For years, baseball was Sam Houston State’s pride and joy.
The Bearkats won 1,127 games and lost only 579 from 1957 to 1994. With four ties thrown in, that’s a winning percentage of .659.
During that lengthy 38-season stretch, SHSU won an NAIA national championship (1963), two Lone Star Conference titles (1981 and ’82), three Gulf Star Conference championships (1985, ’86 and ’87) and one Southland Conference crown (’89).
The Bearkats took nine trips to the NAIA World Series and three visits to the NCAA Division II Regionals. After making the move up to Division I, they earned their way to three NCAA Regionals, winning a combined three games at Austin’s Disch-Falk Field in 1987 and ’96.
Hard times hit the SHSU program after the Bearkats beat Miami in the ’96 regional in Austin. A school that had played 38 straight seasons of .500 or better baseball turned in eight losing records in a row, starting in 1999.
Down on their luck and looking for answers, the Bearkats turned to a veteran college baseball coach for help. In July of 2006, SHSU director of athletics Bobby Williams announced the hiring of Mark Johnson, the longtime Texas A&M; head baseball coach. Johnson had been out of coaching for a year, but charged up and ready, he eagerly accepted the challenge that came with the job at Sam Houston.
No one expected immediate results, but Johnson sure produced some.
The Bearkats went out this spring and won 34 games in the regular season, which was good enough to get them into the Southland Conference Tournament for the first time in seven years.
Then they got hot.
Led offensively by Bobby Verbick, Heath Pugh, Clint Mann and Keith Stein, the Bearkats and pitchers Jacob Howard, Jessie Marshall, Tim Gray, Matt Fry and Luke Prihoda ripped off four wins in a row at the conference tournament in Natchitoches, La.
With an exciting 3-1 win over rival Texas State, the Kats celebrated a tournament championship and punched their ticket to the NCAA’s Oxford (Miss.) Regional.
Johnson’s 2007 team provided some more magical moments in Mississippi. After dropping a first-round game to the host team Ole Miss, SHSU eliminated Troy and Southern Miss before falling to the Rebels in the championship round of the regional.
When it was over, two of the Bearkats — Prihoda and Verbick — were named first-team All-Americans by the National Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Association. Prihoda also was voted the country’s Stopper of the Year by the same group, and nine Bearkats landed on the All-Southland Conference team, including Prihoda, who was the league’s Pitcher of the Year.
A year after hobbling to the finish line during an up-and-down 23-31 campaign, the Bearkats clearly made a statement on the fields in Huntsville, Natchitoches and Oxford.
Baseball is back at Sam Houston State. And maybe, just maybe, it will be better than ever.
Here are a few highlights from the Bearkats’ run back to the NCAA baseball regionals, which was unanimously chosen as The Huntsville Item’s Top Sports Story of 2007.
Super start to Southland season
The Bearkats dropped the conference opener to Central Arkansas back in March, but after a 6-5 loss, Verbick, Prihoda and the rest of the Kats did not stay down long.
Verbick hit two home runs and the Bearkats collected 13 hits in an 8-5 victory over Central Arkansas in the second game of the series. Howard threw seven innings for the victory. Prihoda relieved in the eighth after the first two batters reached base. The hard-throwing righty allowed an RBI single but got out of the inning, stranding two.
After the Bearkats added another insurance run in the top of the ninth, Prihoda struck out the side, all looking, in the bottom of the ninth to notch his seventh save.
Verbick outdid himself the next day, hitting for the cycle and collecting eight RBIs in the Bearkats’ 15-6 victory over the Bears. In the series, Verbick went 7-for-11 for a .636 batting average with 12 RBIs.
Better finish; Bearkats sweep
For the third time in three games, the Bearkats came back from behind and beat Southeastern Louisiana on May 13. Following a 9-6 win, which completed a series sweep of the Lions, the Bearkats clinched a spot in the SLC Tournament, something they had not done since 2000.
“I’m so proud of these guys. Having a winning season was an important part and now they get in the conference tournament,” Johnson said. “These seniors, in particular, haven’t had that opportunity, but they’re the ones that went out and did it. I’m just really proud of them and enjoyed watching them play.”
The Bearkats’ 12 seniors were honored during a pregame celebration at SHSU’s Don Sanders Stadium. After winning on Senior Day and clinching a spot in the Southland Tournament, the Kats kicked off an even bigger party.
“That is music to my ears,” senior Karl Krailo said. “I’ve been waiting for it for four years now.”
Who would have thunk it?
The odds were stacked against fourth-seeded Sam Houston State when the first pitch was thrown at Brown-Stroud Field in Natchitoches, La., late in May. First up was Texas State, a team that for years owned the Bearkats on the baseball diamond.
That hardly mattered to Howard, Verbick, Prihoda and the rest of the Bearkats, who blanked the Bobcats 2-0.
