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Rotation set to play key role for Stars

by Jason Avery | May 25, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.
Heath Waldrop/Special to the News-Times Making the tag: South Arkansas College pitcher Christian Clayson applies the tag to a baserunner trying to score during a game earlier this season at the El Dorado/Union County Recreation Complex. The Stars begin play in the NJCAA Division II World Series Saturday at 10 a.m. against Frederick (Md.) Community College.

If South Arkansas College is to make a run in the NJCAA Division II World Series, the Stars will have to continue to get a terrific performance from the MVP of the Plains District Tournament named by coach Cannon Lester.

Or MVP’s in this case.

SouthArk’s starting pitching in the Plains District Tournament was a huge reason why the Stars find themselves in the World Series in just the second year in the history of the program. Out of the 45 innings SouthArk played in their five games, 32 of those innings were thrown by the starter.

Overall, SouthArk’s starters went 3-1 with a 3.09 ERA. Four of SouthArk’s starters went at least six innings, which kept the bullpen fresh and allowed Aaron Warriner to pitch four innings in the Stars’ win over Northern Oklahoma-Enid and Trey Miller to pitch the final two innings of the World Series-clinching win over Western Oklahoma State.

“Four out of the five games, that might have been about as well as we’ve thrown,” Lester said. “We didn’t really hit the ball, at times we didn’t defend it great, but starting pitching is what set us up.”

Freshman Brett Foss has often set the tone for series this year, and he did so again in the Plains District Tournament.

In the Stars’ opener against Redlands College, Foss fired a two-hit shutout, walked four and struck out 10.

The shutout was Foss’ second this year and the 10 strikeouts set a career high.

“Foss came out and does what he did,” Lester said. “He finally got on the ERA leaderboard because he threw enough innings. I think he ended up with the lowest ERA in the conference. He should’ve been All-Region. He’s been unbelievable all year.”

In his two years at SouthArk, Hunter Royal has been the Game 2 starter, and he followed Foss’ lead by limiting Hesston (Kan.) to just four hits and one run over seven innings in an 8-3 win. He walked three and struck out 10. It was the second time this season Royal reached double figures in strikeouts after he fanned 11 in five innings in a win over Redlands College.

“Hunter Royal, they had zero shot to hit him,” Lester said. “He was up 93, 94 (miles per hour) with a hammer. He threw the ball great. He’s really starting to hone in on the strike zone. They were an aggressive team, so that boded well for him.”

Sophomore Christian Clayson has played an invaluable role for the Stars as the Game 3 starter. He leads the team in innings pitched and has four complete games to his credit, but Lester said it was his consistency that has been vital to the Stars.

“Clayson is just a battler,” Lester said. “He seems to always give up one or two in the first, but then he settles in and gives us six every time. That’s been his modus operandi.”

Against Northern Oklahoma-Enid, Clayson allowed seven hits and four runs with only two being earned in six innings of work. He walked three and struck out one. Clayson missed out on getting his seventh win after the bullpen failed to hold on to the lead, but SouthArk rallied to win in extra innings on Roc Hawthorne’s walk-off home run.

Freshman Gage Bellati picked up a win over Western Oklahoma State in his first start against the Pioneers, but he suffered his first loss of the season in the rematch in the Stars’ first game to win the tournament.

Although he didn’t pitch well in his last start, he has solidified the back of the rotation, picking four wins while working 45 2/3 innings.

“Gage has been really good,” Lester said. “We faced a hot team, and they were going. He had thrown well against them the first time, but they had a really good approach against him. His numbers up to that point had been really good.”

With their season at stake, sophomore Kade Lively delivered, holding Western Oklahoma State to just three hits and three runs with only two being earned in seven-plus innings of work in the Stars’ 6-4 win.

Because of their production, the Stars didn’t need to call on freshman Ethan Riche, who won his college debut against Northern Oklahoma-Tonkawa.

“We still had Ethan Riche waiting in the bullpen, and I think he’s one of our best arms,” Lester said. “He didn’t throw just because our starting rotation was so good.”

There is no doubt that starting pitching will be crucial to SouthArk’s success at the World Series, but a big reason why the Stars are here is because of them both during the regular season and postseason.

“Starting pitching no doubt was the MVP of this tournament,” Lester said.


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