NACOGDOCHES, Texas - With the Southland Conference coming off its most successful season in five years, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks could be in line to join the party as one of the league's top teams in 2010 in Johnny Cardenas' second year at the helm of the program.
Despite boasting the least amount of returning players of any team in the Southland, SFA is optimistic that arguably its strongest recruiting class yet will to come in and make an immediate impact, pushing the `Jacks into the upper echelon of the SLC.
The `Jacks lost 18 players off of last year's roster, including all three of its all-conference players in Erich Lehmann, Richard Folmer and Sean Meyers. But with the league having had more players drafted than any season since 2005 this could be a prime year for SFA to take advantage of the league's turnover with 23 newcomers on this season's roster after a year that saw the `Jacks qualify for its second-ever Southland Conference Tournament.
This is the third in a six-part series previewing the Lumberjacks, position by position, leading up to the 2010 opener against Grambling on February 19.
Last season the strength of the SFA pitching staff was the late-inning relief with Richard Folmer, Chris Court and Alex Moshier making up a three-headed monster that was arguably the strongest trio of relievers in the league.
Unfortunately the draft and graduation took two-thirds of that trio, but junior right-hander Moshier now has a full year as an exclusive pitcher under his belt and will is set to slide into Folmer's closer role.
"There is no doubt that the strength of our team last season were those three guys at the back of our bullpen," Cardenas said. "We rode those three guys as long as we possibly could and I do think that toward the end of the year they finally showed some fatigue, which has really made us put an emphasis this season on trying to find a few other guys that could eat up some of those late innings."
Moshier did not have a save opportunity last year, but his 90-mph fastball and power slider were good enough to strike out 37 hitters in just 34.0 innings out of the bullpen and hold right-handers to just a .188 average. As just a sophomore he made 32 appearances, which tied for second in the Southland and even tied the all-time SFA record for a single season.
"This is a big year for Moshier, and hopefully he can take advantage of it. He is a guy that has a lot of ability and if he can show the scouts that he can be successful in consecutive seasons then he will likely put himself in position to get drafted this summer," Cardenas said.
However, the `Jacks have to find a way to get the game to Moshier and that is where a slew of newcomers enter into the picture. Relievers Landon Kozeny, Cody Priest and Brad Oates will all be counted on to eat up the late innings.
Kozeny brings a wealth of talent after pitching the last two seasons at Brookhaven College, while Priest - the younger brother of outfielder Ryan Priest - has the type of stuff that could eventually land him in the closer's role in years to come. As a senior at Dobie High School he held hitters to just a .174 average and posted a 1.41 ERA in a competitive 5A district in the Houston area.
"We really liked the idea of the three-headed monster last season, and it worked out well for us. Hopefully Landon and Cody can help us bridge that gap like Chris (Court) and Moshier did last year when we tried to get the game to Folmer," Cardenas said.
Oates will be another arm to watch out of the pen, but he could find himself in the starting rotation before the year concludes. He won 12 games over the last two seasons at Cisco Junior College as a starter, but only three of those games came last season as he sat out the majority of the season with an injury despite putting up a 2.49 ERA and 29 strikeouts in just 21 innings of work before getting hurt.
Zack Taylor, Jason West and Cory Ochs are also three returning names to watch for as each made appearances in 2009. After redshirting in 2008, Taylor posted a 5.17 ERA in 11 appearances and could be in line to make some midweek starts in addition to weekend relief appearances as the coaching staff believes he is on the verge of blossoming into a very solid pitcher.
West also made 13 appearances out of the bullpen and his sidearm delivery proved to be exceptionally tough against right-handers, and if he can cut into the gap between his right and left-handed splits he could see his inning total jump significantly in 2010.
"Jason West really pitched some big innings for us last season and there is no question that we have seen improvement in him from last year and through the fall, while Zack Taylor is a guy that really does have all of the tools to be a very good Southland Conference pitcher," Cardenas said.
Right-handed freshmen Josh Wright, Brett Higginbotham, Cody Lock, Aaron Lasater and Nick Hawkins will also provide some depth to the staff with Wright also providing an option as a spot starter after earning first team all-district honors in each of his four seasons at Wichita Falls High School. Lock had originally signed with McNeese State out of Nacogdoches High School while Cardenas heavily compares Higginbotham to Erich Lehmann as a control pitcher that will mature over time and even led his Hutto High School team to the Texas Class 3A state tournament as a junior.