Pitching at times was a sore spot for South Arkansas Community College in their debut season.
Walks in particular came back to haunt the Stars, who issued 367 free passes in 410 1/3 innings as a team.
As they get ready for their second season, the Stars have a mix of veterans and newcomers that coach Cannon Lester is counting on.
Kade Lively, who signed with Arkansas Tech and had 58 strikeouts in 60 innings last year, is back to lead the rotation.
“Kade probably doesn’t have as good as stuff as some of our other starters, but he’s just a gamer and we always know what we’re going to get from him. We like him for Game 1,” Lester said.
After Lively, the Stars could turn to freshman Ethan Riche to be their Game 2 starter.
“Probably depending on the matchup, I think we’ll probably go with Ethan Riche in Game 2,” Lester said. “He’s a big kid that just really fills it up with a lot of pitches. The game never really gets too fast for him, at least so far.”
Beyond Lively and Riche, the Stars could turn to sophomore Hunter Royal, who ranked second on the team in strikeouts last year with 51 in 43 innings, as well as Christian Clayson, a transfer from Louisiana-Monroe, to start Games 3 and 4.
“They are kind of our wild cards,” Lester said. “They have really good stuff. I put their stuff against about any starter in the conference. Knowing we’ve got those guys going three and four is really good. Their main thing is they can fill it up and not many guys are going to hit them.”
For Lester, Lively and Riche will be pivotal to the Stars’ success.
“The thing about Kade and Ethan in those first two games, we really want to set the tone,” Lester said. “We know they’re going to fill it up. If the other team beats us, they’re at least going to have to earn it. That’s probably why we’ll slot them in Game 1 and Game 2.”
If there is one area where there is uncertainty with the Stars, it’s in the bullpen.
Aaron Warriner, who will be joining Lively at Arkansas Tech and led the Stars in appearances, is back, as is sophomore Trey Miller, who had 39 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings, but there are a wealth of newcomers that are trying to work their way into roles.
“I think the bullpen is probably the biggest question mark we have,” Lester said. “We like the arms. We’re not really sure on their roles. Obviously, Aaron Warriner and Trey Miller were our two best bullpen arms last year, pretty much the only ones down the stretch that we could really count on.
“They have taken a step forward. Trey came out after Christmas and he looked unhittable the other day, so we’re excited about Trey. He’s got an elite curveball. Aaron’s always going to be good. He signed with Arkansas Tech. They’re getting a good one, and he can start for us as well.”
Freshmen Jack Moody and Gage Bellati have impressed, and the Stars also have a returnee in Josh Uchtmann, who was in the rotation last year. Kadyn Howard and Jackson Regan also could become major pieces to the puzzle.
“Jack Moody is a scrawny, skinny guy, but he has some life to his fastball and he’s thrown really well,” Lester said. “We’ve got other guys in there as well. We’ve got Josh Uchtmann back, who threw the most innings for us last year.
“Kadyn Howard didn’t throw a ton for us last year, but he’s been up to 92 (miles per hour) in the fall, and when he fills it up, he’s about unhittable. Gage Bellati is a big kid that I can definitely see going into a starting role at some point. He’s 6-3, 230 and he’s 87 to 91. We’ve got to get the breaking ball a little bit better, but we really like him because he fills it up.
“I think Jackson Regan probably had our best fall. We dropped him down to sidearm, and he’s been really good. We’re not going to have a closer per se right now, but I could definitely see him filling that role as a sidearmer with a good slider. We’ve really been impressed with him.”
The Stars also have two more freshmen in Brett Foss and John Demcher, as well as a transfer from Labette Junior College in Steffan Fak who could fill roles in the bullpen.
“Brett Foss was a high school All-American in his junior year. He’s run into some tough patches, but he’s a competitor. He’ll fill it up,” Lester said. “We’ve also got a big-time strike thrower that came in from Labette Junior College in Steffan Fak. He has a really devastating splitter. He just throws a ton of strikes.
“A guy that’s really been coming along lately is John Demcher. He’s gotten up to 90 a couple of times with a good changeup. He really fills it up. He’s another big kid, 6-3, 210. He’s put on about 35 pounds since he’s been here. We’re really excited about him. He keeps getting better every time out.
“We really like our pitchers there and there’s another guy or two in there that can help us. I think depth-wise on the mound, we’ve got about 13, 14 guys right now that we feel pretty confident in, so we’re excited about that.
“Last year, it was probably more like six, seven, maybe eight guys, and that was at the beginning and it kind of dwindled down the stretch, so we’re excited about our pitching depth. We’ve just got to stay healthy.”
With the Stars being more sophomore-laden, Lester said some members of the freshman class will likely redshirt this year.
“I think on the position player side, we’re pretty old right now, so barring injury, we’ll probably have four or five position players that might end up redshirting as the year goes on if we can stay healthy,” Lester said.
“Good ballplayers, just these other guys have got a year under their belt and they’re a little bit ahead of where they’re at, so just kind of weighing the pros and cons of how many at-bats they’re going to get and where we see them slotting in.
“On the pitching side, we might end up redshirting a few, but we’ve got a lot of young guys that are really going to help us out, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them.”
When asked about who he thought the favorite in the region would be, Lester went with Murray State.
“Just looking at it, I am going to say Murray State,” Lester said. “They went to the World Series last year. They’ve got a few guys back, they lost quite a bit, but they’re probably toward the top as far as talent-wise.
“I think Western Oklahoma State is always good, and I think talent-wise, they’ll be back. There’s always a team there that you’re not sure about. Coach (Lance) Spigner at Rich Mountain had a great year last year.
“They lost a lot of guys, but he’s a really good coach. You never quite know. I think junior college is probably more random that most four years because the turnover is so high.
“I think if you look back at Rich Mountain’s lineup, I hadn’t looked at it, but I’m saying that they probably lost anywhere from 15 to 20 guys that contributed last year, and when you’re talking about that many new guys, you’re not exactly sure what you’re getting.”
Starting this year, SouthArk will have a crosstown rivalry with SAU Tech in Camden beginning its first year of competition.
“We have a lot of seven-hour trips in our conference and having a 40-minute trip is really nice, especially toward the end of the year when everybody is kind of tired,” Lester said.
“I think it will be a great rivalry series there at the end of the season, and I’m sure it’s going to mean something. I have great respect for coach (Tanner) Rockwell.
“We got to play them this fall and had a couple of good games. They’ve had a year to recruit and they’ve got some good players down there. They’ll have a solid team and I think they’ll surprise some people this year.”