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 fourth in a five-part series previewing the Lumberjacks, position by position, leading up to the 2010 opener against Grambling on February 19.
Aside from Zach Gardner in center field, the steadiest sight on the diamond was Tanner Hines manning shortstop for the `Jacks in all 55 games a year ago. The transfer from San Jacinto College proved to be everything that SFA had hoped for in a defensive general in 2009 and even provided an offensive spark on the basepaths with 17 stolen bases. He will enter his senior campaign as arguably the top shortstop in the Southland after earning an honorable mention all-conference nod last year despite leading all league shortstops with his .353 batting average.
"The one spot we may feel the most comfortable about entering this season is with Tanner at shortstop," Cardenas said. "He was maybe the best in the league last year, even though he wasn't recognized for it, and he will be right there at the top of the list again this season."
However, as steady as Hines was at shortstop, the `Jacks had a revolving door at second base. Five Lumberjacks saw time at second base last season, with only Ryan Priest - who will likely be the opening day left fielder - returning from that group. That left a position open up the middle entering the fall and after several weeks of competition junior transfer Michael Haynes emerged as the likely starter up the middle with Hines. A solid offensive player a year ago at Temple College, Haynes blew the SFA coaches away with his defensive ability. His versatility will also be an asset as he can play any infield position to the left of first base.
"We called him `The Magician' all through fall camp this year because he was so good defensively. He has one of the quickest releases I have seen of any infielder and our defense behind our pitching staff will be drastically better with him back there," Cardenas said.
The next infielder in line for the `Jacks, though, is freshman Jordan Lewis from Dallas. The District 9-5A Offensive Player of the Year as a senior, Lewis led the W.T. White Longhorns two rounds deep in the playoffs and hit over .500 for the year. Able to play either shortstop or second base, Lewis proved in the fall that he is a legitimate player at this level and gives Cardenas a very good option with his bat and speed.
Freshman Rene' Moreda will also provide some switch-hitting infield depth, while outfielder Ryan Priest gives Cardenas and his staff another option should he need to run down the depth chart.
In a year of very good first basemen throughout the Southland, the `Jacks had one of the best in 2009 with Sean Meyers who came just one pitch away from being only the second player in the history of SFA baseball to hit .400 for a season. This year Cardenas knew it was going to be imperative to find someone to come in and fill the big shoes that Meyers had left behind after his all-conference campaign.
Enter 6-7 Darren Crabtree to fill those big shoes. The younger brother of former SFA outfielder Kevin Crabtree, Darren brings a left-handed bat that ranked near the top of the national leaders in the junior college ranks in batting average and RBI all of last year. He also nearly helped lead Temple College to the Junior College World Series, falling just one win short after handing eventual national champion Howard College its only loss of the entire season in the final series.
"Darren will be a guy that will play at first and also hit some at DH because we will be counting on him a lot offensively in the middle of our order," Cardenas said. "He has plenty of power to both gaps and also has home run power."
Crabtree will be backed up at first by 6-4, 220-pound freshman Max Lamantia, who is very highly regarded by the SFA coaching staff for both his offensive and defensive prowess.
Across the diamond is where the `Jacks had even more of a revolving door last year with six players having manned the hot corner in 2009. This year the position remains open, but Cardenas has a pair of frontrunners for the spot with transfer Bobby Loveless and sophomore Just McAninch.
Loveless comes to Nacogdoches after two years in the junior college ranks that followed a stellar high school career in which he set nearly every hitting record at Friendswood High School. An immediate power threat, he could also see some time at first base depending on the matchup the `Jacks are facing.
As for McAninch, he came on midway through the year in 2009 to be a reliable right-handed bat off the bench as a true freshman and with a frame that should develop well and above-average defensive skills, he should be in line to take the next step forward in 2010.
"Third base was really an issue for us last season, but we eventually found a platoon system that worked for us toward the end of the year," Cardenas said. "This year we feel we have two guys that can do the job, with each bringing a slightly different skill set. It should be a good competition leading up to the start of the season, but both guys will certainly get their time over there."