Howard struck out eight in 6 1/3 innings before Prihoda pitched out of a bases-loaded situation, getting the Bobcats’ No. 3 hitter, David Wood, to hit into an inning-ending double play. Verbick’s two-out line drive homer in the fifth inning provided the game’s only scoring. He plated senior Jeremy Holzbach, the Bearkats’ No. 9 hitter, who led off the inning with a double.
The win over Texas State seemed to spark the Bearkats, who went on to beat Lamar 7-3 and top-seeded Texas-San Antonio 5-4 to reach the championship game.
SHSU completed a perfect run through the tournament with a 3-1 victory over Texas State.
Senior Tim Gray pitched five strong innings, Howard came out of the bullpen to throw 3 2/3 scoreless frames and Prihoda retired the potential tying run on a fly ball to Stein to cap the Kats’ 4-0 run through the tournament.
“We just came out and believed in ourselves all week,” said Prihoda, the unanimous choice for tournament Most Valuable Player after saving two games and winning another.
“We’re moving on to the regionals. This is just huge — it’s unbelievable,” added the Kats’ closer, who pitched six scoreless innings in three games, allowing only one hit and one walk while striking out five.
The Bearkats used the same formula throughout the tournament: tough-as-nails pitching, jaw-dropping defense and timely hitting.
Gray gave up one run and five hits in five-plus innings during the championship game. The senior from Huntsville walked only one and struck out five before Howard came on in the bottom of the sixth. Howard held the Bobcats to one hit. He walked none and struck out two before handing the ball to Prihoda with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Prihoda battled and finally got pinch hitter Elliott Babcock to fly out for the game’s final out. As soon as Stein squeezed the ball in his glove, the Bearkats began a frantic celebration in the center of the infield, piling up around Prihoda, then collecting their championship trophy.
“This is just a dream come true,” Gray said. “A bunch of us seniors have been here for four years together. We’ve been through a lot. This year we really started playing as a team, plus we believed this could happen.”
Back on the big stage
Johnson’s bunch could have been satisfied just making it to the NCAA regionals. Heck, advancing to the Southland tourney could have made the Kats fat and happy. That was quite an accomplishment, considering they went 12-18 and finished ninth in league play in 2006.
The Bearkats weren’t satisfied, though. They were on a mission when they loaded up for Mississippi. They went there to win the tournament, and they got closer than two other teams.
SHSU rebounded from a 14-5 loss to Mississippi in the opening round by beating Troy 5-4.
Price came up huge against the Trojans, pitching 2 2/3 hitless innings and helping Sam Houston State rally in an elimination game at Swayze Field.
A little-used right-hander, Price relieved Marshall with the bases full of Trojans in the top of the fourth. Facing Troy’s top hitter, senior Clint Robinson, Price fearlessly threw strikes. He fanned Robinson with a 2-2 fastball, then pitched into the seventh before handing the ball to Prihoda, the nation’s saves leader.
Prihoda breezed through the seventh and eighth innings, but the Trojans mounted a serious rally in the ninth. Robinson delivered an RBI single off the future Arizona Diamondbacks draftee. With the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on first, Prihoda retired cleanup man Josh Dew on a comebacker to the mound to notch his 18th save and keep the Bearkats alive another day.
“Price was probably the hero of the day. He took the shine away from Luke a little bit because Luke always gets to be the hero of the day,” Johnson said. “Stephen Price, I put him in a bases-loaded situation the first batter, and he got out of that. He ate up some at-bats that we needed to get so we could get to Luke. Then Luke did his thing.”
The excitement only got better the next day for the Bearkats and a few diehard fans who made the long trek to Oxford.
Against Southern Miss, the Bearkats were down to their final out three times, and three times, SHSU found some way to stave off elimination and beat the Golden Eagles 12-11 in 11 innings.
The Bearkats fought like crazy just go get into the game with Southern Miss. Sam rallied for a total of six runs in the seventh and eighth innings to tie the game at 7. Then after Southern Miss took a two-run lead in the top of the ninth, the Bearkats refused to lose.
On a groundout by Todd Sebek and an RBI single from Pugh, they scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to knot the score again. After Southern Miss touched Prihoda for a run in the top of the 10th, the Bearkats answered when reserve third baseman Aaron Cook delivered a clutch RBI hit.
Sam did it again in the 11th when Stein sliced a single to right to score Holzbach.
The Bearkats put a fitting cap on their thrilling victory when Verbick drilled a fly ball over Southern Miss center fielder Bo Davis to score Mann with the winning run.
“We were playing like it was our last game, because it could have been,” said Stein, who had five hits with two RBIs in the win over the Golden Eagles. “We were giving everything we had and we kept chipping away, chipping away, chipping away. We kept getting clutch hit after clutch hit.
“It was amazing,” added Stein, who went 11-for-17 in the tournament. “Everyone on the team contributed to that win.”
