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    'Jacks to Open Season at Texas Tech
    Senior Steven Hill
    Senior Steven Hill

    Jan. 31, 2007

    NACOGDOCHES - Experience is what 2006 was all about for Donnie Watson's Lumberjack baseball team as it made a return to Stephen F. Austin after an 11-year absence. As the young 'Jacks step into their sophomore season, starting with a three-game series at Texas Tech this weekend, one year of maturity and experience will hopefully send SFA in the right direction.

    "The difference between where we were this time last year and now is definitely the experience," said Watson. "We had a tough schedule last year and things really started coming together the last month of the season, just as I expected, because we were gaining confidence and were done being intimidated."

    According to Watson, the success of the entire program will be dictated by the ability to get runners on base, get runners into scoring position, and get key base hits or score runners without having to get a base hit.

    "We added some power, and we're going to play good defense," said Watson. "If we have a solid year offensively and a solid year defensively and our pitchers pitch like they did in the fall, we're going to be in the conference tournament."

    In the infield, Watson has plenty of experience at the corners and behind the plate, while newcomers take over the middle infield. At first base, all-conference selection Steven Hill, last year's starter Adam Bosley and senior Jeremy Arterburn return to the post.

    Hill, who rewrote the record books for the Lumberjacks after leading the team in multiple categories, brings an offensive presence that's needed in the 'Jacks' lineup. Hill, who saw most of his time behind the plate last season, will see more time at first base.

    "Steven is a candidate to be a triple-crown threat in the conference and could lead the league in multiple categories," said Watson. "This year we'll have enough people to put around him in the lineup so he'll have a better chance to be able to pull it off."

    Arterburn struggled offensively last season, but really showed an improvement through fall workouts. "He really worked hard both on the field and in the weight room to get to where he is now, and we're just excited to see what he can do once the season rolls around," Watson said.

    Bosley, last year's primary first baseman, will also see some time at first base as he comes off an injury suffered during the fall.

    At second base, Watson has plenty of options with sophomore Gabriel Garcia-Serrano and newcomers Brian Ferguson and Justin Roland battling for playing time.

    "Those three kids give us some solid defense and can do some good things offensively," said Watson. "It doesn't matter who's in the lineup that day, I'm confident with either one of those three at second base.

    Newcomer Jeff Brewer, along with Roland and Garcia-Serrano, will see time at shortstop. Brewer, a transfer from Seward County Community College (Kan.), "can make all the defensive plays", said Watson.

    "Jeff has a knack for making all those plays that you just can't coach," Watson said. "He's a great mechanical shortstop."

    Senior Chris Smith will make his way back to the hot corner this season as Roland, Ferguson and sophomore Kevin Croft also compete for time at third base.

    "When Chris plays the game the way he's capable of playing, he's a really good baseball player; he should be at third base," said Watson. "Then we have Justin (Roland) and Brian Ferguson who can play third. Brian is probably one of our more defensive players. Then we throw Croft into the mix. It's just going to be getting the best offense in the line up and not losing any defense because that's what you need in this league."

    Croft will also see time behind the plate, as he did last year, as will classmate Ryan Sinclair together with newcomer Michael Graves.

    "Croft and Sinclair are our best defensive catchers," said Watson. "Nobody is going to run on them, no passed balls are going to go by, and they're great receivers. We're just waiting on them to be offensively consistent."

    Graves joins the 'Jacks after a a two-year stinit at Texas-Brounsville. "While he doesn't have the most solid defense," Watson said, "I would not hesitate putting Graves behind the plate and catching 50 games if I needed to." In the outfield, Watson will have a hard time deciding who's going to see playing time. All-conference returner David Jeans along with returnees Kyle Freeman, Zach Gardner and Chance Tabor will compete for playing time with newcomers Kevin Crabtree, Jared Pitts, and Justin Long.

    "Crabtree came in and had an incredible fall. He has speed, power, and can bunt for a base hit. He made a commitment to get stronger during the year he took off from baseball, and he did," Watson said.

    "Then you have Gardner, who is by far one of the best centerfielders in this league. If he hits .300 this year, he's an all-conference candidate. He just saves your team way too much out there," Watson said. "Pitts will hit somewhere behind Steven Hill in the lineup, because if they don't pitch to Hill, Pitts can do some damage. He's a line drive hitter who has major power. Then you have Jeans and Freeman who both did an outstanding job for us last year. Justin Long just plays. He's a phenomenal left handed hitter who's just getting his feet on the ground. And we still have Chance Tabor, who can be a solid starter for us. All of these boys have the same capabilities. It's just going to come down to whoever hits, without sacrificing defense. It could be a gameday lineup decision."

    Coming back to the mound for the Lumberjacks is 2006 Freshman All-America pick Erich Lehmann, who set the single season wins record at SFA with an 8-3 record. Lehmann's 3.40 ERA also led the 'Jacks.

