There were many monumental and historic events to occur in the world of sports the last three months. Barry Bonds, amid a cloud of steroid suspicion surpassed Hank Aaron as the all-time home run leader, while Bonds’ possible successor as “home run king” Alex Rodriguez became the youngest to hit 500 home runs. Craig Biggio and Tom Glavine each joined elite company, all of this occurring as a basketball dynasty continued to grow in San Antonio. With so many feats occurring over the summer, it is only fitting that Sam Houston State Athletics had a memorable summer.
In only his first season at Sam Houston State, Head Baseball Coach Mark Johnson took the Bearkats to a place where they hadn’t been in 11 years; the postseason.
After joining a team which finished the 2006 season 23-31, Johnson led a dramatic turnaround to a 40-24 overall record, and a 18-12 mark in conference play. Featuring a remarkable regular season, the Bearkats shined in the Southland Conference Tournament, winning the tournament for the first time since 1996, capped off by a 3-1 victory in the finals over Texas State- San Marcos.
“That game was really special,” Johnson said. “So many people were moved by it, especially the seniors and their parents. They never had a winning season here, but being able to go through the Southland Conference Tournament with only one error, it was something special.
“It was also special for me, I have been doing this for 37 years, and this is on the short list of those special teams. I got to see a bunch of guys who had been scarred, not given much respect, and they turned it around.”
Much of the Bearkats success could be attributed to their closer Luke Prihoda. Recognized by the National Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Associated as their “Stopper of the Year,” with 18 saves and his 1.62 ERA was the lowest for a pitcher in school history who had thrown a minimum of 70 innings.
Sadly for the Bearkats their run ended June 3 at the NCAA Regional in Oxford, Mississippi where they were eliminated by Ole Miss, 21-13. This was the fourth time the Bearkats had been to the NCAA Regionals, though it was the first time in school history they had advanced to the NCAA Regional Finals.
“From a competitive stand point it was disappointing,” Johnson said. “To hit their Sunday pitcher I was pleased with that part of it, but we ran out of arms to keep going.
We made it to the finals of the regional tournament against some good teams and when you look back on it, it was a neat experience. Looking at the big picture, it was a great season for the players.”
Not to be outdone by the baseball squad, the softball team, led by Bob Brock, won the Southland Conference Tournament advancing to the postseason. However, unlike the baseball team, their advancement to the Division I NCAA Regional Tournament was the first in school history.
“It means a whole lot to me,” Brock said. “It was nice having some firsts, kind of neat to have a first every now and then. It meant a lot to me cause it meant a lot to players and our university.”
The Bearkats finished the year with an overall record of 37-24, with a 20-10 record in conference, finishing behind University of Texas at Arlington during the regular season. Though the Bearkats showed that regular season results didn’t matter much despite being swept by the Mavericks in March, the Bearkats took the tournament crown with a 1-0 victory.
“We battled back and forth in the game, it was a pitcher’s dual,” Brock said. “Then in the 8th inning we got our only hit from one of our freshmen, Lauren Burns hit a walk-off home run.”
Despite their season coming to an end May 19, with a 11-0 loss against the Texas A&M Aggies in the NCAA Regionals, the season was a step in the right direction for Brock and the program.
“We’ve constantly made progress since I got here in 2002,” Brock said.” We have gotten better every year, then in 2006, we had a lot of injuries we went kind of backwards, but this year we had a really big turnaround.
“I’ve had a lot of seasons, I don’t know if I have had a better time than with this team, it was all about the players. To know they accomplished something, to get in the regional tournament, and the conference tournament. I view the season as a learning experience, with changes here and there, we just kept getting better and better.”
The success of the baseball and softball programs was certainly monumental, but for Director of Athletics Bobby Williams, and his staff, their victory of the Southland Conference Commissioner’s Cup was historic. With a victory of the tenth Commissioner’s Cup, Williams and SHSU Athletics have the distinction of being the first in the history of the award to win it for three consecutive years.
“I’m very proud and honored what our student-athletes and coaches accomplished,” Williams said. “The best thing is that it makes every sport important and it makes every student-athlete important.”
The award is based upon the performance of all men and women’s sports programs. The men’s teams collectively compiled a 66.5 point total, while the women’s teams earned 71 points, giving SHSU with 137.5 total points, a total which was the highest of their three cup victories, and narrowly edging out the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“I think our teams across the board are getting better, they keep improving, also one team doesn’t perform as well, another team improves,” Williams said.
With so many on-the-field accomplishments, Bearkat athletes had a lot of success in the classroom. Sam Houston State placed the most student-athletes on the Capital One Bank/SLC Commissioner’s 2007 Academic Honor Roll for the third consecutive year.
“I think our coaches identify quality student-athletes and the increased admission standards at Sam have helped recruit better quality students,” Williams said. “From my perspective that term (student-athlete) means a lot to me, I want students to be students, and athletes to have success on the field.”
There were 159 total honor roll members, with the football squad leading all programs with 35 members, followed by the women’s soccer team with 20, the women’s track and field with 19, baseball with 16, men’s track and field with 13, softball with 10, women’s basketball with nine, men’s basketball and women’s volleyball with eight, and each golf squad with seven members.
Of the sixteen sports, four Bearkats were named as Southland Conference’s Academic Student-Athlete of the Year in their respective sports. Ryan Bright obtained the honor in men’s basketball, Lata Assudani earned it for women’s tennis, Jennie Sewell in women’s track and field, and Luke Prihoda earned the honor in baseball.
If you happen to go out to Bowers Stadium, you may notice something new. There were changes made to the field over the summer, the turf had been changed. Changes were made to replace the old artificial turf to a new surface known as RealGrass.
“It’s the same type of surface they have at Texas Stadium,” Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations Paul Ridings said. “The players all like it, it’s a lot softer and a lot cooler. We made some significant changes, and we now have a state-of-the-art turf.”
With the changes made to some facilities, and the increased success of Bearkat athletics, a foundation for future success in all sports was laid.
“I think we have some coaches in place, and quality student-athletes,” Bobby Williams said. “We will keep improving the facilities we have and continue fund-raising activities.”