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In so many ways and for so many innings Saturday afternoon, Elon freshman pitcher Kyle Webb personified all of Southern Conference baseball grit this season. Like Webb on the mound against The Citadel, history told us not to expect a big national splash from the SoCon.

Webb is a freshman relief pitcher who had never gone more than three innings in a college game.

The SoCon is a "mid-major" league that has never placed more than two teams in the NCAA tournament.

But the SoCon had three teams -- College of Charleston, The Citadel and Elon -- ranked among the top 44 of the NCAA's official Ratings Percentage Index entering the SoCon tournament at The Joe. Webb in a marvelous first start had a 5-2 lead entering the bottom of the ninth.

Then a two-base, two-out throwing error for the poor kid.

Too bad.

A Webb gem tarnished by a defensive mistake.

Sadly, Elon's NCAA tournament hopes and the third bid the SoCon deserves might have bounced away along with the baseball that rolled into the Elon bullpen. The Citadel tied the game in the ninth and won in the 10th, 6-5, to send Elon home.

Jordan: 'Absolutely'

The sizzling Citadel is an NCAA tournament lock, win or lose today in the SoCon tournament championship game against Western Carolina. Same with the College of Charleston. Both the Cougars (RPI No. 25) and Bulldogs (No. 35 and sure to rise) are worthy of No. 2 seeds.

Citadel head coach Fred Jordan agrees Elon (38-22, No. 44) ought to have a place in the 64-team field, too.

"Absolutely," he said after the Bulldogs' second extra-inning win over Elon during the tournament. "No doubt about it. If they don't, it will be very reminiscent of our ballclub last year. They've got the same resume. With Clemson wins. North Carolina. North Carolina State. And they are a good ballclub. We were just very, very fortunate against them."

Notice Jordan said "wins" over Clemson.

Plural.

Elon University is a small and academically respected North Carolina school with 5,666 students and a student-faculty ratio of 13 to 1. Yet the Phoenix went 6-1 against Atlantic Coast Conference foes this season, including a pair at Clemson on March 23 and 24.

Elon played in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA tournaments.

But will the current Phoenix get in when NCAA regional brackets are released Monday?

Almost certainly not if Western Carolina wins today to grab the SoCon's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, pushing The Citadel into at-large status.

'Cruel game'

Elon head coach Mike Kennedy dealt with reality.

"The Citadel has to win," he said. "Knowing what I know, if they don't win I think we're done."

As in basketball, major conferences win most NCAA tournament tug-of-wars in baseball.

"We've got the short end of the stick when it comes to conference bids," Kennedy said. "They'd rather take teams that don't make their conference tournaments and let them on the national scene. Clubs like us have to battle every day and have to play on the road mid-week against some of the best competition in the country and then they don't give us a shot."

NCAA officials have said they do not take conference affiliation into account when picking tournament teams. If that's true, Elon players and coaches should sleep well these next few nights.

But the ruling body these last few years also has sought "a more national tournament."

Three entries from the same tight-knit league with a regional title?

Doesn't blend very well.

Kennedy referring to Webb's errant throw kept saying baseball "is a cruel game."

The cruelest blow might come Monday afternoon.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5593.