HOUSTON, TX -- Sam Houston State opens its seventh trip to the NCAA Division I Baseball Championships Friday against the University of Arkansas at 1 p.m. at Reckling Park in Houston.
The Bearkats couldn't be more excited.
"We're looking forward to the opportunity," Sam Houston senior catcher John Hale said. "Arkansas has a great team and they're going to be a challenge. But playing in the NCAA regional is what we've worked for all season."
The Razorbacks, who enter the game ranked in all four major national polls with a high ranking of No. 19, are making their 26th NCAA Regional appearance. They have earned four trips to the Super Regional and made six College World Series appearances.
"Arkansas, with Dave Van Horn, is a well-coached team," Sam Houston head coach David Pierce said. "They're a lot like Rice with their strength being strong pitching and good defense. The SEC is one of the top baseball conferences in the nation. Arkansas is going to be a tough opponent."
With rain hitting Reckling Park during the Bearkats' practice time Thursday, the Bearkats mainly hit in the batting cages to prepare for Friday's NCAA encounter.
Arkansas stands 39-19 for the season. The Razorbacks were the runners-up in the Southeastern Conference West Division with a 16-14 league mark.
Sam Houston State won its first Southland Conference regular season champion since 1989, rolling up a league record-tying 24 conference victories. The Bearkats won 10 of their 11 weekend Southland Conference series with three sweeps among those series victories.
The Razorbacks are the No. 2 seed in the tournament, but Sam Houston has shown the ability to pull off the upset in the past. Twice, SHSU has knocked off No. 1 seeds in the first round of the playoffs, defeating Oklahoma 5-1 in Austin in 1987 and knocking off Miami of Florida (the No. 2 team in the country) 5-4 in Austin in 1996.
Sam Houston's best regional performance came at Ole Miss in 2007 when the Bearkats bounced back to defeat Troy 5-4 and Southern Mississippi 12-11 (in 11 innings) to meet host Mississippi in the finals.
The Kats' 38-20 regular season record included victories over Rice, Dallas Baptist, San Diego, Louisiana-Monroe, Prairie View and UT-Arlington (other teams that received NCAA bids). The Kats are 6-10 against teams in the NCAA Baseball Championship.
"The most gratifying thing about this year's squad is the way the whole group has come together and become a team," first-year head coach David Pierce said. "There are no superstars on this team. We can't afford to lean on just one or two guys every game and expect to win. Everyone has to be ready to step up and that's what they've done."
The Razorbacks are hitting .279 as a team. On the mound, the Arkansas pitching staff has a team ERA of 2.99, which stands third in the SEC. Their top hitters are third baseman Matt Reynolds (.340) and first baseman Dominic Ficociello (.313).
D. J. Baxendale will be the starting pitcher for Arkansas Friday against Sam Houston. He brings a 7-4 season record and a 3.02 earned run average into the game. Baxendale has 20 walks and 79 strike outs for the season in 86 innings of work. He has held opponents to a .235 batting average.
Caleb Smith will be the Bearkat starter.