Image credit: (Photo courtesy of McNeese State)
This offseason, we’re going to take deep dives into all 31 Division I baseball conferences, using five years’ worth of data to examine where each league has been and to try to project forward to where they might go.
The Southland Conference has had the same membership for each of the last five seasons. That might not sound altogether notable, but it is when you consider all of the shifting that went on in the league prior to that.
After the 2012 season, Texas-Arlington, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State all departed, motivated primarily by getting into leagues that play FBS football. Just like that, three of the most successful baseball programs in the conference, all of which had been in the SLC for at least 20 years, were gone. Oral Roberts, a brand name in college baseball and one of the teams brought in to replace those three, came and went within a two-year span between 2012-2014.
The Southland back-filled those gaps mostly by elevating programs from Division II or from the ranks of Division I independents, with Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word and New Orleans moving up in 2013.
It was fair to wonder if those changes would negatively affect the league’s standing moving forward, at least initially. Even quality Division II programs typically have an adjustment period that can last several years and bring down a conference’s performance in metrics like RPI.
To some degree, those adjustment periods happened with the new SLC programs, but it didn’t seem to deter the league too much. In fact, the conference has gotten multiple teams into regionals in three of the six seasons since those programs joined, which is no less often than that happened beforehand.
At the same time, those new programs have improved, which can only help moving forward. In 2019, ACU and UIW both enjoyed their best seasons as members of the Southland. HBU got to a regional in 2015 and had fourth-place finishes in the league standings in 2017 and 2018. And after winning just five total conference games in its first two seasons in the league, UNO has gone no worse than 13-17 in league play in any season since then.
Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana have clearly carried the Southland flag in this most recent iteration of the conference, and you will see that repeatedly in this stock watch, whether looking at the standings, postseason results or top drafted players.
In 2017, when both the Bearkats and Lions had been to regionals in back-to-back seasons and the former became the first team from the Southland to advance to a super regional, it looked like those two programs could single-handedly lift the league to a new place as an emerging mid-major conference.
Perhaps that has proven to be too heavy a lift for those programs and for the league as a whole, but just as importantly, what we’ve also learned is that this most recent round of realignment in the league doesn’t mean the end of the Southland being a conference that can produce teams with at-large-quality resumes.
*2020 records not included
**Stephen F. Austin had a number of wins vacated by the NCAA between 2015-2019, but these standings reflect its record before that action was taken
|Sam Houston State
|Stephen F. Austin
|Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
The gap between Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston State and everyone else in the Southland is pretty profound, with more than 12 percentage points between second and third place. One thing the Southland is known for is extremely compact standings from year to year, with the battles for the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament often being as intense as the battles at the top of the standings. You can see that borne out in the five-year standings as well. The difference between fifth and 10th place, right where the competition would be taking place for conference tournament spots, is just over six percentage points. The compact nature of the conference is also shown in where Nicholls State finishes here. The Colonels have had just one top-eight finish in the last five seasons, but thanks in large part to the fact that they’ve never bottomed out, with a 13-17 conference record the worst they’ve had, they come in sixth.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each Southland program performed over the last five full seasons. The arrow designation of up, down and to the side represent the results of the last five seasons, not a projection of the years to come.
This five-year data sample was good to Southeastern Louisiana, with a regular-season title in 2015 (thanks to an outstanding 25-5 league record) and regional appearances in 2016 and 2017. It also finished first or second in the conference every single season. The Lions have been incredibly consistent lately and don’t show many signs of slowing down.
Sam Houston State—??
Matt Deggs took a Sam Houston State program that was already a success thanks to previous coaches Mark Johnson and David Pierce and took it to the next level. The Bearkats won regular-season titles in three of the last five seasons, and in 2017, became the first team in Southland Conference history to advance to a super regional. Jay Sirianni, who took over for Deggs after the 2019 season, has big shoes to fill moving forward.
The Cowboys achieved some significant milestones in the last five years. In 2017, they won the Southland regular-season title for the first time since 2006. Then, in 2019, they advanced to a regional for the first time since 2003. Not only is the arrow pointing up for McNeese’s last five seasons, but its overall trajectory is headed that way as well. It had a promising team in 2020 and should again in 2021.
Central Arkansas continues to plug away as the most quietly consistent program in the Southland. It hasn’t finished under .500 in conference since 2013, which is also the season the Bears won the Southland’s automatic bid as the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament. Speaking of the conference tournament, UCA hasn’t missed out on that event since 2011, and in 2017 and 2019, it fell in the conference tournament final, just one win short of a return to the postseason.
Throughout its proud history, which includes coaching stints by greats of the game like Jim Wells, Dave Van Horn and John Cohen, nine regular-season SLC titles and multiple at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament, one thing Northwestern State hadn’t done is win the conference tournament. That changed in 2018, when the Demons pulled it off for their first regional trip since 2005, back when current coach Bobby Barbier was a player at NSU. In recent years, coaches Lane Burroughs (now at Louisiana Tech) and Barbier have done an outstanding job of breathing new life into the program.
