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May 20, 2014

Top-seed Sam Houston State faces Lamar in Southland tournament opener

HUNTSVILLE — The Bearkats have been in this precise situation before.

In each of the last two seasons, Sam Houston State closed out the season on a roll and with plenty of momentum heading into the Southland Conference tournament.

The success didn’t come in the conference tourney and the Kats had to wait it out until the day of the selection show to find out that they made the 64-team NCAA tournament field.

Of all the accomplishments the 23rd-ranked Bearkats have accumulated since David Pierce took over as head coach in June of 2011, including being ranked on several occasions and winning three straight conference regular-season championships, one thing these Kats don’t have on their mantle is a Southland tournament title.

That’s something they want to remedy beginning today in the Southland tournament, which is being held at Bear Stadium in Conway, Ark. In the opening round, Sam Houston will square off against Lamar at noon.

“This group is a lot older,” said senior pitcher Jason Simms. “We know how to win games. We know how to win 3-1 ball games, 1-1 ball games. I think we’re kind of hungry for it and we’re hungry for this conference tournament.”

Coming into the tournament, no team has as much momentum as the Bearkats.

Winners in 14 of the past 15 games, including four consecutive weekend series sweeps, the Kats have gotten solid contributions from the pitching staff as well as the defense.

Additionally, Sam Houston’s offense is heating up at just the right time.

During that 15-game span to close the season, the Kats have scored 103 runs with 151 hits, averaging 6.86 runs and 10.06 hits per game.

“We’re just all relaxing and having fun, that’s the main thing,” said catcher Anthony Azar, who was named the 2014 Southland Conference Player of the Year on Monday by the league.

“We’re slowing everything down, not trying to do too much and trusting the guy behind you. If you don’t do your job or you make a mistake, the guy behind you is going to pick you up. That’s what makes playing for this team so fun.”

This season, the Southland regular-season title race as well as the push for seeding in the conference tournament was as tight as could be. Going into the final weekend, there were four teams, all within a game of each other, still in play for the conference title.

Sam Houston swept Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in a first-place showdown to take 2014 title. Nicholls also won all three games against McNeese State to finish as the league’s runner-up.

The final six teams to qualify for the conference tournament all were within three games of each other in the final conference standings, which should make for an interesting tournament.

“I just think all eight teams have an opportunity to win this tournament,” Pierce said. “There’s plenty of balanced teams and there’s a lot of parity in the league. Our goal is to go up there and continue to play well and put ourselves in a position to win.”

First up in the conference tournament is a Lamar squad that defeated Oral Roberts 3-1 on the road last Saturday in its regular-season finale with the final spot in the conference tournament up for grabs.

Over the last couple of years, the Cardinals have gotten the best of the Kats. Lamar snapped Sam Houston’s 13-game winning streak in 2012, then won the conference series against the Bearkats and later eliminating the Kats in the 2013 conference tournament with a near no-hitter. The Cardinals also won a weekend series against Sam Houston this spring in Beaumont.

“Lamar has always been our nemesis in this league for as long as I’ve been a part of it,” Pierce said. “They’ve played very well against us. They’re a good challenge and present somewhat of a tough matchup. I think we’ll be ready to go.”

Getting the start in today’s tournament opener is Dylan Ebbs. The freshman righthander has performed well down the stretch in midweek contests at 12th-ranked Houston, Baylor and Texas A&M as well as a home contest against McNeese State.

With six starts and 12 appearances to his record, Ebbs is 3-1 with a 2.18 earned run average and also has 20 strikeouts to 12 walks.

“It’s an important game,” Ebbs said. “They took two out of three and hit the ball very well in the last series. I’m just going to keep the ball down and away from them. If I pitch to my strengths, it should be fine.

“I’m ready. We really want to show everybody that we can win this tournament.”

The game can be viewed online at Southland.org/watch or on the Southland Conference’s smartphone and tablet apps.

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