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Birmingham-Southern keeps inspiring, magical season alive

EASTLAKE, Ohio (AP) — The team with no school won’t quit.

Birmingham-Southern is still swinging.

Now playing despite the school being closed for good, the Panthers kept their hopes of winning a national championship alive on Saturday night with a thrilling 9-7 comeback victory over Randolph-Macon in the Division III World Series.

Jackson Webster hit a two-run, walk-off homer in the ninth inning to give Birmingham-Southern, a team that has quickly captured the attention of sports fans across the country with their feel-good story, a win bordering on surreal.

“Baseball miracle, right?” Webster said. “The storybook isn’t finished.”

The Panthers squandered a 4-0 lead and fell behind 7-4 before scoring three runs in the eighth — getting back-to-back RBI singles by pinch-hitters in the rally — to tie it.

Then came the ninth and a moment seemingly extracted from a Hollywood script or Disney movie.

Andrew Dutton walked leading off before Webster, who hit a two-run homer in the first, took an ugly swing on the first pitch. It was so bad and out of character that he stepped out of the batter’s box and tapped his chest while apologizing to coach Jan Weisberg.

Webster didn’t miss the next pitch.

Connecting on a hanging curve ball, he sent his homer over the wall in left field to set off a wild celebration on the field and in the stands of Classic Park.

As he rounded third and was greeted at the plate by his delirious teammates, a rowdy group of Sigma Chi fraternity brothers from the school who had kept the faith when things looked bleak danced in the aisles.

It was another memorable moment in a season full of them for Birmingham-Southern and a team bonded by adversity.

“Just true grit,” said Weisberg, whose 17th season at the school has presented challenges he could have never imagined. “The fight in these guys is the story of the night.”

It’s a story that’s getting better by the day, and being chronicled by a documentary film crew that was able to capture the team’s unbridled jubilation.

Webster said the Panthers can feel eyes on them along with the support from people who can identify with their emotions in playing for a school they loved but his now gone.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” Webster said. “We don’t have anything to go back to so we take the field feeling we have nothing to lose. And team with nothing to lose is hard to beat, which is why I think we were so calm today because of all the adversity we’ve gone through.

“And it’s pretty cool having all the cameras around.”

Birmingham-Southern, which lost the national title game in 2019, advanced in the double-elimination tourney and will play the loser between Salve Regina and Wisconsin-Whitewater on Sunday.

Based on the wild scene outside their charter buses, it might be tough for anyone from Birmingham-Southern to get much sleep.

After losing the opener to Salve Regina on Friday, the same day Birmingham-Southern officially closed its doors for the first time since 1856 due to financial hardship, the Panthers were facing a win-or-extinction situation to keep their season — and the school’s legacy — going.

Unlike Friday’s game, when they fell behind 7-0 before rallying, the Panthers jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first on Webster’s two-run homer and Charlie Banks’ solo shot — both balls thudding off a sign beyond the left-center field wall advertising a free car wash for Lake County Captains fans.

But Randolph-Macon caught them in the seventh and then took the lead with three runs in the eighth, when the Panthers had two wild pitches and things began to unravel to the point where it looked like Birmingham Southern’s season and program were both over.

Weisberg thought the worse.

“You can’t help but have the feeling of — is this how it’s going to end?” he said. “But with all this team has been through in particular, with all that we’ve had hanging over our heads, I’ll admit it happened to me for a brief moment in between innings.

“I started thinking about what am I going to say? Am I going to keep it together? And I told myself, stop, just stop.”

His scrappy team restored his faith with a comeback he’ll never forget.

Neither will Weisberg’s 82-year-old father, Jan, who joked that he expected nothing less from his son’s squad.

“Never a doubt,” the elder Weisberg said with a wink.

There’s no margin for error, but the Panthers haven’t felt any pressure for months. This is easy after what they’ve been through. Once the school’s decision was made, BSC’s players made their own decision to finish strong.

Under Weisberg’s steadying guidance, Birmingham-Southern’s boys of summer have been playing freely for months, unburdened between the foul lines after learning in late March their school was closing.

Baseball has pulled them together and pulled them through what some within the team have described as like losing a family member.

It’s been an emotional journey for Birmingham-Southern players, parents, alums, faculty and everyone with any ties to liberal arts college since the announcement in March that a $30 million loan from the state of Alabama wasn’t coming and closure was necessary.

“At the start, there was a lot of sadness,” said Cole Steadman, one of several players on the 2019 team who came to root on this special edition of Panthers. “We were pretty devastated to hear that the school was shutting down, but to see the community come together has been special.”

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