HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- The back-to-back Southland baseball champions, Sam Houston State will begin their hunt to return to the NCAA postseason when they host Northern Colorado Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Don Sanders Stadium for Opening Day.
The expectations are high for the Bearkats, who return several key players from squads that have played in NCAA Regionals the last two seasons. The league’s head coaches and media personnel selected SHSU to win a third straight title.
“Coming out of Baton Rouge (in the NCAA Regional) last year our team made a total commitment of getting bigger faster and stronger,” Bearkat head coach David Pierce said. “We’ve done that and had a great offseason. It’s hard to replace the feeling of Opening Day and we’re very excited to have the opportunity to open at home.”
Anthony Azar photo
Six Kats are members of the Southland’s preseason all-conference team. Catcher Anthony Azar and outfielder Luke Plucheck are first-team members, while second baseman Ryan Farney, shortstop Corey Toups, third baseman Carter Burgess and outfielder Colt Atwood were all named to the second team.
There are several other returners who will be starters or key contributors. Junior Ryan O’Hearn has started more than 100 games between first base and left field while Hayden Simerly shared the lead in home runs last season with nine. Shea Pierce will factor as a designated hitter and backup catcher.
“There’s no doubt there are high expectations. But it’s not pressure, just expectations. We have a lot of experience and we’ll toe it up with juniors and seniors all over the field. We brought in a smaller number of freshmen that can contribute and also added some junior college kids that can contribute,” Pierce added.
The pitching staff is expected to be loaded with talent even with the departures of Caleb Smith and Cody Dickson to the Major League Baseball Draft. Junior starting pitcher Tyler Eppler was a big part of the Kats midweek success in 2013, picking up wins over Texas, Rice and Houston while compiling a 5-2 record with a 3.41 ERA.
Junior lefthander Andrew Godail is also expected to be a mainstay in the weekend rotation after posting a 5-4 record with a 3.10 ERA in 14 starts last season.
“This pitching staff is interesting. I feel good about Tyler Eppler and Andrew Godail but we have some guys that were here last year that are developing. There is definitely balance and some choices to make. With existing guys and some newcomers I like where we’re at with the staff.”
Jason Simms photo
Senior relievers Jason Simms and Alan Scott are expected to be shutdown arms in the backend of the bullpen. Simms was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award watch list. The righty recorded nine saves with a 2.74 ERA in 26 appearances in 2013.
Scott compiled the lowest ERA on the team last season as a left-handed reliever. His 1.16 ERA in 31 innings pitched is one of the lowest in school history. Luke Prihoda, who was named the NCBWA Stopper of the Year in 2007, had a 1.61 ERA that year.
Northern Colorado returns their top three hitters from last season’s squad that went 33-24 and won the Great West Conference. Three Northern Colorado starting pitchers who combined to start 34 games also return.
This season will be Northern Colorado’s first in the Western Athletic Conference. The Bears have made 10 College World Series appearances, with their last in 1974.
The Bearkats and Bears played twice in 2011 as part of a tournament hosted at Don Sanders Stadium. SHSU won both games, including a 12-11 win in extra innings to close the tournament.
“Northern Colorado has a very veteran team with a lot of returning position players and players on the mound. They play a lot of seniors and they’re going to be an older team. They’re a good ball club and it’s going to be a tough test to open up,” Pierce added.
Sam Houston will have the opportunity to test their depth early in the season with five games in five days. After their four-game series with Northern Colorado the Kats will play a single game against McNeese State in Lake Charles Tuesday.
“We open up with five straight games, which is a little unusual. But it gives us an opportunity to see some other guys. It’s going to give us a chance to look at some arms against outside opponents and insert some guys that are fighting for jobs. We know our starting lineup now but there is some depth that we can utilize throughout the year and we will utilize it even in the opening weekend.”
Fans can still purchase reserved chairback season tickets for all 30 games at Don Sanders Stadium for $150. Aside from the best seats in the house, a season ticket purchase also assures fans of priority for postseason playoff tickets.
Single-game baseball tickets can be purchased for $8 for reserved seats and $6 for general admission. Every Friday game is a Friday Family Night special where for $8 fans receive a reserved seat, hot dog, drink, and popcorn.
One of the highlights of the season will be when the Kats play in the 2014 Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park, Feb. 28-March 2. Tickets for the College Classic Park are now on sale through the Houston Astros at www.astros.com/collegeclassic. Sam Houston State fans should use the offer code “vipshsu” to receive the best deal.