Diamond Weevils picked fourth in GAC preseason
All coaches agree on one thing: It’s not where a team starts, it’s where that team finishes.
From being picked seventh before the 2016 season to being selected second prior to last year to being tabbed fourth in this spring’s Great American Conference baseball coaches’ preseason poll, the University of Arkansas at Monticello—through it all—has posted back-to-back GAC Tournament Championships.
“Being picked to finish fourth is about what we expected,” UAM head baseball coach John Harvey said. “That is where we finished last year in the regular season, and we lost a couple of really good senior arms.”
The Boll Weevils are coming off a 33-21 season a year ago that culminated in UAM’s second straight trip to the NCAA Central Region Tournament. Rival Southern Arkansas University was picked to win the GAC regular season by the coaches in the poll released last Wednesday afternoon. The Muleriders garnered 119 points and nine-first-place votes.
Oklahoma Baptist University, eligible for the postseason for the first time since joining the league, received 102 points and the other three first-place votes. Arkansas Tech University came in third with 102 points.
Following UAM, which earned 89 points, was Henderson State University in fifth with 84; Southwestern Oklahoma State University in sixth with 67; Southeastern Oklahoma State University, seventh with 57; and Harding University, eighth with 56.
Ouachita Baptist University (ninth, 35); Northwestern Oklahoma State University (10th, 31); East Central University (11th, 30); and Southern Nazarene University (12th, 13) rounded out the poll. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams.
The Weevils finished 22-11 in the GAC in 2017, and will welcome back 24 returnees to this spring’s team, including starters Brian Ray, Sean Wagner, Andres Rios, Brady Weiss, Austin Brakebill and Gentry Ford in the field, as well as pitching ace Braden Chambers and closer Dawson Moser. All are seniors.
“I think this will be one of the toughest years to make the (GAC) tournament,” Harvey said. “We have gone back to taking six teams to the conference tournament and Oklahoma Baptist is now eligible for postseason. And with the postseason success we have had the past few years, there will be a target on our back.
“But all of that is out of our control—so we mentioned those things for the first and only time in our first meeting.
“We have a lot of guys returning that are very excited for their senior season and ready to get to work. They know what to expect throughout the spring, from the indoor practices to the cold outdoor practices to the long bus rides, so there shouldn’t be that adjustment period that you occasionally get with new guys.
“January practices will be huge for us. Last season, we started out very slow (3-8), so we are trying to use that as motivation throughout January to really understand how important our preparation is and how important the first part of our season is.”
Ray, last year’s GAC Tournament Most Valuable Player, led the Weevil offense overall with a .343 batting average, 43 runs batted in, 49 runs scored and eight home runs a year ago. Wagner and Rios each provide UAM with even more offensive firepower; Wagner posted 47 RBI and Rios 44.
Chambers will anchor the Kelly Green and White on the mound after a 10-3 record last season, along with a team-high 81 strikeouts. Moser will aid the late-game relief from the bullpen after recording seven total saves in 19 appearances and finishing with a 1.26 earned run average.
League-wide, SAU won its fourth GAC regular-season championship in 2017 and advanced to the NCAA Regional Tournament for ninth time in its last 10 years. The Muleriders return a quartet of All-GAC performers in first-team selections Mark Fontenot, Jacob Richardson and Cortland McPherson and honorable mention pitcher Kenneth Tabor. They must replace the league’s unanimous Player of the Year, Trevor Rucker. He finished at GAC’s all-time leader in 10 major offensive categories.
Oklahoma Baptist won consecutive National Christian College Athletic Association Championships during their transition from the NAIA to the NCAA. The Bison bring back 2017 All-GAC first-team selections Juan Gonzalez, Brett Berghammer and Josh Timms. All three ranked in the top 10 in the GAC in batting average. Honorable mention third baseman Zane Gelphman led the GAC in RBI and starting pitcher Zach Fowler ranked fifth in ERA.
Arkansas Tech’s starting pitcher Kyle Wilson, a unanimous first-team selection, returns after posting an 8-1 record with the league’s second best ERA, 2.53. He ranked third with 93 strikeouts. Shortstop Dylan McDearmon placed seventh in average and slugging percentage.
For the second spring in a row, Henderson State was the tournament’s runner-up. The Reddies feature 2017 GAC Pitcher of the Year Bryant Haralson and second-team reliever Blake Patterson. Haralson earned All-American honors after he led the GAC in ERA, strikeouts, opponent’s batting average, complete games and shutouts. Patterson led the conference with 13 saves, five more than any other reliever.
For the first time since 1980, a coach besides Mike Metheny will lead the Savage Storm as Zach Crabtree took over for the retired Metheny. Metheny finished his 37-year career with the Division II record for coaching wins.
Northwestern Oklahoma also features a new head coach in Ryan Bowen, a former assistant at Southeastern.
UAM will kick-off the 2018 season against Pittsburg State (Kan.) University in a three-game series starting Friday, Feb. 2 at Weevils Field, then open GAC play Feb. 16 in a three-game series against ECU in Monticello.
The GAC Baseball Championships returns to David Allen Ballpark in Enid, Okla., set for May 5-8. As Harvey noted, the format also reverts back to a six-team, double-elimination event.