In the Sam Houston State media notes, they have a section titled “Redefining Mid-Major,” and over the better part of the last decade, it’s tough to argue against the Bearkats having done just that, at least within the state of Texas.
Their six regional appearances since the 2007 season puts them ahead of programs like Baylor and Houston, both more high-profile programs playing in bigger leagues. They’ve made noise in those regionals as well, having advanced to the regional final in half of those appearances- Oxford in 2007, Houston in 2012, and Fort Worth in 2014.
With that being said, when Matt Deggs took over the program prior to the 2015 season, there was some work to do. A quintet of key pieces from the regional teams led by David Pierce were drafted and four of those guys chose to make the leap to pro ball, including top starting pitcher Tyler Eppler (6th round- PIT), power bat Ryan O’Hearn (8th round- KC), and the complete left side of the infield in shorstop Corey Toups (15th round- KC) and third baseman Carter Burgess (28th round- TB).
That’s to say nothing of the seniors that were lost, notably the team’s top hitter and starting catcher Anthony Azar, swingman Jason Simms, and co-closer Alan Scott.
Understandably, given some of that attrition and the transition to a new coaching staff, 2015 wasn’t the type of season that SHSU is used to having. They finished 31-28 overall and missed out on the regionals for the first time since 2011, the year prior to Pierce taking the job.
It was an interesting roster mix of guys who had been around for those regional appearances under Pierce, joined by a handful of new faces from Deggs’s initial recruiting class.
In 2016, with many of those guys having graduated or moved on to pro baseball, the roster makeup is significantly different. In fact, it’s safe to say that this is a completely rebuilt roster. There are 20 combined freshmen and sophomores on the roster and seven junior transfers who are new to the team this season, meaning that a vast majority of the players on the roster have no connection to the SHSU teams that made three consecutive regional appearances between 2012 and 2014.
Not surprisingly, this type of roster turnover has led to an uneven season so far for the Bearkats. There have been some pretty high highs, such as a sweep of Oklahoma, but there have also been some low lows, such as the 0-5 start to the season and the series loss to New Orleans to open conference play.
Over the last several weeks, though, the Bearkats have begun to play better, more consistent baseball. Since that series loss to UNO, they have gone 5-1 in Southland Conference play.
In winning two out of three at home against Northwestern State, the Bearkats battled back from a Friday night loss that saw the team surrender a 5-0 lead in the top of the ninth inning on the way to a 7-5 loss to win the final two games by close 2-1 scores. The following weekend, they swept Nicholls State on the road.
Taken at face value, this stretch of quality baseball bodes well for the Bearkats under Deggs, but in a broader sense, even if this team is still very much a work in progress, you can see the blueprint the head coach has laid out for the program beginning to come together in the way the team has gone about its business, particularly in that series win over Northwestern State.
After giving away the lead in the opener against the Demons, it would have been easy to come out deflated the rest of the weekend, but instead, the young Bearkats fought back.
For Deggs, winning the final two games of the series was proof of his team’s mental fortitude.
“Toughness for us is our attitude, approach, and intensity in the midst of adversity” he said. “We sure showed that this weekend. It’s hard to spit up a five-run lead in the ninth and then come back and win 2-1 games back-to-back. I think that speaks to their character, I think that speaks to their toughness.”
If you zoom in a little further on the NSU series, you can even pinpoint the exact inning that best paints the picture of the Bearkats under Deggs’s direction.
Going into the bottom of the eighth inning of the Sunday game against the Demons, they trailed 1-0, and the offense had struggled to get anything going against NSU starter Evan Tidwell.
After Matt Broadbent led off the inning with a strikeout, freshman Jaxxon Grisham singled to right. Tidwell, concerned with Grisham’s lead at first, made several pickoff throws. Eventually, he made a mistake with one and sent the ball up the right field line, moving Grisham all the way over to third. Grisham, as the tying run, then scored when Tidwell’s cleat got stuck in the turf during his motion, causing him to balk.
But that’s not all.
Robie Rojas, the SHSU catcher, with the bases now empty again, sent a chopper to short. In a hurry to retire Rojas, NSU shortstop Matthew Alford committed a throwing error. After a pitching change, Taylor Beene drew a walk and Andrew Fregia flew out to right. On the fly ball, Rojas tagged up and headed to third. Given that he was the potential third out and he was already standing in scoring position at second, it seemed like quite the risk, but it paid off when the throw to third was offline and he slid in safely. Then, it paid off double when reliever Nathan Jones balked him home to put the Bearkats up 2-1.
For those keeping score at home, that eventual game-winning rally for SHSU included one hit, one walk, two errors, and two balks.
Was it particularly pretty? No. Were there a number of risks taken? Absolutely. Will there be mistakes made when you play this type of baseball? Sure. But this is the brand of baseball Deggs has brought to Huntsville, similar to the brand we saw at his previous coaching stops at Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Bearkats are going to put runners in motion, they’re going to try to take the extra base on every ball, and they’re just generally going to be pests on the base paths.
“We can really run,” Deggs said. “We kind of set the tone for that in the first game, and we spun the game on them pretty good in the first game, so they were real cognizant of the way we can run. It’s top to bottom. They hurried up on a play there, and it wound up being big for us. They pick, and pick, and pick, and pick, and sooner or later one of them is going to go to the fence, and it did, and it was huge Jaxxon getting all the way to third right there.”
Since Mark Johnson arrived in Huntsville a little more than a decade ago, and all throughout the tenure of David Pierce, Sam Houston State has gone a long way toward beating back the stigma of being a perceived small-time program in the face of big names like Texas, Texas A&M, Rice, TCU, and the like.
The step back in 2015 makes the job ahead a little bit bigger, but if that type of organizational success continues under Deggs the same way it did under Johnson and Pierce, you can bet that the series win over NSU, and specifically, that eighth inning rally, will provide something of a template for how they will get it done.