The Colonels’ place in these five-year standings has a lot to do with the team’s ability to remain competitive year after year in the league, which was also the case in the previous five seasons. However, Nicholls State hasn’t been as successful in going from competitive to finishing near the top of the league, with just one season inside the top eight in the last five seasons, a third-place finish in 2015.
A member of Division I just since the start of the 2008 season and a member of the Southland Conference since the 2014 season, Houston Baptist achieved a huge program milestone by winning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2015. The Huskies followed that up with fourth-place finishes in 2017 and 2018, further cementing them as a quality addition to the conference.
There have been some ups in the last five seasons for Lamar, including a third-place finish in 2016, the final season for legendary coach Jim Gilligan at the helm, but there have also been downs, such as a 12th-place finish in 2015, an 11th-place finish in 2018 and a last-place finish in 2019. Above all else, there’s nothing in the last five seasons that stacks up to the Cardinals getting to a regional, which they did back in 2010.
Stephen F. Austin—??
The last five seasons have featured a bit of a downturn for the Lumberjacks. From 2015-2019, their average conference finish was between eighth and ninth place. In the five seasons prior to that, the average conference finish was sixth place, and they even came in second in 2011. Of course, the NCAA sanctions that vacated a whole host of wins from the last five seasons made things even worse.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi—??
The last five seasons haven’t gone quite as well for the Islanders as the five seasons prior. From 2015-2019, their best conference finish was seventh, which came in 2018. Compare that to 2010-2014, when they came in second in 2013, third in 2011 and fourth in 2014. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is looking for its first regional appearance.
At various points in history, New Orleans has risen up to be a player on the national stage. Most recently, that happened when the Privateers made back-to-back regionals in 2007-2008 as members of the Sun Belt Conference. They haven’t gotten back to that point after briefly toying with dropping down to a lower division before coming back up as a member of the Southland, but there have been strides of late, including qualifying for the conference tournament three times in the last five seasons.
The Cardinals only moved up to Division I in time for the 2014 season, but after a few years of growing pains at this level, they’ve recently started to find their stride, particularly in the two seasons Patrick Hallmark was at the helm. In 2018, a 10th-place finish and 13 conference wins were the best UIW had done as a member of the Southland. In 2019, it blew those marks out of the water, finishing in fourth place and going 18-12 in the league. Ryan Shotzberger, who took over prior to the 2020 season, is tasked with keeping that momentum going.
The arrow points up for Abilene Christian primarily because it has only been a member of Division I since prior to the 2014 season, although like UIW, there have been recent positive strides. In 2019, a 13-17 conference record tied the best it has done since joining the league, and at 26-26, it was the first time the Wildcats had finished .500 overall as a member of Division I.
Regional Recap by Year
The big breakthrough, both on a program and conference level, came in 2017, when SHSU was the first Southland team to reach a super regional. Southeastern Louisiana also showcased its consistency by getting to two regionals in this data sample after getting there in 2014 as well. The three other regional teams from these five seasons were all breaking through for the first time or for the first time in a long time. It was the first time ever for HBU in 2015, the first time since 2005 for Northwestern State in 2018 and the first time since 2003 for McNeese State in 2019.
Top Draft Picks
|Aaron Hernandez, RHP, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
|Jameson Fisher, OF, Southeastern Louisiana
|Mac Sceroler, RHP, Southeastern Louisiana
|Nathan Jones, RHP, Northwestern State
|Bryce Johnson, OF, Sam Houston State
None of these five players have cracked the big leagues yet, but Johnson might be the closest, as he spent the 2019 season at Double-A. Fisher has also logged some Double-A time in his career, but he spent the 2019 season back down at high Class A. Stephen F. Austin shortstop Hunter Dozier, the eighth overall pick to the Royals in 2013, is the most recent first-round pick from the Southland, but that streak could come to an end in 2021 thanks to Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser.
|Sam Houston State
The last five years was a period of transition within the Southland Conference, and you can see that through the list of coaching changes. In the case of Incarnate Word (in 2017) and Abilene Christian, those programs replaced the coaches who transitioned the teams into Division I with coaches they hoped could help said programs take the next step. Some coaches, like Burroughs (to Louisiana Tech), Deggs (to Louisiana) and Hallmark (to Texas-San Antonio), used success in the Southland to move up to programs in bigger conferences. There were also the retirements of a couple of program legends in New Orleans’ Ron Maestri and Lamar’s Jim Gilligan. Maestri, who came out of retirement for two seasons to guide the program back to Division I, led UNO to the College World Series in 1983. Gilligan led the Cardinals to 12 regional appearances and won more than 1,300 games in Beaumont.