Stars, Bucks set to meet in Region 2 clash

South Arkansas Community College’s baseball team made history last weekend.

Not only did the Stars win their first series in program history, they swept Northern Oklahoma-Enid at the same venue where their region tournament will be held at the end of the regular season.

The Stars had another first with sophomore infielder Clay Burrows getting selected as the NJCAA Region 2 Player of the Week after posting a .523 batting average with 11 hits, including three home runs and seven runs batted in over a six-game stretch that saw the Stars go 5-1.

Owners of a five-game winning streak after playing their last six games on the road, the Stars (19-7, 6-2) host a team that tormented them last year in Arkansas-Rich Mountain (11-11, 5-3).

The four-game series gets underway today in El Dorado with a doubleheader that starts at 1 p.m.

The series concludes Saturday at Arkansas-Rich Mountain with a doubleheader beginning at 1 p.m.

SouthArk coach Cannon Lester said that freshman Brett Foss (2-0, 3.60 ERA) and sophomore Hunter Royal (3-2, 5.10 ERA) will start Games 1 and 2 respectively today.

When the series shifts on Saturday, sophomore Christian Clayson (2-2, 4.71 ERA) and freshman Gage Bellati (2-0, 0.00 ERA) will be the starters for Games 3 and 4.

The Bucks ended the Stars’ debut season with a pair of wins in the Region 2 tourney as part of going 6-0 against SouthArk last year, and like the Stars, they enter on a five-game winning streak that includes a four-game sweep of Carl Albert State.

“I’m not sure exactly what team you’re going to get,” Lester said. “They have a lot of new faces, and coming off of a sweep like we did, they’re going to be excited about it. They put it on us last year, but they’ve got a different team this year, and we’ve got a different team this year, so we’ll try to exercise some of those demons and get out there and hopefully go for another series win. We’re excited to get back on the field.”

The Bucks have been rather streaky early on this season, having posted three separate losing streaks including a five-game skid earlier this month, but they also have had a three-game winning streak along with their current five-game streak.

The Bucks’ offense has also been very productive of late, scoring double digits in six of their last eight games.

Arkansas-Rich Mountain has a two players hitting over .400 in sophomore Casey Shipley (.403) and freshman Trent Smith (.400), while sophomore Cooper White is hitting .397.

Shipley, who leads the Bucks with five home runs and 20 RBIs, has been red hot of late, going 8-for-16 with three home runs and eight RBIs as part of a five-game hitting streak. 

In their sweep of Carl Albert State, the Bucks, who are hitting .313 as a team, hit seven home runs with Shipley driving in six runs in the series.

Brayden Sites, who had three hits and three RBIs in the Bucks’ 13-11 non-conference win over Eastern Oklahoma State on Tuesday, drove in five runs in the Bucks’ Game 2 win, and the Bucks won the opener despite being outhit 16-8.

On the mound, the Bucks got three outstanding performances in long relief to secure their sweep.

Sophomore left-hander Jackson Wilson was the winning pitcher in the first two games of the series, firing 6 1/3 hitless innings with two walks and seven strikeouts. Wilson is 4-0 with a 4.43 ERA in seven appearances, and opposing batters are hitting a meager .151 against him.

Freshman Ashton Perkins allowed five hits and just one run in a five-inning stint to win Game 3. He walked two and struck out eight.

Jack Henry Pettit, a freshman, leads the team in innings with 25, but the Bucks have struggled as a team having posted an ERA of 8.01 while allowing 233 hits in 163 innings.

The Stars did a little bit of everything in their road sweep.

Foss went the distance with an eight-hitter in the Stars’ 8-4 Game 1 win, and he got staked to an early lead thanks to home runs by Trace Shoup and Ryan Riggs.

Royal allowed two unearned runs while allowing just one hit in five innings to win Game 2. He walked four and struck out seven.

Shoup, who had four RBIs in Game 1, homered and drove in three runs in SouthArk’s 9-7 win in Game 2.

The Stars also won Game 3 9-7 with six of the Stars’ 12 hits being doubles with Shoup, Riggs and Burrows each having two hits in the win.

Clayson walked one and struck out seven while allowing five hits and five runs with four being earned in five innings of work to pick up his second win.

Trey Miller, who saved Game 2, picked up his fourth save in Game 3.

In Game 4, four pitchers combined on a four-hitter with Luke Eaton working two innings for the win and Kade Lively working four shutout innings to pick up the save. Lively walked three and struck out five while not allowing any hits.

