Outside of the numerous Big 12 schools and other traditional athletic powers in the state of Texas, many smaller university make Texas one of the deepest states in the country in terms of college baseball depth.
After a 26 year stint as a strong division two program, Tarleton State is moving up, ready to take on the challenge of division one college baseball and the Western Athletic Conference.
The jump from division two to division one is sure to be a challenge, and success is oftentimes not immediate, especially when you consider two of the last three programs to make the move posted a losing record in their first season of division one play.
Tarleton State will not be alone in its new quest at the highest level of college baseball as three other programs—Dixie State (WAC), Bellarmine (ASUN), UC San Diego (Big West)—will also play their first year of division one competition in 2021.
Like most first-year D1 programs, the Texans will be road warriors, playing 33 of their 56 games on the road. They will be thrown right into the fire, with a non-conference schedule that features midweek matchups at Texas A&M (Feb 24), at TCU (March 23), and a four-game set at Dallas Baptist (March 18-21). TCU also comes to Stephenvillle on April 6. To open the program’s division one era, Tarleton will travel to nearby Abilene, and battle Abilene Christian for two games before the two teams will make the short trip back to Stephenville and play the final game of the series. Winter weather in Texas has forced the start date of the series back to Saturday when the two teams will play a doubleheader.
Despite all the challenges that naturally come with such an undertaking, it would not be far off to say that this year’s squad from Stephenville will surprise people in a conference with plenty of parity. It will not be until 2024 that Tarleton will be eligible to make the NCAA tournament, but as early as this spring, the Texans will have an opportunity to claim a WAC championship.
While it may be a stretch to say that Tarleton will be vying at the top of the standings with established programs such as Grand Canyon, Sacramento State and New Mexico State so early, the fact that the Texans have a possible WAC Player of the Year in 1B Blake Burns, a hard-hitting outfielder in London Green and New Mexico State transfer Alex Pinedo makes them a team no opposing coach should overlook. Playing solid D2 competition in a shortened 2020 season, Burns hit .452 with seven homers and drove in 31 runs. All signs point towards that success continuing, even against slightly better arms this season.
Pinedo, a lefty, is a versatile hurler who can be used by the Tarleton coaching staff as either a starter or releiver. In his sixth season of college ball, having spent two years at New Mexico JC before spending three at New Mexico State, Pinedo has proven he can do it all, whether that is throwing a complete game like he did in the 2018 WAC Tournament Semifinal, or compiling several shutout relief appearances.
It is rare, especially in the state of Texas where football is king, for a university’s number one sport to be baseball. But that is the case at #34 Dallas Baptist, where baseball is the school’s only division one athletic program, and a very competitive one at that.
The Patriots moved up to division one in 2004, but it was the 2008 season in which things really started going up for DBU, as current head coach Dan Heefner took over. Since that point, the program has made the NCAA tournament nine times, including in all six seasons as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, finishing either first or second in the conference each season.
Heading into this 2021 season, the expectations and anticipation is one again high for the Patriots, who are a No. 3 seed in the Austin Regional according to College Baseball Nation’s Field of 64 projection.
Known for playing a grueling non-conference schedule, DBU is often times one of the highest ranked mid-majors when it comes to RPI and strength of schedule. For lack of a better term, the Patriots are a “power team” from a non-power conference. Set to compete at the Frisco Classic against Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arizona in early March, DBU comes from the smallest conference, but is far from playing the role of the underdog, especially with the returning talent the Patriots will take advantage of.
The formula for success begins on the mound, as all four of last year’s starters return. The four starters versus the traditional three is due to the fact that the MVC will play four-game series for the 2021 season, rather than the traditional three. Ray Gaither was the Patriots Friday night starter a year ago, posting 26 strikeouts in 20.1 innings of work. An intriguing newcomer that should come out of the bullpen is Houston transfer Jared Pettite, who looked much improved in the Texas Collegiate League after coming back from a shoulder injury.
Of all that DBU has accomplished in a short amount of time as a division one program, the one thing the Patriots have not achieved is a trip to Omaha. That could change by the end of this season, however, with the entire starting rotation and starting lineup back. The combination is there, now the Patriots just have to let it work its magic.
Sam Houston State
When looking at future first round picks in the MLB Draft, we often first set our sights towards the power conferences. However, plenty of scouts’ eyes will be on Huntsville, as the Bearkats have a special player out in centerfield.
Colton Cowser looked good in a shortened season last year, flashing signs of stardom in the outfield just as much as at the plate. He hit .255 in 14 games, and led the team in stolen bases with five, and he could be in for an even bigger year in 2021.
As College Baseball Nation’s Harris Frommer wrote in December, Cowser is a ‘throwback’ type of player, who, unlike many of today’s college prospects, hits very few home runs, and hits for average over power. Likely SHSU’s leadoff hitter this spring, he tears up the base paths with his speed, and is the kind of player that the Bearkats need in the lineup to have a chance at claiming the program’s conference title.
Cowser will have a chance to demonstrate his abilities against superb pitching in non-conference play, as the Bearkats will be tested early and often. A three-game set at home against No. 27 Oklahoma State to kick off the season was just cancelled due to weather; however, midweek matchups against No. 44 Texas State (Feb. 24) and No. 43 Baylor (March 2) will boost SHSU’s strength of schedule, which will come in handy on Selection Monday. There is also the Shriners College Classic, featuring No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 9 TCU, which will give fans a chance to see Cowser perform in a big-league ballpark at Houston’s Minute Mark Park. A road trip to Austin against No. 12 Texas will add to the grueling schedule.
We will know plenty more about Cowser and the Bearkats by March 12 when conference play opens, but as head coach Jay Sirianni and his team enter the season, things are looking good in Huntsville.