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May 28, 2012

Kats jump for joy as they earn at-large bid to NCAA baseball tourney

Sam Houston headed to Houston Regional

HUNTSVILLE — Fourteen regionals down and two to go, the Kats knew that there weren’t too many spots left for them to fit in.

With a few automatic spots left and some strong at-large bids yet to be filled, for Sam Houston, it was coming down to the very end and the tension in the room seemed an awful lot like butter.

As the Houston Regional was being released, the Bearkats finally received the stupendous news they were waiting for that they were indeed going to the NCAA tournament with the knowledge that at least another week of practice and games were still ahead of them.

“It was nerve-wracking. We thought we were going to be picked to the (Texas) A&M Regional to go there and it didn’t come up,” Sam Houston senior pitcher Justin Jackson said. “I looked at our chances and said I don’t know, but it came up finally. We waited a long time. It was a great feeling.”

Sam Houston drew the No. 3 seed in the Houston Regional, which will be held at Reckling Park on the campus of Rice beginning Friday, and are paired up with No. 2 seed Arkansas. Top-seeded Rice will face No. 4 seed Prairie View A&M in the other matchup.

Exiting last week’s Southland Conference tournament earlier than they were expecting after just four games, the Bearkats spent a few long days hoping to see some beneficial results in conference tournaments around the country, including a handful of championship games on Sunday.

“We knew that if any of the No. 1 seeds had been knocked out, then a few of the at-large bids would be eliminated, so obviously we were hoping for all of the No. 1 seeds to go through,” Kats junior third baseman Kevin Miller said.

As regional by regional was revealed, the Bearkats, which won the Southland Conference regular-season title by an impressive four games, started getting more and more antsy as they had yet to see their name pop up on the vacant spot in the bracket.

With teams often traveling close to home for regionals, the Kats didn’t really start to get nervous until the College Station was revealed without having them in it.

Region by region, Sam Houston was still waiting and hopeful that the Kats would be playing in a regional, any regional.

Approximately 40 minutes into the show, seven of the national seeds’ regionals had been revealed as well as the regionals that they had paired with for the Super Regionals.

Before the final regionals, which belonged to Houston and Waco, were named, there was a final commercial break, giving the highly anxious Kats a chance to take a breather.

With teams on the bubble of squeaking into the tournament or missing out altogether like College of Charleston (37-20, tied for first in Southern Conference), Mississippi (35-24 and tied for eighth in the SEC) and East Carolina (35-22, sixth place in Conference USA) getting into the tournament, doubt began to settle in.

“Each time they said (this was a bubble team that got in) and our name didn’t pop up there, you just thought that it wasn’t going to happen,” Jackson said.

With the Houston and Waco Regionals coming up, the Bearkats knew that essentially one spot was up for grabs and the Texas Longhorns had yet to be named as well.

“There were a lot of emotions. You want to get in and if you don’t, there’s nothing you can do about it. We had done everything we could up to this point,” senior outfielder Jake Arrington said.

“We knew (Texas) was right there and they’re a good team just like us. Especially since they have the reputation of being the University of Texas, it was pretty nerve-wracking. I was pretty pumped when they announced it was us.”

After Rice and Prairie View A&M were listed for the Houston Regional, Sam Houston finally saw its name flash onto the TV screen and that it had gotten into the NCAA tournament. The Kats then erupted out of their seats in celebration and their first-year head coach, David Pierce, was smiling from ear to ear.

All of their work from the recruiting trail to fall ball to the spring had paid off as the young Bearkats had finally gotten back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.

“There were 16 regionals and ours was the 15th pick. For an at-large, we had to sweat it out there, but it was well worth the wait,” Pierce said. “At this point, we really didn’t care where we went. We’re very excited and pleased to be in the tournament. I want to commend the selection committee on how they handled it. I thought our body of work would get us in and fortunately it did.”

As a result of the Kats getting into the tournament over Texas (10-14 in Big 12 play and 30-22 overall with an 0-2 showing in the Big 12 tournament), the Longhorns, who have reached the College World Series in two of the past three seasons, will be missing the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1998.

For the past several weeks, Pierce was confident about the Bearkats’ chances of getting an at-large bid if they were to stumble in the Southland tournament and communicated that to his players as well.

Not only was winning a game at Rice and also beating Dallas Baptist, a Super Regional finalist last summer, big for Sam Houston to receive the at-large, but the coach also said that the very first series of the season that the Kats won 2-1 went a long way toward the Kats now preparing for a regional this week.

“This is what we’re working toward in our body of work since the first weekend series against San Diego. You see how important a series like that turns out to be and we realized that at the beginning of the season,” Pierce said. “All of those things benefited us, but in hindsight, the season-opening series against San Diego was very big for this weekend as far as the final decision goes.

“We wanted to put ourselves in a position to have this at-large bid had we not won the (Southland) tournament. I’m very excited for our team and we’re very excited for regional championship week.”

With teams like Rice, which won the Conference USA regular-season title, and Arkansas, which was a top 5 team earlier in the season, in their regional, the Bearkats know that they’re going to have to step their game up even more.

Like the Owls, who call Reckling Park home, the Bearkats have gotten the opportunity to play at Rice which helps for the setting to be a familiar one.

“We’ve played there once before and I think it got us familiar with the field, so I think that will give us an edge over the competition, hopefully,” freshman shortstop Corey Toups said.

The Bearkats know they’ll have their work cut out for them against the Razorbacks, who will throw starting pitcher D.J. Baxendale (7-4 with 3.02 earned run average).

The Sam Houston-Arkansas matchup will kick off the Houston regional on Friday at 1 p.m. with the Rice-Prairie View A&M contest getting under way at 6 p.m.

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