HUNTSVILLE – Sam Houston State elevated its program into the national spotlight a season ago and there is ample reason to believe they are positioned well again entering the upcoming season.
The Bearkats closed out their 30-practice fall slate on Wednesday with fourth-year head coach Matt Deggs feeling confident in the direction of his team and its development during the phase it refers to as ‘Base Camp’ in route to climbing the mountain in 2018.
“It’s probably our most consistent fall since we’ve been here,” Deggs said. “Guys understand the standard and expectation. They all get what’s at stake and on the line. They show up every day ready to work. They’ve done an incredible job mastering the routine and working to get better.”
STRONG VETERAN PRESENCE A MAJOR BOOST
The Kats can largely credit their consistency to a veteran presence including the maturation of 10 juniors who enter their third year fresh off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. The return Riley Gossett (redshirt sophomore) and addition of five players with Division I experience (Chase Cryer, Ben Haefner, Gavin Johnson, Tre Ochoa, Darien Simms) does not hurt either.
“I think the biggest difference this fall from the last two is the start we got off to and the consistency we’ve had the whole fall,” junior utility player Riley McKnight said. “We came in and everyone was hitting and everyone was filling up the zone. We didn’t skip a beat.”
DEPTH, VERSATILITY HIGHLIGHTED IN COMPETITION
The question marks that linger through the winter are mostly due to the strong depth on the team. The best example of that has been in the case of standout Andrew Fregia. The highly-touted junior, who has 93 career starts at third base, also played catcher and center field during the fall.
Alongside Fregia and McKnight, several others took on multiple roles this fall. After spending his sophomore season exclusively on the mound, posting a 2-0 record and 3.04 ERA in 21 appearances including one start, Jordan Cannon showed his versatility as a full-time pitcher and catcher.
Meanwhile, 6-foot-5 senior Blake Chisolm, who was a Southland Conference Honorable Mention a season ago, has spent time both on the mound and at first base. The right-hander is one of a handful of candidates at designated hitter as well after leading the team in slugging (.561) and doubles (18) in 2017.
Incoming freshman Jack Rogers, a former first-team all-district honoree at Klein Collins High School fits a similar bill. This fall, he pitched, manned the outfield and played first base.
In the middle infield, the Kats received a major boost with the addition of redshirt senior Ben Haefner. The Buffalo transfer was a 2017 All-MAC First-Team honoree at shortstop a season ago and this fall saw action throughout the infield including steady time at second base.
“We have a lot of skill and athletic guys on the infield,” McKnight said. “That makes it fun. We’re all pretty consistent. There’s a lot of competition as well. We have five or six guys that can play at any position. It’s exciting because we get to play a lot of positions.”
In addition to Fregia, Sam Houston has four catchers listed on its depth chart including Gavin Johnson, a former Rice and New Mexico JC product. Last year’s backup catcher, Hunter Southerland, has also spent time at third base. The redshirt senior hit .412 (7 for 17) with four RBIs in limited action last season.
Other infield notables included the sparkplug newcomers Tre Ochoa and Chase Cryer have provided both at the plate and the dish. Sam Houston also explored the possibility of Jaxxon Grisham at second base. The now-junior boasted a 1.000 fielding percentage with 102 putouts at first base last season.
MAKING WAY ON THE MOUND
Entering last season, roles were long from being locked up for a pitching staff whose only certainty was Heath Donica on the bump Friday nights. The freshman-laden hurlers answered the call, turning the team’s biggest question marks into one of its biggest strengths.
With the departure of Donica, who is currently in the Oakland Athletics organization, the Kats gladly welcomed back a healthy Riley Gossett this fall. The redshirt sophomore missed all of 2017 with a torn lat muscle just one season after being named Freshman All-American.
“We lost Heath but we pick up Goose,” Deggs said. “Obviously, everyone here associated with the program would have loved to see how (last) season played out with Riley but we didn’t get that chance. He is back and fully healthy. Looking at it from our perspective, he is probably the No. 1 recruit we have on the team. He’s going to be able to step in and go Friday or Saturday to help solidify that top spot.”
The Kats now bolster a pair of freshman All-Americans in their arsenal with right-hander Hayden Wesneski garnering the acclaim a season ago. In the bullpen, closer Nick Mikolajchak continued to shine this fall after matching 2016 senior Greg Belton’s mark of 13 saves as a freshman while leading the Southland Conference.
Sam Houston has several viable options to fill starting rotation vacancies including Seth Ballew (6-3, 4.03 ERA) who made 14 starts last year and Dakota Mills (7-3, 4.54 ERA) who started 15. Sophomore Kyle Backhus (4-4, 4.19 ERA) also made six starts while Jordan Cannon, Brad Demco, Dominic Robinson, Colin Cameron and Gabriel Sequeira added one each.
Two newcomers in the mix include junior transfer James Kuykendall and freshman Landon Ausley. If consistency was the big takeaway during the fall, that certainly included the pitching.
“We strive to be the same guys every day like coach preaches,” Cameron said. “It is (our) confidence and the fact that we won’t be happy to going to a Regional or Super. We expect to go all the way. That’s why we come out here every day and train hard.”
WHAT’S NEXT ON THE DOCKET
The next time Sam Houston hits the field as a team it will be when the team re-opens practice on Friday, Jan. 26. Fans can anticipate the release of the team’s 2018 schedule and season ticket information in the coming weeks.
“They can show up and work to get better every day at what they do for this ballclub,” Deggs said. “I like the steadiness and the way we’ve worked and competed. We’ve had a workman-like attitude. We equate it to climbing a mountain. The fall is base camp. We stepped out of base camp and started that journey this fall.”