SouthArk ready for road trip to Mississippi

After snapping a four-game skid last weekend, South Arkansas College heads to Mississippi for four games against three of the top teams in the Division II ranks.

The Stars (7-6), who are ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll, take on Pearl River (Miss.) Community College (12-3), which opened the season ranked third, today at noon in the first of two games on Friday.

SouthArk will face Parkland (Ill.) College (1-2), which entered the season ranked No. 20, at 3 p.m.

The Stars and Cobras meet again Saturday at 1 p.m. before SouthArk finishes their weekend with a clash against top-ranked and defending national champion Heartland (Iowa) Community College (1-0) Sunday at 11 a.m.

For SouthArk coach Cannon Lester, the four games this weekend not only bring top-notch competition, but a final opportunity to evaluate players before finalizing roles with conference play set to begin next week.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Lester said. “You want to keep it fresh on their minds that if you have done good and you can do good against these teams — and I think these are honestly the most talented teams we’re going to face all year — that will bode well for your chances in conference. I think this is by far the hardest schedule since I’ve been here, but it’s good. I’m going to tell the guys, ‘Hey, we’re going to compete against the best guys. They’re good.’ 

“We’re not going to run from that. Hopefully, we step up to that a little bit because at times, we’ve been scared of competition and played down to other people, so hopefully we go and try to fight for it and not be scared and take it. I’m excited to go there. They’ve got some unbelievable facilities, some good players. We’ve got some good players as well, so I’m excited to go down there and compete a little bit.”

Lester said Brett Foss (0-2, 5.19 ERA) and Ryan Ursery (3-1, 4.61 ERA) will start the Friday games, but didn’t name starters for the Saturday and Sunday games.

“I think Saturday and Sunday will be TBA,” Lester said. “We need to see how the first two go. I’ve told the guys that we see that third game and using our roles in the bullpen. I think we’re going to big-league staff it a lot more probably than any other college does, and I think we can get away with it. We’ve just got to be really smart with how we use them. 

“We might have an opener in Game 3. I think we’re going to try it out because I can see us doing that in conference as well in Game 3, just kind of throwing our best arms out there and if one happens to look like he’s ready to stick, we’ll let him go two or three innings, but a lot of one-inning guys throwing their specialty pitch and best 20 bullets at them and then we go on to the next guy. Hitting that can be really difficult, but pitching that way can be difficult to get into a rhythm too. We’ve got to find that ground. I’m looking forward to trying that out and actually being able to do it.”

Foss turned in a terrific outing last weekend against Twin City Post Grad, allowing two hits and one unearned run over five innings of work. He walked two and struck out seven. 

Lester said Foss is still building up strength after an illness.

“He just located,” Lester said of Foss. “I think the velo(city) is probably going to be where it’s at now. It’s similar to where it was last year. He’s down 20 pounds, and it was really hard for him to get those 20 pounds on, so I think it’s going to be really hard for him to get back up there, but he’s a competitor and he’s just going to go pitch with what he had last year. 

“I think the velo will come back, but I don’t know if it will be this year. I think he’s going to have to pitch a little more like he did last year, a little more finesse, definitely more tricking people, but he did it last year, so there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again this year.”

Kyle Tolley had four hits in the doubleheader sweep of Twin City Post Grad, delivering a walk-off single in the opener before homering as part of a three-hit, three-RBI performance in Game 2.

“Tolley probably hits two homers against them in the second game, but the wind was blowing in about 25 miles an hour,” Lester said. “He smoked one off the net and then he hit a no-doubter. That was good to see. Hopefully, he can keep that going. We’re right there in a lot of spaces. We’ve just got to keep working and believing and get over that hump.”

Freshman catcher Gavin Murphy had four RBIs and hit a three-run homer for his second of the year in Game 2.

“Gavin has stepped up a lot,” Lester said. “He’s got a good swing. He had one of our better falls offensively. He’s starting to get going again. He hit a no-doubt three-run homer in the first to get us going. Blocking-wise, he’s unbelievable. He’s a tough kid with a great arm. He doesn’t take pitches off. 

“If we go a complete game and we throw 180, he’s going to be locked in the whole time. He’s really tough back there. He’s been a great addition, and I think he’ll stick in the middle of the order. He’s got a chance to really go, so hopefully he can continue to keep going offensively and defensively.”

On the injury front, Lester said he expects freshman left-hander Bryce Lopez to make his season debut this weekend with fellow freshman shortstop Kenner Lauterbach a possibility to play as well.

“I think Lopez will for sure,” Lester said. “I think we’ll throw him an inning, probably 15 to 20 pitches. We’re excited for him because he can be a real key on the back end of the bullpen. Kenner is doing a little bit more day by day. He still hasn’t swung yet, but defensively, he’s starting to move around out there, taking some ground balls. 

“He sprinted some in our workouts, so we’ll probably leave it up to him this weekend if he wants to go. I told him he can bunt only if he doesn’t want to swing, just to see some pitches. He’s a big part of our lineup, a big part of our team defensively as well. 

“I think if we don’t get him back this weekend, I think hopefully for sure it will be the next. We’re ready for him, but we’ve got to be smart.”

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