You could just feel it coming. It was only a matter of time. There was the rejuvenation of the Sam Houston State baseball program under Mark Johnson, the legendary Texas A&M head coach who came to Huntsville and promptly took the team to regionals three consecutive years with overall win totals of 40, 37, and 36, respectively, immediately after the program had won no more than 25 overall games (with no regional appearances) dating back to 2000.
That first regional team shocked the world by going to the Oxford Regional and winning elimination games against Troy and Southern Miss to advance to a regional final against Mississippi, before being knocked out in a wild 21-13 ballgame. The Bearkats had established themselves as perennial regional contenders, but with the latter two regional appearances having ended in 0-2 finishes, they were still very much upstarts rather than a program anyone took too seriously as a contender to win a regional.
Then there were the David Pierce teams that took things to the next level. During his tenure, 2012 through 2014, SHSU reached regionals all three years, and won at least one game every single time. The 2012 team got to a regional final against Arkansas, and then, of course, there’s the 2014 team, the best of the bunch under Pierce.
That group, too, advanced to a regional final, this time against TCU, and if you ask the Bearkat faithful to this day, there are some that will tell you that if not for a potentially botched interference call from umpire Jeff Head that took an SHSU run off the board in the 21st inning of a winner’s bracket game against TCU, the Bearkats would have gone on to win that regional and moved on to what would presumably have been a winnable super regional against a Pepperdine team that had been a three seed at the San Luis Obispo Regional.
Either way, a new message had been sent.
Sam Houston was no longer a plucky upstart looking to crash your regionals party. They were looking to win a regional, and they had the talent to do so.
More importantly, at that point, you knew that they were eventually going to break through and win a regional.
And now, in 2017, they’ve done it.
By working their way through the loser’s bracket and defeating number-five national seed Texas Tech in a regional final, Sam Houston State has won a regional and moved on to the super regional round.
Looking back on it now, it’s not just the results that have changed over the years. Just about everything around the program has.
For one, it’s now among the very best mid-major coaching jobs in the country. By bringing in Johnson, a coach who had put in 23 years as a head coach at one of the big fish programs in the region, brought much-needed credibility to the program, and his success opened the door for a higher caliber of head coach down the road that they might not have gotten had Johnson not turned things around.
Coaches like David Pierce.
When Pierce was brought in prior to the 2012 season, he was coming off of a highly-successful stint as an assistant under Wayne Graham at Rice, a period during which the Owls were arguably the premier baseball program in the state of Texas. Put another way, Pierce was on the short list of the most sought-after assistants in the state, and perhaps the entire country, and SHSU got him.
The same goes for current head coach Matt Deggs. He came to Huntsville after spending time as an assistant at Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Louisiana-Lafayette. He went to Omaha with the Hogs and Aggies, and coached the Cajuns to a national seed in 2014. Again, his name was one that you often found popping up on coaching search lists, and he ended up with the Bearkats.
And now, should Deggs get lured to move on by a Big 12, SEC, or another major-conference program, there’s little doubt that SHSU will get their pick of the cream of the crop of top-flight assistants from major programs and likely even some established head coaches at other mid-major programs.
The same type of progression goes for the talent that’s made its way to campus. Those early Johnson teams that got into regionals were loaded up with grizzled, physical veterans who were ready to win after years of doing little of the sort, such as slugger Karl Krailo, offensive spark plug Jeremy Holzbach, and lefty staff ace Jesse Marshall, and guys like Keith Stein, Todd Sebek, and Austin Boggs, transfers who followed Johnson over from Texas A&M. Those were gritty, tough-minded teams who punched above their weight and played with a real chip on their shoulder.
Even if they hadn’t made it to regionals at all, those teams felt like squads determined to bring a sense of pride and passion to Bearkat baseball that would be passed along to the next group. And without them, that next group wouldn’t have been as good as they were.
And boy were they good. With Pierce bringing cache from his tenure at Rice, and some success serving as the wind beneath the program’s wings, the talent really exploded at Don Sanders Stadium.
