Southland Conference Preview

SLC looks to play spoiler to the Big 12 and SEC once again


Feb. 21, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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It's been a while since the SLC has played spoiler to the big boys of the Big 12 and SEC, but with six teams that reached the 30-win mark and Sam Houston State making the regional title round last June, the Southland is starting to nip at their heels once again. And if history is any indicator, it's only a matter of time, people.

 

Favorites: Sam Houston State, UTSA

Contenders: Lamar, Texas State

Darkhorse: Southeastern Louisiana

 

Eastern Division:

 

Central Arkansas (21-32, 10-20)

 

The Good News:

A pair of All-SLC players return in OF Chris Houk (.307-10-35) and RHP Matt Whitaker (5-5, 5.12). Plenty of offense abounds with returnees like leading bat Kent Taylor (.348), Zack Dickson (.308) and Kevin Rawls (.314).

 

The Bad News:

A 1-8 start in SLC play shot the Bears hopes and confidence as they didn't make the SLC tourney field. The pitching is pretty poor, sporting a nasty 7.44 team ERA.

 

The Intangible:

Fundamentals needed.

 

The Bears were guilty of a poor .956 fielding percentage and too many walks, balks and wild pitches in general.

 

Schedule Note:

Like last year, the Bears will have a tough row to hoe right off the bat with Sam Houston, UTSA and Lamar in the first three weeks of SLC play.

 

Lamar (34-25, 20-10)

 

The Good News:

That's easy, the two senior pitchers Brian Sisk (11-3, 3.75) and Tim Erickson (3-3, 2.54, 7 svs) that will be the anchors to the staff that returns nearly everyone. Senior catcher Jeff Vickers (.269-5-32) and senior 3B Travis Dunson (.268) will lead the infield.

 

The Bad News:

Won the Eastern Division, but went 5-7 in May, including a quick exit in the SLC tournament. The Cardinals had five players drafted, three in the top 10 rounds, none of whom came back to LU for this season.

 

The Intangible:

This is our turf.

 

Vincent-Beck Stadium features brand new synthetic field turf, which may bring about truer hops and help improve the teams' ugly .956 fielding percentage.

 

Schedule Note:

Lamar will only leave the state for 10 games in '08, and all will be across the border in Louisiana.

 

McNeese State (21-35, 17-12)

 

The Good News:

Despite the roller coaster season in '07, the Pokes finished up pretty well going 18-12 from late March on. Justin Beitzel (.296), Bryn Thompson (.286) and Shon Landry (.278) all emerged to solidify the infield.

 

The Bad News:

Cowboys need to get out of the chute better after last year's 3-21 start. Only three hitters hit above .300 last season and all three are gone. Pitching was decimated too, with all three weekend starters and the top relief ace no longer on the roster.

 

The Intangible:

The thankless task.

 

Terry Burrows took over a shattered program after head coach Chad Clement had resigned after the first week of last season. And as noted above, the team got hot and played well late in 2007.

 

Schedule Note:

An oddity. Despite their southern locale, the Cowboys will only play four home games in the pre-conference slate - three against D-I newbie Houston Baptist and another against Lamar which isn't considered a conference game.

 

Nicholls State (10-45, 6-24)

 

The Good News:

I'm scrounging here, but not a lot of good news for Nicholls State. Top hitter Shane Barksdale (.267, yes just .267), RHP Lance Dupuis (3-5, 4.67) and key reliever Nathan Quebedeaux (1-0, 5.47) all return. RHP Ryan Harding was named the No. 10 pro prospect in the Jayhawk League this summer.

 

The Bad News:

The Colonels are stuck in a rut, not having a winning record in conference play since 2000. NSU also had losing streaks of five, seven, 16, eight and five games last year. There's little to no offense as witnessed by the meek .235 team average.

 

The Intangible:

State pride.

 

Of the 37 players on the Colonels roster, 29 of them are in-state, Louisiana products.

