There's a new excitement around Don Sanders Stadium as the 2012 baseball season begins.

David Pierce, an assistant coach at Rice for the past nine seasons where he produced nationally ranked pitching staffs, stepped on to the field at the Bearkats' baseball palace for the first time this weekend and a new era in Sam Houston baseball began.

Kat baseball opened with a new coaching staff and a new-look team as the Bearkats played host to the University of San Diego. The young SHSU baseball squad will play 11 home games during the next three weeks and the new Bearkat skipper is excited about the way the program is shaping up.

"We had a great fall and we're pleased with the way the players have responded," Pierce said. "We'll be facing some outstanding teams here early in the season who will test us. But we believe we have a good chance to be successful this year."

Price was hired last spring to take over a rebuilt Bearkat baseball program, one he believes has a higher ceiling even than the one reached by his predecessor, Mark Johnson.

"This is a growing program," Pierce said. "I think we've got a chance to do some really good things here."

A lifelong Houstonian who has coached at both the high school and college levels, Pierce believes the Bearkats can improve on the job done by Johnson in the past five seasons. Johnson, the longtime Texas A&M coach, took over at SHSU in 2006 and quickly turned the Bearkats into consistent winners again. The veteran coach led his first Bearkat bunch into the championship round of the Oxford (Miss.) Regional. In three straight seasons, from 2007-09, Johnson guided Sam Houston to NCAA regionals.

Pierce, who for years has been tracking the SHSU program while watching from the opposing dugout, says there is no doubt about the Bearkats' ability to compete on the national stage. Under Johnson's guidance, Sam Houston turned things around and became one of Texas' top baseball schools again.

"Five years ago, this job had a different setting," Pierce explained. "What coach Johnson has done, and with the new stadium, I think we have an opportunity to make this one of the best jobs in the country. The foundation is set. Just look at the recruiting base and the area we're in. There are tons of talented players within a 100-mile radius. The university is growing and what Don Sanders has done with the stadium, we are able to reach a lot of recruits.

"There is a great opportunity for players here to get a nice degree, to win and advance into professional baseball, if that's what they want to do."

At Rice, Pierce tutored a pitching staff that ranked on the top 30 in NCAA Division I in staff ERA including a No. 4 national mark in 2007. He believes the Bearkats' hopes for success in 2012 start on the mound.

"I think pitching can be a team strength for us," Pierce said. Returning lettermen Caleb Smith, Cody Dickson and Justin Jackson were the starters on the mound for SHSU the first weekend of the season.

"All three have great stuff, but they are going to have to throw strikes and log a lot of innings for us if we're to be successful," Pierce said. "If they can throw into the seventh or eighth innings, we have a chance to be okay."

Junior right-hander Michael Burchett was a closer for the Bearkats last year but could also see action earlier in games this season. Freshmen left-handers Andrew Godail and Brandon Bergen and sophomore transfer Alan Scott look to figure in Sam Houston's plans for success on the mound.

In the field, senior catcher John Hale, junior third baseman Kevin Miller and sophomore outfielder Luke Plucheck look to be leaders in the field for Sam Houston.

Senior outfielder Jake Arrington and junior infielder Jesse Plumlee are two returning lettermen that have impressed the new head coach.

Shortstop Cory Toups, center field Colt Atwood and infielder Ryan O'Hearn are three freshmen expected to contribute immediately.

"We were picked to finish fifth in the Southland Conference preseason poll of the league's head coaches," Pierce said. "Obviously, we have plrenty of work to do. Our goal is to contend for a high seed at the tournament and be in contention for post season play. We're ready to get started."

Pierce also is excited about his staff of assistants.

Sean Allen was an All-Conference performer at the University of Houston who served as an assistant the past four years at Florida International University in Miami, Fla., helping directing FIU to NCAA Division I regional berths the past two seasons.

Philip Miller returns to Sam Houston after a pair of seasons as an assistant at Northwestern State. Miller was a member of Mark Johnson's staff the three years the Bearkats won the Southland tournament and went to the NCAA regionals.

Former Rice University catcher Travis Reagan will serve as volunteer coach for the Bearkats beginning with the 2011-12 school year.

"All three are quality assistant coaches who will help us continue to build the Bearkat program," Pierce said.

Sam Houston will play to UC-Riverside in a three-game series at Don Sanders Friday through Sunday, March 2-4. The Kats also will host Houston Baptist on Tuesday March 6 before opening Southland Conference action Friday through Sunday March 9-11 at the Don.

Tickets for Sam Houston home baseball games at Don Sanders Stadium are available now online at Fans also can purchase tickets Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the SHSU athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House at Bowers Stadium. The ticket office telephone is (936) 294-1729.