The Sam Houston baseball team arrived at the Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park Feb. 28 with something to prove.
The six-team field in the three-day event at the home of the Astros was numbered with powerhouse programs from the state including Texas, Texas Tech, TCU, Rice and Houston.
Then, there was Sam Houston State. The Bearkats were overwhelming underdogs, according to most. That designation pinned on their backs despite an 8-1 record this season, back-to-back Southland Conference championships the past two years and consecutive NCAA Regionals appearances heading into their first appearance and invite in the annual tournament.
“A lot of people don’t give us credit,” junior outfielder Colt Atwood said. “Maybe we haven’t earned their credit. I don’t know. But at the same time we don’t really care. We think we deserve it and that’s all that matters. They had us finishing sixth out of sixth here.”
Instead, Sam Houston opted to write its own script opening the eyes of the baseball community with a 9-4 win over No. 12 TCU on Friday and an encore performance in a 10-6 win over No. 26 Texas Tech on Saturday.
Suddenly, receiving both regional and national media attention, Bearkat baseball burst on to the NCAA scene in one of their biggest weekends of Division I success.
“We want to create a culture that we feel like we can play with anybody in the country,” third-year head coach David Pierce said. “That’s why we want to play in these tournaments. We’ve got kids that buy into what we talk about and what we do. The bottom line is they’re good baseball players and they deserve to be in this.”
No player competed at a higher-level defensively this weekend than Sam Houston left fielder Luke Plucheck.
The senior from Tomball landed two phenomenal catches including cameo appearances as the number two and number three plays on consecutive days of ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10.
“That’s what he does,” Pierce said of Plucheck. “He’s a great left fielder. He’s actually a center fielder playing left field.”
With their performance in the tournament, the Kats played their way into the national rankings. The 10-2 Bearkats now are tied for their highest ranking ever as an NCAA Division I program, standing No. 20 in Baseball America’s weekly poll.
The opportunity for the Kats to participate in the Classic not only offered top rated opposition but also a chance for Sam Houston to compete in the same venue where some of the greats to ever put on the uniform have made their mark on the game.
“We’re only an hour from Houston so most of our guys are 'gi-normous' Astros fans,” Plucheck said. “To play on a field where the greats have played, it’s truly an honor. It’s not just showing up and playing Texas Tech, it’s playing in Minute Maid Park where the Astros play. I’m just a big giant kid out here having fun.”
Following the 2-1 weekend stint against a trio of Big XII schools, the Bearkats cracked the top 25 in three other polls as well. It marks the second time in program history the Kats have been ranked with the first coming in 2012.
“Sam Houston’s lineup is very experienced,” Aaron Fitt of Baseball America said. “These are older players who have been to regionals and have won a lot of big games. One thing about this program is they play a lot of big mid-week games and they win a lot of them and they have since David Pierce got there. I think they’re very dangerous.”
Sam Houston also came away with four players being named to the all-tournament team including
Atwood, senior catcher Anthony Azar, junior third baseman Carter Burgess and junior outfielder Hayden Simerly as the Kats brand of baseball finally began garnering recognition.
“We could care less if anyone in the country knows who we are but if they’ve got to show up to play us that day they’re going to find out real quick,” Plucheck said. “If people want to say ‘Sam Houston’s finally here’ that’s great but for us we’ve been here for the last two years hopefully now someone is finally going to recognize it.”
Sam Houston baseball returns home to Don Sanders Stadium for five games in the next two weeks. The Bearkats host Rice Wednesday, March 5 at 5:00 p.m.; Cal State-Northridge in a three-game weekend series, March 7-9 and UTSA, March 11.
The two-time defending Southland Conference champions start Southland Conference action March 14-16 with a three-game series at New Orleans.