It would have taken everyone on the team and more to knock off a rested Ole Miss squad in the championship round. Had the Bearkats pulled off the improbable on that warm Sunday evening, they would have had to repeat the feat the next day.
For a while, it looked like Sam might have another miracle in its back pocket. But after Verbick’s three-run homer sparked a five-run rally in the top of the fourth against Ole Miss, the Rebels started banging the ball against the Bearkats’ dog-tired bullpen.
Ole Miss, a team that was hosting its fourth straight NCAA regional, hung nine runs in the bottom of the fourth to go on top 16-8, then the Rebels coasted the rest of the way.
“I think Ole Miss is probably very happy, although I think Ole Miss is the best ballclub in the regional and they deserve to represent this regional,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a great ballclub.
“It was a long day. We’ve been out there since 10:30 this morning,” the coach added at a little after 9 p.m. “I’m not making any excuses, I think Ole Miss is the better ballclub. But I think the team coming out of that (first) game, it makes it a little rougher.”
All nine of the Bearkat position players collected hits off four Rebel pitchers. Verbick led the way with a pair of hits and three RBIs. Krailo had two hits, including a long home run in his final college at-bat. Two of Krailo’s classmates, Holzbach and Austin Boggs, drove in two runs each in their final collegiate game.
After the loss to Ole Miss, none of the Bearkats appeared to be disappointed. Rather, they seemed thrilled by what they had accomplished.
A team with a new head coach, a bunch that had never been this far before, a squad that had never even reached the conference tournament, did exactly what Stein talked about after the Bearkats eliminated Troy on Saturday.
The Bearkats took every team’s best punch and came back fighting.
“The emotion of this weekend, this was a new experience for all of us,” Holzbach said. “I just hope this is something that this club gets to experience for years to come.”
Bearkats sweep through Southland Tournament, keep winning at Oxford Regional
For years, baseball was Sam Houston State’s pride and joy.
BEARKATS FOOTBALL: The one that got away
It was there for the taking.
Sam Houston State was less than a minute away from surviving a slugfest with fourth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana and possibly hosting a quarterfinal matchup against New Hampshire this week.
All the Bearkats needed to do was keep the Lions from getting into the end zone and they’d notch another playoff victory.
Lions make ‘big plays’ down stretch, Kats don’t
Same scene, same result.
The Bearkats played a much closer game in their second matchup in three weeks against Southeastern Louisiana, but they still watched a two-score first-half lead turn into a deficit. At one point, the Kats led 21-10, just as they had before losing to the Lions on Nov. 16.
BEARKATS FOOTBALL — Bigger prize at stake this time
The Bearkats have a second chance to make a lasting impression.
After blasting Southern Utah 51-20 in the opening round of the FCS playoffs last week, Sam Houston State will face fourth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana for the second time this season in Hammond, La., in tonight’s second-round showdown.
Huntsville headed to Class 5A next year
Don’t freak out, sports fans. The Huntsville Hornets are moving up to Class 5A again, but it’s the new 5A, not the old one.
The University Interscholastic League is adding a conference 6A to its athletics alignment starting next fall, so the new 5A will look much like the current Class 4A. The enrollment numbers for both are nearly identical, which means Huntsville still will be competing with schools like Brenham, Willis and Magnolia, not The Woodlands, Conroe, Klein Forest and Oak Ridge.
BEARKAT FOOTBALL — Eager for another shot
Among the final 16 teams left in contention for an FCS national championship, it doesn’t take much to get a team fired up at this point in the season.
Saturday’s contest isn’t just any ordinary second-round playoff game for the Bearkats. The matchup against No. 4 seed Southeastern Louisiana will be a rematch from their Southland Conference clash three weeks ago in which the Lions prevailed 34-21.
The Kats can hardly wait to get it going.
SCHALLENBERG: Just getting warmed up
Heading into the second round of the playoffs, the Bearkats are getting healthier, especially running back Timothy Flanders, and remain focused on task at hand of returning to Frisco for another shot at an FCS national championship.
FCS PLAYOFFS: Bearkats keep chugging, win 51-20
Get ready for Sam Houston State-Southeastern Louisiana II.
Like they’ve done during the playoffs over the previous two seasons, the Bearkats made short work of a squad from the Big Sky Conference on Saturday afternoon in the first-round Football Championship Subdivision playoff game.
Bearkats get more physical in first round of playoffs
Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz challenged the Bearkats last week to be more physical.
In the two games leading up to Saturday’s first-round Football Championship Subdivision playoff win over Southern Utah, Fritz said the Bearkats had not been combative enough.
BEARKAT GAMEDAY — Feeding Frenzy
Throughout the season, the Bearkats made a habit of taking advantage of opposing teams’ mistakes. Sam Houston State’s defense often was rewarded by those miscues, which meant it was time for some fun. Whether it was after a big hit, defensive stop, interception, fumble recovery as well as a defensive score, the defense began gesturing a shark fin on their helmets and the Kats have fed off the newfound energy.
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