 

Schedule Note:

As if the struggling Colonels needed this: the non-conference slate features powers like Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU and South Alabama. Ouch.

 

Northwestern State (25-28, 15-14)

 

The Good News:

Pitching coach J.P. Davis takes the reigns and keeps starters Heath Hennigan (4-3, 4.76) and Jimmy Heard (7-5, 4.92) and what could be the best reliever in the SLC in Ryan Campbell (3-2, 2.43, 9 svs). Brett Johnson (.320) is the only .300-plus hitter returning

 

The Bad News:

Mitch Gaspard, who coached NSU for the last six seasons, left for Alabama. Last year was the first time NSU had missed the post-season tourney since the SLC expanded it to six teams in 1999. The Demons best hitter and only power source, Brandon Richey has moved on.

 

The Intangible:

The Southern cradle of coaches.

 

NSU's line of past coaches is impressive: Jim Wells ('90-'94, now at Alabama), Dave Van Horn ('95-'97, to Nebraska, now Arkansas), John Cohen ('98-01, now at Kentucky) and Gaspard (who will probably succeed Wells at 'Bama).

 

Schedule Note:

The back end of the slate is a wringer with trips to Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas wrapped around a visit from Lamar. That makes for a tough May.

 

Southeastern Louisiana (34-21, 16-14)

 

The Good News:

The Lions enjoyed their most wins since 1997 and also set a school record with 73 double plays last year - most per game in the country. Weekend starters Wade Miley (7-5, 3.86, great summer in the Cape Cod League) and Josh Black (8-3, 3.97) will be the anchors.

 

The Bad News:

RHP Chris Province, a 4th round pick of the Red Sox, was heavily leaned upon. Many defensive holes must be plugged, including four of the five infield positions. OF Xavier Qualls (.260), a JC All American in '06, hasn't lived up to billing yet.

 

The Intangible:

Ramping up the talent.

 

Southeastern Louisiana has received honorable mention status for three of their last four recruiting classes by Collegiate Baseball. Look for the on-field results to be more obvious this year.

 

Schedule Note:

With the exception of the mid-week games with LSU, Tulane and UL-L, the non-conference slate should allow the newbies to adapt and provide some wins to build confidence.

 

Western Division:

 

Sam Houston State (40-24, 18-12)

 

The Good News:

Coaching legend Mark Johnson is already paying dividends for The Sam, leading them to the Regional title round at Ole Miss. Senior leaders like Keith Stein (.404), Bobby Verbick (.370-14-81) and Todd Sebek (.319) will pay dividends as the season goes along as well.

 

The Bad News:

Luke Prihoda, who led the country with 18 saves and basically did everything but sell popcorn, has hit the bricks. Two other weekend starters are also gone, leaving Jacob Howard (11-6, 2.70) with a heavy load.

 

The Intangible:

Tenure.

 

Maybe it's just me, but I'm pretty sure as long as Mark Johnson decides to stay in Huntsville, the Bearkats are going to be a worthy contender. Good hire. No, great hire.

 

Schedule Note:

Starting with a road game at Louisiana-Monroe, the Kats will play 13 games in a 10-day stretch from February 29th to March 9th.

 



 
 

Stephen F. Austin (31-28, 17-13)

 

The Good News:

It's all good, because coaches love pitching depth. And there's lots of it, including Erich Lehmann (9-2, 4.38), Jared Schrom (5-3, 4.64) and Richard Folmer (2-2, 3.46, 4 svs). Noel Trevino (.295) and Zach Gardner (.342) will head up a versatile and fast offense.

 

The Bad News:

After a 10-year hiatus, the program is still young, in its third year back. Steven Hill, the SLC P.O.Y. is no longer around for the offense to lean on. The plan for a $14 million baseball/softball complex has been nixed by SFA administrators.

 

The Intangible:

The 6th year.

 

LHP Lance Luetge was given a 6th year of eligibility. He's back to 100-percent after Tommy John surgery and will be a difference-maker.

