'Jacks renew piney woods rivalry with top-seeded Bearkats in SLC Tournament

'Jacks renew piney woods rivalry with top-seeded Bearkats in SLC Tournament

SFA Athletics

SUGAR LAND, Texas – An entrant in the Southland Conference Tournament field for the first time since 2013, the Stephen F. Austin baseball team begins its latest postseason run as the number-eight seed and will do battle with number-one seed and regular season Southland Conference champion Sam Houston State in the third game of the SLC Tournament on Wednesday afternoon in Sugar Land, Texas.

First pitch of the 'Jacks first postseason game in three seasons has been scheduled for 4:00 p.m. at Constellation Field. Whichever team emerges as the victor will remain in the winners bracket and face the winner of the Lamar/Central Arkansas tilt at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday night. The squad that loses will drop down into the lower portion of the double-elimination bracket to face the loser of the Lamar/Central Arkansas matchup at noon on Thursday.

By closing out the 2016 regular season with a record of 27-28 and an SLC mark of 14-16, the 'Jacks were one of three teams that finishes in a tie for the seventh and eighth place spots in the league standings. Of those three teams, Nicholls was the squad that saw the curtain come down on its season while New Orleans latched on to the seventh-seed by virtue of winning a pair of games against Sam Houston State in the regular season. SFA took one of three from the league champs in regular season play to pencil itself in as the eighth seed.

Projected Starters
#12 Patrick Ledet, SFA (Jr., LHP, 6-1, 4.12 ERA) vs. #18 Heath Donica, SHSU (Jr., RHP, 8-3, 3.40 ERA) 

Scouting the Bearkats • Roster • Schedule • Statistics
Head Coach | Matt Deggs (Northwood University, '94) • Second Season • 68-47
Synopsis | Still flying high following the program's fourth Southland Conference regular season title since 2005, the Bearkats locked up the title with a victory over Houston Baptist in their regular season finale last Sunday. Sam Houston State finished two games ahead of Southeastern Louisiana for the league's regular season crown and is eyeing a return trip to the championship game of the Southland Conference Tournament in order to avenge a 6-0 loss to Houston Baptist in that game a season ago. The first step of that journey will begin with the Bearkats sending junior Heath Donica to the hill against SFA. An All-SLC Second Team pick, Donica posted a 6-2 mark against SLC opposition in 2016, but had his troubles with SFA by giving up a season-high 10 hits to the Lumberjacks in his regular season matchup with them. Although Bryce Johnson represents the biggest bat in the Bearkats' lineup with a .367/.424/.447 line, Zach Smith has driven in a team-high 38 runs while slugging a .475 (15 doubles, seven hone runs). The power hitting ways of Austin Fregia are another weapon at Sam Houston State's disposal as his 33 RBI have come mostly by way of his team-best 28 extra base hits and a slugging percentage of .531. Once into the Bearkats' bullpen, Greg Belton has been a shutdown master, registering 12 saves as well as a 5-1 record while fanning 50 batters and allowing only 14 walks in 45.2 innings of work.

Overall vs. Sam Houston State | 24-47 (.338)
In Nacogdoches | 11-24 (.314)
In Huntsville | 13-23 (.364)
Last Meeting | SFA won, 8-4, in Huntsville (4/10/16)
Last 10 Games | 3-7 (.300)
Cardenas vs. Sam Houston State | 10-14 (.429)
Deggs vs. Stephen F. Austin | 3-3 (.500)
In order to avoid a three-game sweep at the hands of the Bearkats in the 2016 regular season, the 'Jacks turned to Garrett McMullen who hit a pair of home runs as part of a 4-for-4 day at the plate that led SFA to an 8-4 win back on April 10. The senior finished with four RBI in the SFA victory and was one of four 'Jacks who finished with a double on that day. Sam Houston State used a six-run second inning to defeat SFA 7-3 in the opening game of the series before holding off the 'Jacks for an 8-6 victory in game two of the regular season series.

Three of a Kind
For only the second time in program history, three SFA players earned All-Southland Conference First Team accolades when the league released its list of All-Conference performers on Monday morning. Seniors Kyle Thornell (third base) and Garrett McMullen(outfield) as well as junior Conner Fikes (outfield) each earned All-SLC First Team laurels for the first time in their respective careers. Among all SLC players, McMullen (.367) and Fikes (.365) ranked fourth and fifth respectively in batting average. Fikes also placed eighth in the league in hits (70) and third in triples (six). McMullen rounded out a senior-year slash line with the SLC's fourth-highest on-base percentage (.444) and its fifth-best slugging percentage (.583). That ultimately led to the Longview, Texas, product leading the team in both hits (73) and RBI (56) while ranking sixth and third respectively in the league in those categories. 

Powered Up
In order to ensure that a first-ever All-Southland Conference First Team citation would wind up in his possession at the conclusion of the regular season, Kyle Thornell used some gaudy power hitting numbers to separate himself from the vast majority of other SLC players. The Magnolia, Texas, native finished the regular season ranked second in the league in home runs (11), sixth in walks (32), fourth in RBI (48), third in on-base percentage (.464) and third in slugging percentage (.624). His .365 batting average in Southland Conference games was the seventh-best in the league. 

In With the Newcomer
An already powerful Stephen F. Austin lineup picked up another big bat when Zac Michener signed on with the squad prior to the start of the 2016 campaign, and with the Kennedale, Texas, product's first NCAA Division I regular season in the books he checked in as the second 'Jack ever to lay claim to the Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year award. In 52 games in the 'Jacks' outfield, Michener compiled a slash line of .340/.435/.489 while belting five home runs. He joins Bryson Myles as the only other SFA player to be named the league's Newcomer of the Year (2011). 

Worth a Mention
Joining their teammates in the list of All-Southland Conference honorees, juniors Tyler Kendrick (shortstop) and Nick Ramos (second base) each collected All-SLC Honorable Mention acclaim at their respective positions. Kendrick is batting .333 while Ramos has served as the 'Jacks every day second baseman

Tournament History
Stephen F. Austin has posted a 7-12 record at the Southland Conference Tournament and is in search of its first victory in the postseason tourney since defeating Southeastern Louisiana by a score of 3-2 on May 25, 2013. 

Don't Blink
By stealing second base at No. 13-ranked TCU last week, senior Matthew Dickey took over as the 'Jacks' leader in career stolen bases. In his collegiate basebal days, the Kilgore, Texas, product has swiped 56 bags and his 21 thefts this season are the second-highest total among all Southland Conference players.