Experience and momentum keep expectations high as defending SLC champs open season at UTPA tourney

After getting a taste of national recognition at the NCAA Regional tournament last season, the Sam Houston State baseball team is ready for more.

By all expectations, the 2007 should have been a rebuilding year with a new head coach and a new coaching staff taking over the program. Yet the Bearkats refused to settle for less.

Behind the leadership of head coach Mark Johnson, the Bearkats won the Southland Conference tournament for the first time since 1996 and advanced to the NCAA Regional tournament in Oxford, Miss. The SLC champions then defeated Troy and Southern Mississippi to advance to the tournament title game where they were eliminated by Ole Miss, archrival of Mississippi State where Johnson previously coached, in 21-13 offensive juggernaut.

“There is a little more friction there (between MSU and Ole Miss) and for the guys to experience that atmosphere, it was exciting,” Johnson said. “I’m a Bulldog, it’s in my blood and I told them that.”

The post season was over, but with the 2007 SLC title in the trophy case and a second-place finish in the NCAA regional tournament under their belt, the Bearkats had set the stage for a new legacy and a brighter future for Sam Houston State baseball.

“I thought it was absolutely exciting. We inherited 18 seniors, which is quite a lot, and I told the seniors ‘I’m not going to give up your senior year.’ They were good kids and good players but they had not experienced winning. I challenged the seniors with the saying, ‘on your watch’, and [after the season] I put it up in the locker room ‘on your watch’ with 2007 Southland Conference champions, NCAA Regional 2nd place underneath. It was very gratitfying to see them succeed and the guys were very proud to leave that tradition behind.”

This season, the Bearkats have carried over the excitement and expectations of last year with their season opener set for Friday at 3 p.m. against Illinois in the Texas-Pan American tournament.

The Bearkats retain their entire outfield with Tyson Mire, Todd Sebek and Keith Stein all returning for their senior seasons, while stand-out starter Jacob Howard looks to lead the SHSU pitching rotation with Heath Pugh returning to his position behind the plate. “We have a lot of guys returning and they saw it happen last year,” Johnson said. “They saw it unfold and so they have higher expectations. It carries over and that helps our belief system. The team has good work habits and right now we’re working on building the team unit. Our game is how to handle adversity and that won’t happen until we’ve lost four or five in a row. The chemistry is always good, but when you put nine guys on the field that changes. We’re at the point where we just need to play someone else to see where we’re at.”

Yet a handful of freshmen will also take the field for the Bearkats, including Braeden Riley, who is slated to start at second base, and Zach Neal and leftie Brent Powers starting on the mound this weekend. “Our young guys have just got to throw strikes,” Johnson said. “We have a whole bunch of them, and they have lived up to expectations so far. I wouldn’t say I’m surprised but I’m pleasantly pleased with the young guys.”

With the loss of SLC “Pitcher of the Year” Luke Prihoda, the Bearkats were left with a gaping hole in relief pitching. Yet Johnson said he is optimistic someone will step up to take the place of Prihoda, an All-American closer who holds the Sam Houston State record with 23 career saves including 18 in the 2007 season.

“You don’t have a Luke Prihoda every year and I’ve probably only had four in my whole coaching career that were just stoppers,” Johnson said. “We need some good short relievers. But Coach [Chris] Berry is a tremendous pitching coach and I think there are a lot of good candidates for the position. This is not a one-man show.”

Howard is projected to take the mound in the Bearkats’ first contest against Illinois, followed by Powers on Saturday and junior transfer Will Skelton and Neal on Sunday.

With the opportunity right around the corner for this team to find out just what it can do, Johnson already has his expectations high for a repeat of last year’s success.

“I think we’ll be a worthy team, but we have a lot of young guys and there are a lot unanswered questions,” Johnson said. “We’ll have stumbling and we’ll have to stay healthy, but I’ll be disappointed if we’re not contenders [in the SLC] again this year.”

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