” senior closer Ryan Pennell said. “As a program, we’re just not used to losing. This game was a big step in the right direction, especially going into tournament time. We just have to get hot at the right time.”
With a week off in between games, carrying the good vibes could be tough. Cooper said the rest will benefit the team.
“Taking some time off is what we need,” Cooper said. “We have to stay focused. We have a goal that we’ve had from the beginning of the year. These days off aren’t screw-around days.”
The SoCon will announce its annual awards this week, and Jones is in the running for Player of the Year honors. He hit .470 in conference play with four home runs and 29 RBIs. On the season, Jones is hitting .422.
After not recording a hit in Elon’s first four SoCon games, he had at least one in the last 23. Overall, Jones has hit safely in 37 of the last 38 games.
The next closest in the SoCon when it comes to batting average is UNCG’s Hunter King at .373. Western Carolina’s Aaron Attaway was the Preseason Player of the Year, but missed 13 games and hit just .236 with 23 RBIs.