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(Cobb Condie | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Starting pitcher, Joe Karlik, walks off the mound for the last time at Southern Utah University's Thunderbird Park on Saturday, May 12.
College baseball: Southern Utah mourns, celebrates dropped program
College athletics » Southern Utah is cutting the program for its move to Big Sky Conference.
First Published May 21 2012 12:29 pm • Last Updated Aug 28 2012 11:35 pm

Cedar City » For baseball players at Southern Utah University, condemned simply because they play the wrong sport at the wrong time, last-meal time approaches.

The program dies this weekend at the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., barring an unlikely championship that would delay the execution until after the NCAAs.

At a glance

What they’re saying about SUU baseball

Senior Bo Cuthbertson » “There’s no place like this. It’s always windy — always crazy. Crazy things happen all the time. Lots of runs. Exciting games. It’s been fun to play here because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Sophomore Jesse Bristow » “SUU gave a kid like me — someone from a small high school in Utah — the chance to walk on and play at a four-year in-state school. It’s something that’s not available everywhere you go.”

Senior Marcus Romero » “Of course we’re sad. Everyone is very sad. But it’s my last year and I don’t have to go out and look for another school. I feel really bad for the underclassmen. It’s been rough on them.”

Summit League Tournament

Southern Utah’s season isn’t over yet. As one of the top four teams in the Summit League, the Thunderbirds have qualified for the conference tournament, which begins Thursday at Johnson Stadium in Tulsa, Okla. The pairings:

» SUU (12-11, 18-34) is the No. 4 seed and will play No. 1 seed Oral Roberts (17-6, 33-22)

» No. 2 Oakland (15-6, 23-29) and No. 3 North Dakota State (14-10, 38-18) play in the other game.

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Either way, the death sentence seems unfair.

Southern Utah baseball has never been wildly successful — limited by unpredictable February-to-May weather, relative isolation and competition from higher-profile rivals like Utah, BYU and UNLV. Four-star recruits rarely have had SUU on their wish list, but the program has provided a place for true student-athletes to play, get a degree and move ahead with their lives.

Sometimes noble purpose is not enough. Southern Utah moves to the Big Sky Conference on July 1 and, while the new league provides needed stability and scheduling advantages for most sports, baseball is not among them.

"It just didn’t make sense to commit our limited financial resources to a program that didn’t have a home in a viable conference," said athletic director Ken Beazer.

So SUU baseball is going away.

Beazer announced in January that the program would be discontinued. Players and coaches were shocked, according to sophomore Chaisson Low, who grew up in Cedar City and is one of 16 Utah high-school products on the roster.

"I’ve been coming to SUU games my whole life," Low said. "It’s a shame to see the program go down. Cedar is such a great baseball town. But things happen that you can’t control."

One day after Clayton Carson arrived on campus to begin his new job as assistant coach, Southern Utah dropped the program.

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"That was tough news," he said. "We did our best to rally the team and say, ‘Hey, let’s finish with a bang.’ But it was really tough."

An uncertain future » Aside from preparing for the season, Southern Utah’s non-seniors faced the task of reorganizing an uncertain future.

Although the school plans to honor their scholarships through next year, those wanting to continue baseball had to start looking around.

Sophomore Tariq Staton called his father as soon as he heard the news.

"It put a lot of pressure on him," Troy Staton recalled. "My son said, ‘We have to start the recruiting process again.’ He told me, ‘Every at-bat has to be a miracle now because I’m going to be watched.’ He wanted to put up some numbers that would help the recruiting process."

The season quickly became "an open audition" for the players, Beazer said. Coaches sent mass emails to colleagues around the country, encouraging them to scout the Thunderbirds.

"It was sad because we’re a family," Tariq Staton said. "We travel together. We do everything together. So it hurt. But it gave us motivation, too. We wanted to show everybody we should still be here."

It didn’t happen — at least early.

The Thunderbirds lost 14 of their first 16 games. It took them a month to beat a Division I opponent.

Senior Marcus Romero believes the hangover from cancellation of the program was part of the problem.

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