    "We all know what this kid can do," said Watson. "He started off slow last season, but by the end of the season, everyone knew he could pitch."

    With Lehmann's return, Watson's staff only suffered one loss in the offseason when Brian Steinocher was drafted after the 2006 season.

    Sophomore Jared Schrom was second on last year's staff with a 3.71 ERA. "Jared is going to get on the mound and everyone is going to wonder why they didn't recruit him. He's just unbelievable," Watson said about the right hander.

    Senior Jacob Leonhardt, a 6-5 right hander who took on all roles for the 'Jacks last season, will also make some starts from the mound. "Jake is starting to pitch like the kid that got drafted twice. He's just matured and is going to help us a ton," said Watson.

    Sammy Hardwick, a left hander is also returning after making a significant impact in the closing role. "Sammy is back and hitters have a hard time scoring off him. You see him pitch and wonder how he gets guys out, but at the end of the game, he's given up a bunch of hits, but recorded the save."

    Nacogdoches native Russ Fornea also makes the return to the mound for SFA. "Fornea spot started for us last season and really stepped up when we needed him to. I'm expecting him to do the same for us this year."

    Bruce Mayberry didn't see a lot of time on the mound last season, but Watson expects that to change this spring. "Mayberry is blooming right now," said Watson. "He's throwing at 89 and has a better breaking pitch and is starting to get his change up over. I'll have no problems pitching him."

    Sophomore Erik Gregersen made three starts for the 'Jacks in 2006, pitching 31.1 innings in 22 appearances. "You have to talk Erik into throwing one strike after another because when he does, he is unbelievable," Watson said.

    Richard Folmer made five starts as a freshman, posting a 4.50 ERA in 10 appearances before his season was cut short by injury. "Folmer is healthy now," said Watson. "He is one of those pitchers who, if he matures and continues to develop, will pitch great just like he did last year until he got hurt."

    Angel Hernandez and Vincent Wade also make their way back to the 'Jacks' lineup this season. "Angel and Wade are maturing pitchers who have the chance to be great as they gain experience. They are young pitchers whom I still haven't written off as position players," Watson said.

    David Miller, Kyle Watson and Jessie Bergstrom return to the mound for SFA and have shown some improvement throughout the fall season.

    "David is a 90-91-mile-an-hour pitcher who has to pitch at the knees to be effective. If he pitches at the knees, he'll pitch a bunch," Watson said. "Kyle Watson had a great summer and fall, so we'll have to wait and see if he's ready for primetime. Bergstrom is still trying to rebound from Tommy John surgery two years ago."

    Transfers Kevin Thomas and Heath Konesheck will also look to make an impact on the mound for SFA. Thomas, a right handed transfer from Texarkana College, is one of Watson's biggest additions to the `Jacks lineup.

    "Kevin comes in here and really begins to tighten up his pitches and has the ability to be a starter," Watson said. "If he continues to do what he's doing, he's going to be great. He's the one kid that makes me forget about Brian Steinocher."

    Konesheck, a left hander from Angelina College, will be a spot starter as well as taking relief and closing roles for the `Jacks. "Heath is a great pitcher who will definitely play a role on our staff," Watson said.

    Lance Leutge and Josh Bone were both on last year's roster, but sat out the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Both pitchers are expected to be back in early March.

    "Lance will hopefully be throwing all his pitches by March 1, and that'll be a great thing for our staff," Watson said. "Bone, by March 15, will be pitching somewhere on our staff. He's already throwing harder than before and he's only eight months out. He's the wise old guy you need on your pitching staff who you can depend on to help out with your staff. He's real valuable to our team."

    This season's schedule proves to be as tough as what the 'Jacks started off with last year. SFA kicks off the season with a 10-game road trip, starting with a trip to Lubbock to face Texas Tech in a three-game season-opening series before heading to Houston for a midweek battle. The 'Jacks then face former conference foe, Louisiana-Monroe, before heading to Waco to take on the Baylor Bears for the second-straight season.

    "We're playing our first 10 games on the road," said Watson. "The reason we're doing that is because quality teams are not going to leave home to play a non-conference schedule. So what we don't want is bring in teams for the first 10 games and play a powder puff schedule. That won't get us ready for conference play. So we're going to start off with 10 games in very hostile environments."

    SFA will start conference play against Southeastern Louisiana in mid-March, looking for a bid to the conference tournament, set to take place at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La.

    "We have to compete to play in the conference tournament," said Watson. "We're going to have to play 56 games to play that 57th game on the first day of the conference tournament. And if we do that, I think our program is headed in the right direction."

    SFA kicks off the season with a 3 p.m. match up with the Texas Tech Red Raiders Friday. Saturday's game starts at 2 p.m. with Sunday's game slated for a 3 p.m. start. All games will be played at Dan Law Field in Lubbock.