The core of SHSU’s recruiting classes was still players from Houston and Dallas who were largely overlooked by the major-conference programs in the state, but they were starting to punch above their weight not just on the field, but on the recruiting trail. That was borne out both in the results and in the draft. In the ten years prior to Johnson taking over the program, seven Bearkats were drafted. In the nine drafts since then (with the tenth coming within a matter of days), 22 players have been selected, peaking when five players were taken in both 2014 and 2015.
And, frankly, the expectations are higher. For a team in the Southland Conference, it’s tough to be a perennial regional team. Getting at-large bids is tough because there are usually several RPI anchors in the conference, and the league schedule is largely devoid of resume game-changers. But the Bearkats have managed it to get their more often than not, both as an at-large and automatic bid.
So when SHSU failed to get into a regional in Matt Deggs’ first season on the job, in 2015 (they lost in the Southland Conference final to Houston Baptist), there was some grumbling and eyebrow-raising going on among the faithful. The usual transitional pains that come along with any coaching change added to it a little bit, to be sure, but either way, it was clear that getting to a regional was no longer a hope, but an expectation.
All Deggs did after that missed 2015 season, mind you, was get his team into regionals in back-to-back seasons.
So, what’s next?
For starters, they’ve got a super regional this coming weekend in Tallahassee against Florida State. The Seminoles are clearly the favorite going in, but observers would be silly to discount the Bearkats. Their lineup is filled with guys who have plenty of gap power, if not traditional light-tower power, that might play up in FSU’s notoriously hitter-friendly confines, Dick Howser Stadium.
Furthermore, their number-one starter, Heath Donica, is a guy who leads with a sinking fastball, which might help neutralize Florida State’s pop. They can’t hit it out of the park if they pound it into the ground, after all. He also has 106 strikeouts in 108.1 innings, and you can’t hit it out when you don’t hit it at all, either. And you know the Bearkats are going to fight. Coming back to win three games in two days in Lubbock proved as much.
But what about the bigger picture? What’s the trajectory of the program?
This isn’t to suggest that a national championship is right around the corner for the Bearkats, but it’s not blasphemous to look at them as a possible Coastal Carolina of Texas. Consider this:
The Chanticleers went to six regionals under Gary Gilmore before getting to their first super regional, and they were swept by regional rivals North Carolina and South Carolina, in 2008 and 2010, respectively, in their first two super regional appearances. It wasn’t until the 2016 national championship run that CCU won a game in a super. They didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. That was a success story built on 15 years of methodically building a championship program, culminating in a national title.
Both programs also have had their success in smaller conferences. The Chants are in a quality league now, the Sun Belt, but for most of their time as regional stalwarts, they played in the Big South, which has been a one-bid league just about as often as the Southland has been over the last decade or so. And you could argue that there was no Southeastern Louisiana in the Big South, another regular regional program that pushed Coastal the way the Lions have often pushed Sam Houston State. Liberty, Campbell, and Radford all took turns playing second fiddle to the Chanticleers, but none of them did so consistently and with rousing success.
On top of that, these programs were built in a similar way. In the same way that SHSU baseball was initially built with players who were passed over in the recruiting process by Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Rice, and Houston, Coastal laid their foundation with players who were similarly overlooked by South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina, and NC State. Players with a chip on their shoulder punched above their weight, made the program a place to be among high school recruits, and in time, the program found itself winning some of those battles with the heavyweight programs in the region.
It’s tough to deny that the Bearkats are on a similar path. And if that seems far-fetched, imagine how far-fetched being two wins away from Omaha must have felt when Johnson took over a program that hadn’t even been to a regional since 1996 and had only finished above .500 overall once (29-28 in 1998) over that same timespan.
And yet, here they are. Sam Houston is faced with the next in a line of tough tasks the program has taken on in the last decade, and the work over those ten years isn’t lost on Deggs.
“This is for all the former teams,” Deggs said in his postgame press conference after the regional-clinching victory. “There have been a ton of great players that have come through this program that deserved the chance to continue to play, and maybe didn’t get it. Or teams that were on the verge and maybe something didn’t go their way. Right now I can tell you this: what we have done now is for all of those guys that have come through Sam Houston State and given their blood, sweat, and tears for this baseball team and this university. And we’re very thankful to get to represent that.”