One of the biggest Sam Houston sports stories of the 2012 spring semester has been the amazing performance of the Bearkat baseball team.

With a new coach, only three returning starters and 16 newcomers on the 35-man roster, the Bearkats were predicted to be a middle-of-the-pack team in this year's Southland Conference race.

At the halfway point of the season, however, Sam Houston stands in first place with a four-game lead on the pack. The Kats ranked among the top 25 teams in NCAA Division I baseball.

First year coach David Pierce is quick to point out that one of the reasons for the team's success is a small but solid group of senior leaders.

Fifth-year pitcher Justice Jackson is the veteran of that group.

"It's hard to wipe the smile off your face when you talk about Justin Jackson," Pierce said. "He's a jokester who keeps everyone loose off the field. But when he steps on the mound, he is all business. Justin and the rest of our seniors have done a great job of being the calm in a storm and providing leadership for the younger players on the squad."

Jackson is the only member of the 2012 team who played on both of Sam Houston's NCAA regional teams in 2008 and 2009. The Magnolia product has made 67 mound appearances in his five years as a Bearkat and has become a member of the team's regular weekend starting pitching rotation this spring.

"Having played on teams that won the Southland tournament and made it to the NCAA regionals, it's a big goal for me to get back to the NCAAs my senior year," Jackson said. "Everyone on this year's team gets along well. We have fun in practice and everyone works hard."

Jackson was a four-year starter and All-District pitcher at Magnolia High School. He also played for the Houston Heat club team and helped lead Team Texas to the 2006 Sunbelt Classic title.

"I choose Sam Houston because it was just a great fit for me," Jackson said. "What is great here is how all the athletes from the different sports are a community. We all go to each other's games and support all the teams."

Jackson pitched in 10 games as a freshman and 21 games both as a sophomore and junior in 2009 and 2010. The 2008 and 2009 squads both won the Southland Conference post-season tournament and earned berths in back-to-back NCAA regionals in Houston.

But Jackson's senior season, he took a medical red-shirt to recover from Tommy John surgery. The senior bounced back to become a starter for the 2012 team. He owns a 6-3 won-loss record and is limiting opposing hitters to a .250 batting average at the mid-point of the season.

"Justin has seen good times and hard times and knows what it takes to succeed," Bearkat relief pitcher and teammate Michael Oros said. "He leads by example and the young guys follow what he does."

A major turning point in the 2012 season was Sam Houston's sweep of Southland preseason favorite and No. 23 ranked Texas State in Huntsville March 23-25. Jackson was the winning pitcher in the 10-4 Saturday victory over the Bobcats that represented the second in a string of 13 victories - the longest winning streak for the SHSU program in the Kats' 25 years in the Southland Conference.

"Justin has a good understanding of what he is trying to do with each pitch," Pierce said. "He has a good mixture of pitches, an excellent delivery and a great work ethic. Justin and our other seniors do a great job of setting a tone in practice and on the field, providing an winning environment for the younger players."

One month remains in the 2012 season with home Southland Conference weekend series against A&M-Corpus Christi April 27-29 and Southeastern Louisiana May 11-13. The Southland Conference tournament will be held starting May 23 in San Marcos.

"Right now we're focused on keeping things going," Jackson said. "This is the fun part of baseball. I want to do a good job pitching to give my team a chance to win."