Burrows homered as part of a three-hit day, and Elijah Nichols connected for his team-leading sixth homer for the Stars.

“I thought we played good,” Lester said. “It was definitely the best four-game set we played offensively and pitching combined. It was our first series win. We split a lot last year, but it was good when we finally won that third one. I told them after the game, ‘Hey, this is our first conference series. It’s a big step. Lets go ahead and finish it and get the first sweep.’ 

“The last game was a big game. The fourth game of the series are always the toughest games. Who wants to be there the most and who is going to get over their feelings if they’re struggling and just go be tough in that last game because that’s all it is. It’s a long, hard day, especially when you play four in two days. 

“That fourth game is a struggle, and we were tough in that last game, so it was good to get the sweep. It was really good to play good there because we’re going to play the district and regional tournaments there. I think that’s really big. It was exciting for our guys, our team and our program.”

Foss has quickly emerged as a key to the pitching staff. Since throwing five shutout innings in relief against TCS Post Grad, Foss has won two of his three starts, allowing 17 hits in 17 innings while racking up 20 strikeouts. He also hasn’t walked a batter in his last two starts.

“He didn’t do great this fall and I think he saw our guys a lot,” Lester said. “He’s kind of a finesse pitcher and we know what he’s got, but what you don’t know about Brett is he’s just a competitor. He has zero fear. A lot of energy on the mound, a big time strike-thrower and he attacks, attacks, attacks. 

“He’s been great out there. We’re going to keep throwing him in Game 1. It’s fun with him going out there in Game 1 because he works fast and our guys like to play defense behind him. He brings a little bit of energy to the table, which we like to play with. He’s been really good, and he keeps getting better and better each week.”

During his career with the Stars, Royal has been a fixture in the rotation, but he also saw plenty of time in the outfield in 2022, hitting .280 with one home run and 16 RBIs in 100 at-bats.

He hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity to hit this year, but he did in Game 3, delivering an RBI double and a walk.

“I didn’t think we had great swings in the outfield the day before, and the wind was blowing out to right field,” Lester said. “I think Hunter had only three at-bats all year and he goes walk, a double off the wall with an RBI and makes a good play in right. He’s a good outfielder. He’s got a lot of pop. He didn’t hit the ball great in the fall, but he was one of our best hitters last year. 

“I think he can be a hitter at the next level too as well as a pitcher. We don’t want to give up on him out there. I thought it was good day. I knew what they had on the mound stuff-wise and I thought it lined up well with his swing, and he had a pretty good day there. I don’t know if that’s going to keep happening, but I like that matchup and I like the wind blowing out to right, and he pulls the ball pretty hard. He has a lot of pop, so we thought we would put him in there and see how it goes.”

After working two scoreless innings against National Park, Lively sealed the sweep with a solid performance in long relief, and Lester said the sophomore is making good strides in his bullpen role.

“It’s getting closer,” Lester said. “He’s still not the Kade we saw in the fall stuff-wise and command-wise, but he’s getting closer. We just changed the environment when he comes in a little bit. He threw the ball good. I thought their first five guys were as good as any first five guys we’ve faced. They were big-time guys, but they were pretty free swinging, which was good for our staff, especially for Kade. He threw well, and I hope he keeps getting better and better. 

“Maybe we’ll put him back in that role as a starter, but we like having him in there in Game 4. We can go to him or we can go to him late. You never know in Game 4 what’s going to happen. If one of the starters in one of the other games gets into trouble early, we know Kade can lengthen it out a little bit and give us some long relief there. He’s done good in that role there. He’s accepted it and he’s just going to keep working.”

A big key for the Stars’ sweep was that they scored first in all four games.

“That’s what we really talked about,” Lester said. “We want to do whatever we can to score first. It shows when we do that, we’re really good. Roc (Hawthorne) walks to lead off the game and Trace (Shoup) hits a homer, the second batter of the game to go up 2-0. Riggs hits one in the first as well in the first game, and he had a good weekend. He really was the Ryan Riggs of last year. That was good to see. 

“Clay has hit three homers in the last week, and he’s almost at the team lead now, so that was good for him. Scoring early is a big deal. You’re definitely a little bit freer when you do that. The offense was pretty good. I thought we ran the bases good. We had four or five key bunts that really ignited some innings. We had some big two-out hits and honestly, we got some balls to fall. We got some bloopers to fall that just hadn’t been falling. Everything kind of seemed to go our way, so we will definitely take it and try to keep rolling from here.”

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