2019 Southland Conference College Baseball Preview
1. Sam Houston State (39-20, 24-6)
2. Southeastern Louisiana (37-22, 21-9)
3. Northwestern State (38-24, 18-12)
4. McNeese State (25-33, 15-15)
5. Incarnate Word (29-26, 13-17)
6. Central Arkansas (32-25, 17-13)
7. Houston Baptist (29-30, 18-12)
8. Lamar (19-36, 13-17)
9. Nicholls State (28-32, 14-16)
10. New Orleans (29-32, 14-16)
11. Texas A&M – Corpus Christi (30-26, 14-16)
12. Stephen F. Austin (17-36, 9-21)
13. Abilene Christian (21-33, 5-25)
Team to Beat: Sam Houston State
The beat goes on for Sam Houston State (39-20), even after missing the postseason for just the second time in the last seven seasons in 2018. The Bearkats go into the 2019 season with a surplus of pitching at their disposal. The trio of Hayden Wesneski (7-3, 3.50), Seth Ballew (6-1, 3.00) and Riley Gossett (2-1, 3.66) give Matt Deggs’ club an experienced and accomplished rotation. Behind those three, the return of Nick Mikolajchak (6-5, 4.19), Brad Demco (3-1, 3.09) and Landon Ausley (1-0, 2.53) make it an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen as well. If Kyle Backhus can put up numbers closer to what he did in 2017 than in 2018, it will make this unit deeper still. Offensively, veterans Clayton Harp (.323/.405/.460) and Hunter Hearn (.294/.371/.482) will be catalysts for the Bearkats’ “pack” style of offense that puts a premium on versatility, athleticism and pushing the envelope at every opportunity. There are some holes to fill in the lineup, but look for instant impacts from the likes of freshman outfielders Diego Davila and Colton Cowser, and freshman infielder Jackson Loftin, a strong defender at shortstop.
Player of the Year: Shane Selman, OF, McNeese State
Selman has been nothing but productive over his first three seasons in the program. The Lake Charles, La., product who played his high school baseball about three miles from McNeese’s Joe Miller Ballpark has accumulated a career .279/.346/.518 slash line with 35 doubles, 34 home runs and 119 RBIs. The power has been there from the start, but over time, he’s become a much more disciplined hitter. His strikeout totals have stayed flat, even as his usage has steadily increased, and his walk totals have sharply increased. In fact, he drew more walks in his junior season (25) than he had in the two previous seasons combined (22). After last season he was drafted in the 39th round by the Red Sox, but he is returning to McNeese for one more season, looking to help the Cowboys get back into postseason contention, as they were in 2017, when they won the SLC regular season title.
Pitcher of the Year: Carlisle Koestler, RHP, Southeastern Louisiana
Under Matt Riser, Southeastern Louisiana has developed a reputation for producing fantastic pitching staffs year after year, and Koestler is the latest quality arm to lead the Lions’ rotation. In 2018, he went 7-1, 2.68, striking out 73, walking only 13 and limiting opposing hitters to just a .221 batting average in 87.1 innings. He pitched this summer in the Cape Cod League, with Lions’ rotation mate Corey Gaconi. The presence of those two seniors at the front of Southeastern’s rotation is the biggest reason for optimism that the Lions will once again be in the SLC race until the end.
Freshman of the Year: Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State
Succeeding as a freshman in Division I baseball is all about adjusting to a higher level of play, and when you might be struggling mentally or having difficulty getting accustomed to the rigors of a longer schedule, as often happens with first-year players, it pays to be able to fall back on raw athleticism. Cowser is brimming with it, and that bodes well for his productivity for the Bearkats in 2019. At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, he’s got a very projectable body. He runs a 6.6-second 60-yard dash, and his vertical leap has been measured at 41 inches. He flashed power and good feel for stealing bases throughout his first fall on campus, and while he might become more of a statistical monster once he puts it all together later in his career, it seems a safe bet that he’ll be able to take advantage of his gifts and contribute right away, even if he’s not a finished product right out of the gate.
Top 25 Teams: None.
Northwestern State (38-24) returns a good club after winning the Southland Tournament and the conference’s automatic bid into regionals last season, with its pitching staff looking particularly stout. Back are all three members of last season’s weekend rotation—Ridge Heisler (7-3, 3.40), Nathan Jones (4-6, 3.84) and Jerry Maddox (8-3, 1.88), along with top reliever Jose Vasquez (6-2, 2.90). Offensively, the losses of David Fry, the 2018 Southland player of the year, and Kwan Adkins, will leave sizable holes, but the returning lineup will be upperclassmen-laden. If some of those returning hitters show marked improvement and some new faces emerge, the Demons could find themselves in the race for the regular season title.
In its first year under Pat Hallmark, Incarnate Word (29-26) set a Division I program record for total wins and wins in Southland play with 13. The sheer size of the Southland and the competitive nature of the middle portion of the league standings makes upward mobility tough in this league, but UIW is getting it done. Last year’s team led the conference in batting average and on-base percentage, and they lose just one player from that group. Kyle Bergeron (.321/.396/.466), Eddy Gonzalez (.371/.440/.448) and Ridge Rogers (.362/.444/.441) will lead the way after enjoying outstanding 2018 campaigns. On the mound, they issued the second-fewest walks in the conference last season, and that will again be their M.O. in 2019. The entire weekend rotation of Bernie Martinez (6-3, 4.21), Tyler Miller (3-5, 4.31) and Luke Taggart (4-5, 3.99) returns, as does their most reliable reliever, Cody Allen (2-5, 3.28). At a minimum, this season’s Cardinals look more than capable of earning the program’s first Southland Tournament appearance, but their ceiling is much higher than that.
The only Southland coaching change ahead of the 2019 season was Abilene Christian’s (21-33) hiring of Rick McCarty, who takes over for Britt Bonneau, the coach who led the Wildcats in their transition to Division I. McCarty looks like a natural fit for the position, given his experience as an assistant with a whole host of winning programs, many of which involved recruiting the same geographical footprint he will need to recruit for ACU. In the last ten years, he’s spent time at Southeast Missouri State, Campbell, Louisiana Tech and, most recently, Dallas Baptist.
The Southland has a notoriously competitive middle class. Last year, for example, three teams tied for the eighth and final spot in the conference tourney with 14-16 records, and taking a wider view, nine teams finished with somewhere between 13 and 18 league wins. One particularly good (or bad) weekend for all of those teams in the middle meant the difference between finishing in the top quarter of the standings and missing out on the conference tournament altogether. With teams like McNeese and Lamar likely to move up the standings in 2019, a program like Northwestern State appearing to have staying power at the top of the league, and other programs making a move into this space, like Incarnate Word, things don’t seem to be getting any less messy.
Roundup: Georgia Tech, Miami, Southern Miss All Score Key Wins
Key wins for Georgia Tech, Miami and Southern Miss highlighted Friday night's college baseball action.
1. Hayden Wesneski, RHP, Sam Houston State
2. Nick Mikolajchak, RHP, Sam Houston State
3. Kyle Bergeron, C, Incarnate Word
4. Cole McKay, RHP, Abilene Christian
5. Shane Selman, OF, McNeese State
6. Kyle Backhus, LHP, Sam Houston State
7. Hunter Hearn, OF, Sam Houston State
8. Carlisle Koestler, RHP, Southeastern Louisiana
9. Cody Davenport, RHP, Central Arkansas
10. Nathan Jones, RHP, Northwestern State