When Sam Houston State clinched the 2012 Southland Conference baseball championship Sunday, May 13 with an 8-3 victory over Southeastern Louisiana, the title marked the first league regular season title for the program in 23 years.

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.

But the Bearkats jumped out in front of the league race early by winning each of their first eight Southland series including three series sweeps.

The clinching victory came with three more contests left on the schedule and gave the Bearkats' a four-game lead in the race heading into the final week.

"The most gratifying thing about this year's squad is the way the whole group has come together and become a team," first-year head coach David Pierce said. "There are no superstars on this team. We can't afford to lean on just one or two guys every game and expect to win. Everyone has to be ready to step up and that's what they've done.

"This is a group with a lot of goals and winning the regular season conference title is just one. There is a lot of baseball still to play."

Following an non-conference encounter with No. 5 ranked Rice Tuesday that will wrap up the 2012 home schedule at Don Sanders Stadium, the Bearkats travel to Central Arkansas for their final Southland series.

Next is the Southland Conference baseball tournament Wednesday, May 23 through Saturday, May 26 at Bobcat Stadium in San Marcos.

Only twice in Southland Conference history has the regular season champion won the tournament title as the number one seed. The winner of the tournament advances to the NCAA Division I regional. If the regular season champion losses in the tournament, their only path to the regionals is through an at-large berth.

"The RPI (ratings percentage index) game on Tuesday is huge. It's big for both teams because Rice is trying to host a regional in the first round of the NCAA tournament and we're trying to solidify an opportunity to be an at-large selection in the NCAA," Pierce said. "It's a very big game."

Pierce credits the leadership provided by his five seniors a big reason for the success of his young squad.

"When you have a young team like ours it's important to have good leaders and that is what we've gotten from our seniors," Pierce said. The 2012 seniors are catcher John Hale, pitchers Jordan Bunch, Michael Oros and Justin Jackson and outfielder Jake Arrington.

"Those five guys have been a big factor in pulling things together and coordinating the young and the old," Pierce said. "We've had some youngsters who have made some freshmen mistakes and sometimes we've had to pull them back and talk about not trying to make extraordinary plays but play the game one pitch at a time and enjoy themselves."

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.

The Bearkats have been ranked as high as No. 20 nationally this spring and have seen their names in all four of the major college NCAA Division I national polls.

"Even though we've won the regular season championship, we know we're not going to be handed anything the rest of the way," Oros, who was the winning pitcher for the Bearkats in their title-clinching victory over the Lions. "To earn an NCAA Regionals berth, we have to continue to win games."

The announcement of the complete NCAA Division I baseball field will be made the Monday following the Southland Conference tournament. While the Bearkats remain focused on earning Sam Houston its fourth NCAA baseball tournament bid in the last seven seasons, they did enjoy claiming the Southland regular season title.

"It was exciting to clinch the championship on Senior Day in front of the home fans," Oros said. "We'd talked about it a lot and really wanted to nail down the title at home and not on the road."