SUGAR LAND – Sam Houston State knew its postseason fate would be decided during Saturday night's Southland Conference Tournament championship game against Central Arkansas.
The Bearkats left little to doubt, capturing their second-straight title and fifth NCAA Regional berth in the last six seasons with a 9-4 victory at Constellation Field. Sam Houston (40-20) trailed in just two of 34 innings at the event, helped by a weekend-to-remember from Robie Rojas.
The catcher was named Most Valuable Player and added a 2-for-4 performance including an RBI in the championship. Dakota Mills (7-3) earned the victory, tossing 5 2-3 innings, permitting just three hits and a pair of runs while fanning five without allowing a walk.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Mills set down 13 consecutive UCA (34-26) hitters to start the game and the offense backed the impressive start, jumping out to the early lead as Rojas continued his surge, providing a two-out RBI single in the first after Bryce Johnson walked and Andrew Fregia reached on a fielder's choice.
The Bearkats tacked on two more in the second. Sam Houston put the first two aboard as Hunter Hearn reached on a fielder's choice and Jaxxon Grisham tagged a single into left center. Taylor Beene brought home the first on a run-scoring groundout and two hitters later, Johnson connected on a two-out single into left center after falling behind 0-2 in the count.
Hunter Hearn started the production in the fourth, reaching for the second time, using a leadoff single to begin the frame. The sophomore advanced to second on the wild pitch and third on a Grisham sacrifice bunt before Beene got the job done with a ground out to second.
The Bears were finally able to muster something off Mills in the fifth as Justin McCarty capped a 12-pitch at bat with a one-out solo homer, trimming the Sam Houston lead to 4-1. Mills set down the first two quickly in the sixth but following a Keaton Presley single, Jansen McCurdy rifled a run-scoring double into left center to make it a two-run deficit.
Despite the Sam Houston offensive production, the play of the game to that point may have occurred defensively. UCA's Rigo Aguilar sent a dribbler to Fregia at shortstop. The sophomore stalled momentarily, eventually throwing over to first. Augilar was easily safe but Chisolm rifled a ball home as McCurdy headed home but Rojas blocked the plate and applied the tag.
Sam Houston answered the bell in the seventh, putting the first two aboard before Hearn lined a single through the left side to plate Harp, who led off with a single. Beene provided the major blow, punching a two-out RBI single up the middle, extending the lead to 7-2.
Dominic Robinson set the Bears down in the bottom half of the inning and the offense then went back to work one last time in the top of the eighth, plating two more on RBI singles from Clayton Harp and Blake Chisholm to give the Kats a 9-2 cushion.
UCA tried to mount one final rally in the bottom of the eighth, aided by three Bearkat errors despite a spectacular play from Fregia to rob Eddy Sanchez of a hit to open the inning. Singles by Hunter Strong and Michael Haun had the bases loaded with two away, prompting Matt Deggs to go to Nick Mikolajchak out of the bullpen. But two consecutive errors followed, allowing a pair of runs to score before the Bearkat stopper rung up Brooks Ballisterri looking with the bases loaded to keep it at a 9-4 game.
Mikolajchak then returned to the hill in the ninth where he worked around a two-out walk to Haun before getting Keaton Pressley to ground out to Riley McKnight at second base to wrap it up and send the Kats into celebration mode.
With the win the Bearkats secured their fifth berth in an NCAA Regional in the past six years, and their second consecutive under head coach Matt Deggs. It is the sixth SLC Tournament championship for the program, the most in tournament history. It is the also the first time a team has repeated as tournament champion since Sam Houston won three in a row from 2007 to 2009. No team other than Sam Houston has won consecutive tournament titles since Texas State in 1999 and 2000.
The Kats also picked up their 40th win of the season, marking the 11th time the team has won 40 games in a season. It is the third time in program history the team has won 40 games in consecutive seasons and the first time as a Division I program with the last instance coming in the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
Four Bearkats were named to the all-tournament team, led by Rojas who was named the tournament MVP. The senior catcher finished the week going 10-for-16 at the plate with a pair of home runs and seven RBI, reaching base in 12 of his 18 plate appearances and at least two hits in each of the four games of the tournament.
Blake Chisholm was also named to the all-tournament team after going 9-for-15 with five RBI and a pair of extra-base hits. Hunter Hearn joined him as the third position player on the squad after going 8-for-18 with seven runs scored, six RBI and three doubles. Also on the team was Heath Donica who pitched all seven innings in earning a complete-game win over Stephen F. Austin in the tournament opener and led all players in the tournament with nine strikeouts.
The Bearkats hit .356 for the week with six doubles, a triple and three home runs while averaging better than nine runs per game and slugging .481 as a team. Additionally, the pitching staff posted a miniscule 1.32 ERA with 35 strikeouts to just 13 walks, holding its opponent's to just a .167 batting average for the week.
Opening thoughts from head coach Matt Deggs on the championship…
“This group is tenacious. At moments like this, you like to look back at the journey and where you've come from. This group has had a lot of ups and downs. All we've done all year is respond and continue to get up and work. We never flinched or backed up. The team stayed together. We're playing really good baseball. This just proves that if you stay in the fight, all things are possible. If you decide to shut it down, you'll never know. To put on a performance like this, I think a lot of people would say we're playing our best baseball right now.”
Head coach Matt Deggs on the final out and seeing the dog pile…
“It's all about these kids. This is why we do it. This is a very special group. It doesn't matter where we finish. It is just a super special group of hard working young men. These work super hard. They deserve everything they can. You stand back and you just say thank you Jesus for this opportunity to be around such great young men.”
Most Valuable Player Robie Rojas on the championship…
“It feels great. We had our ups and downs throughout the season. We knew we were still the best team in the league. This field here is gorgeous. To play on a great field like this and know it's a fair fight … it's a great feeling. Without this team, this (MVP) is not mine. Without Chisolm behind me, they won't pitch to me and with Hearn behind him. All week, our whole team has been hitting the ball really well.”
Senior Taylor Beene on winning the title and answering back late…
“It relaxed us. We win in Sugar Land. We came in here with a lot of confidence. Our teammates did a great job of coming back. Slim did a great job of stepping up and getting a knock. You just keep packing the stick. All we had to do was win four games and we're in … we did.”