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 final installment of a five-part series previewing the Lumberjacks, position by position, leading up to the 2010 opener against Grambling on February 19.
It will be an odd sight for Lumberjack fans when they show up on opening day and don't see Zach Gardner patrolling center field, but those thoughts should dissipate quickly because Cardenas believes that his latest recruiting class not only yielded the SFA centerfielder for today, but also for tomorrow.
Before pitching coach Chad Massengale made his way to SFA he spent some time in his hometown at Weatherford College where he watched Garrett Smith set a school record with 35 stolen bases in 38 tries and hit over .400 for the Coyotes. Just a few months later, Massengale had Smith on his way to Nacogdoches and the coaching staff feels as though he is one of the true gems of what looks to be a breakout recruiting class.
"There is no question we will miss Zach (Gardner), but Garrett is certainly someone that we feel can step in and really help us out immediately," Cardenas said. "He has some of the best baseball instincts I have ever seen on the bases and I told him when he got here that if he did not steal 40 bases this season it is because he just wasn't on base enough."
Behind Smith will be freshman Cole Popper from Houston Second Baptist Academy, who just moved to center field as a senior in high school. Cardenas says he possesses all of the raw tools and athleticism to be a standout in the outfield. Formerly a high school shortstop, he took Second Baptist to the TAPPS state title game in 2009 on his way to earning first team all-state honors.
The 2010 corner outfield spots will begin as they finished in 2009 - with Bo Coffman in right field and Ryan Priest in left field. Coffman did not live up to high expectations in his junior year but still managed to lead the team in walks and was third in doubles in addition to playing outstanding defense in right field.
"I think Bo was disappointed in the way 2009 turned out for him, but to his credit he has worked extremely hard in the off-season to prepare himself for this year," Cardenas said. "With that hard work and his natural ability I don't see why this year should not be a turnaround year for him, and we need him to be because we look at him as a guy that will be a very productive element."
Priest almost accidentally took over the left field spot in 2009 after spending half of the season as strictly a pitcher. Due to a shortage of players on the bus for a midweek single game at Louisiana-Lafayette, Cardenas decided to let Priest hit for himself in addition to getting the start on the mound. Priest responded with a pair of hits and a home run, and then proceeded to get at least one hit in each of his first 11 starts in the lineup, eventually snagging the everyday left field job.
"It was funny how Ryan got the job, but it worked out not only for us but for him," Cardenas said. "He closed out the year as probably the hottest hitter we had and was really a mainstay in our lineup for the last half of the season."
With those three likely to see the majority of the playing time in the outfield it is hard to see where at-bats are going to come for the rest of the remaining outfielders, but depth is a luxury that Cardenas has this season with Justin Long, Patrick Gratzke and Chase Wier
there to pick up the slack should anyone fall.
Long has provided a steady left-handed bat in his two seasons in the field and finally started to show some power as a redshirt sophomore. He will likely get most of his at-bats at designated hitter, but he also played 36 games in the outfield in 2009. Gratzke comes in from Cisco Junior College where he hit .341 with five home runs last season, and Weir is a local Nacogdoches product that will provide the `Jacks with some right-handed power after sitting out last season.