 

Schedule Note:

Have you noticed that the Lumberjacks open with two of their first three games against SLC teams? The season closing series at rival Sam Houston will be huge in the title chase.

 

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (27-29, 12-18)

 

The Good News:

Started last season on a positive note going 12-5. This will be a senior dominated team as six of the top seven hitters return, including seniors Chase Williams (.375-6-27) and Trae Williams (.294, 17SBs). Relief stud Trey Maldonado (0-2, 4.76, 7 svs) may move to the rotation.

 

The Bad News:

Ended last season on a bummer note, going 5-11 with a 10 game losing streak. Must find some arms to emerge as the three best starting pitchers will have to be replaced. CC batters struck out 368 times in '07.

 

The Intangible:

Secondhand players.

 

Perhaps no team in the country leans on transfers more than the Islanders as 20 of their 38 players are from other four-year schools or the JC ranks.

 

Schedule Note:

Don't look for another 12-5 start as teams like Rice, Texas, Lamar, Notre Dame, Arizona and Texas Tech are on the early schedule.

 

Texas State (37-23, 20-10)

 

The Good News:

In 10 of the last 11 years, the Bobcats have finished in the top three in the SLC. There is strength up the middle with C Ben Theriot (.295), SS Thomas Field (.270, 13 SB), 2B Adam Witek (.294, 24 SB) and CF Paul Goldschmidt (.338). Two of three weekend starters return on the mound.

 

The Bad News:

Despite all that SLC success, it's weird to think that it's been since 2000 that they've been to the Big Dance. Lots of key losses including leading hitters David Wood and Aaron Garza, staff ace Justin Fiske and bullpen pals Eric Weaver and Jason Baca.

 

The Intangible:

They've already beaten the No. 8 team in the nation.

 

Not that it means a hill of beans, but TSU did beat Texas in a fall exhibition game, 4-3.

 

Schedule Note:

Unlike last year, TSU will ease into the '08 season with a softer slate. Plus the SLC schedule begins with also-rans Nicholls State and UT-Arlington.

 

Texas-Arlington (13-40, 4-26)

 

The Good News:

Maybe new blood will help. After Jeff Curtis resigned in November, his assistant Darin Thomas takes over. OF Danny Slinkman (.333) is one of the better hitters in the SLC. Nathan Long (2-8, 5.14) and Brandon Endsley (3-2, 7.48) should improve their numbers.

 

The Bad News:

After going to the NCAAs in '06, the bottom dropped out in '07 as a 9-10 start collapsed into a 4-30 finish. The cupboard is nearly bare, only two of the top eight hitters and one of the top five hurlers come back to campus for the 2008 season.

 

The Intangible:

The Twilight Zone.

 

That's where UTA seemed to go last year and it continued with an oddly-timed resignation by the head coach. Surely there is enough program pride and tradition to keep this skid from continuing. Right?

 

Schedule Note:

Other than games with Alabama and TCU, the early schedule is serviceable enough to allow for this young team to gel. The season ends with 13 of their last 19 at home.

 

Texas-San Antonio (36-22, 24-6)

 

The Good News:

On the rise. UTSA has won two of the last three SLC titles. The pitching is deep, led by Ryan Proudfoot (4-2, 3.30) as an All-SLC possibility. Five of the six .300-plus hitters are back as well, led by power threat Trent Lockwood (.378-14-57) and mercurial Tim Palincsar (.304, 13 SB)

 

The Bad News:

The Road Runners were easily the best team most of last season, but couldn't close the deal in the SLC tourney. With so many pitchers seeing action, the only question is, is there a go-to-guy when you need that one big out?

 

The Intangible:

Mr. Lead by Example.

 

Coach Corbett is really high on SS/3B Lance Brown, a transfer from Temple JC, "He made some unbelievable plays during the fall. We even saw improvement from our returning players because they wanted to do some of the things he was doing."

 

Schedule Note:

If you're looking for a litmus test, look at the week of March 4 through the 9 when Kansas State visits for two and then the Runners play three at College of Charleston.

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