SouthArk to begin region play against SAU Tech

After playing a challenging non-conference slate, the Region II race officially begins today for South Arkansas College.

After splitting four games against teams ranked in the preseason poll last weekend, the Stars begin a three-game series against SAU Tech today with a 2 p.m. home game before the series shifts to Camden for a doubleheader on Saturday with an 11 a.m. start.

The Stars (9-8), who are the defending regular season Region II and Plains District Tournament champions, knocked off top-ranked Heartland (Iowa) Community College 4-1 on Sunday in their last outing.

The Rockets (3-7) enter on a three-game losing streak after getting swept by LSU-Eunice last weekend.

Sophomore Shae Thibodeaux is off to a solid start for the Rockets, hitting .417 with three home runs and six RBIs. Fellow sophomore Jackson Cobb is hitting .333 with two home runs and 12 RBIs, while Cooper McDaniel, also a sophomore, is at .308 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.

Sophomore Asher Hastings and freshman Paris Watson are the lone pitchers that have thrown more than 10 innings for SAU Tech. Hastings has 25 strikeouts in 15 innings of work, but he has also issued 15 walks.

Sophomore Jacob Key leads the team with a 2.57 ERA in seven innings.

“They have their core group of position players back,” SouthArk coach Cannon Lester said of the Rockets. “Their offense has a chance to go. Pitching-wise, they’re kind of lacking depth, but I know offensively, they’ve got a chance. They’ve got some big arms on the mound, it’s just a matter of are they on or are they off. Hopefully, we can get in the bullpen early, put some runs up and play some good defense.”

Lester said Brett Foss (1-3, 9.00 ERA) will likely get the Game 1 nod with Ryan Ursery (4-1, 4.34 ERA) and Colin Reed (1-0, 2.16 ERA) slated to start Saturday’s games.

The four games in Mississippi gave Lester a final chance to evaluate his pitching staff prior to the start of conference play, and 12 pitchers got work over the four games.

Grey Fisher and Austin Hillebrandt combined to allow two hits and one unearned run in five innings in last Saturday’s 9-5 loss to Parkland (Ill.) College.

“He threw the ball really well,” Lester said of Fisher. “He’s a big guy that’s not going to really overpower you, but he has a lot of belief in his stuff. He’s kind of funky a little bit, so I think he’s solidified a role for us. He’s done that two different times. He gave us a shot in that Parkland game. We had plenty of chances to come back because of him. I’m really excited about Grey. Bryson Menard threw a good inning, Luke Eaton was really good twice in the two wins. He’s probably that very back end guy for us. We only threw Jack Moody a batter or two, but I think Jack is going to be a seventh-, eighth-inning guy for us. The opportunity just didn’t present itself later on in the weekend, and we wanted to get a few more guys in there. We feel good about our bullpen. Hopefully we can get a few more innings out of our starters. We don’t need seven, but if we can get four or five, we feel pretty good about it after that.”

Lester said Will Turner could be a weapon as a long reliever, and Bryce Lopez made his season debut, although he failed to record an out in his appearance.

“Will Turner I think is more of a long-relief force,” Lester said. “He can be that first guy out of the bullpen if somebody gets in trouble early, and we can really spread him out. Austin Hillebrandt threw good this weekend. He’s a guy that we really think is just starting to come back into his own. He can be spread out over a couple of innings. Bryce Lopez threw this weekend. It was his first outing back. It wasn’t very good, but he’s going to be a big piece of our bullpen. I think we’re going to have a lot of one-inning guys down there. We got to do it a little bit this weekend, which was good, and we plan on doing it a lot more once conference gets here. I think we’re further along than we started.”

Lester added he wouldn’t rule out using Reed on Thursday if the situation presented itself.

“Colin Reed will start Game 3, but whose to say that he could come in on Thursday after Foss,” Lester said. “Foss has struggled a little bit, but Brett was really good down the stretch last year, and we think he’s going to get it going. We hope conference is where it comes along, but if he struggles in the first like he did last time, we’re deep enough where we’re probably taking him out after the first. We’ve got some good things there.”

As far as the four games in Mississippi are concerned, Lester said there was a little bit of everything.

“It was definitely up and down,” Lester said. “Pearl River came out and swung it well, and I thought our approach was actually OK, but we gave it away late. It got away from us at the end. Knowing we had to play three ranked teams the rest of the weekend, we threw some guys out there. They threw good for a little bit, and then it got to them a little bit. In the second game, we faced a good Parkland team. We ran into some homers, so that was good to see. Our offense has been struggling a little bit. 

“The next day, they came out and threw a 6-foot-8 lefty, and we didn’t have an answer for him. I didn’t think we competed that day. Honestly, we played good once and played bad twice, but baseball is baseball though. Heartland put in on Pearl River the day before and they had put it on us, but in baseball, that stuff doesn’t really matter. Colin Reed competed, we played really good defense and got a good win. Honestly, we don’t really win games like that much, so that was good to see. 

“Pitching, defense, we bunted a little bit, they gave us a few and we took advantage of it. Those are good games to win. Our three pitchers did really good, our shortstop was really good and we bunted a couple of times. We got to see a lot of good teams. I really think these will be the most talented teams we see until the postseason. That was really good to see in a challenging environment.”

One encouraging sign from the weekend was that Kyle Tolley continued his hot streak at the plate, hitting two more home runs. He enters the series against SAU Tech hitting .358 with three home runs and 12 RBIs.

“I hope so,” Lester said. “There’s not anybody that’s just on fire right now, but KT is going the most right now. It’s very apparent right now that he’s seeing it well and swinging it good. He’s flying around the bases. He’s been really good.”

Freshman Yadi Canales also had a solid weekend for the Stars.

“We started Yadi Canales and he got a big hit there and had a couple of good at-bats,” Lester said. “He barely missed a couple of homers. He has big-time pop, and he’s really starting to come along, so we’ve got some options there.”

Lester said Dawson Szymanski won’t play this weekend due to an illness.

“We’re going to give a few young guys a shot this weekend,” Lester said. “Dawson Szymanski is really sick and is out for the week, possibly two, so somebody like Tanner Powell and Cade Rodi could get a shot. They probably should’ve been in there more, but they’ll probably get their chance. They’re both left-handed bats and can run a little bit and are solid defensively.”

Kenner Lauterbach made his season debut, going 2-for-3 with an RBI double, but Lester said he is still limited due to an injury.

“He came up to me after the first game and said, ‘Hey, if I need to come in for defense late, I’m good,’ and I said, ‘OK, be ready,’” Lester said. “We were up that game and we brought him in the seventh. He lays down a bunt in the eighth and they threw it away. He played defense in the seventh, eighth and ninth. He told me he felt pretty good, and it was so nice having him out there. The next day, we started him. He comes up and their lefty is dominating us. 

“He goes to lay it down and hits it foul. I see a little twinkle in his eye. Of course, he swings it and fouls off five straight with two strikes and then hits a double off the wall for an RBI in his first at-bat, but then three innings later, he just looked at me and I could tell he was hurting pretty bad. We set him for the rest of the game and the next day. He’s still doing a little bit in practice, but not a lot. It will probably be one of those things where if we can bring him in late for defense, we’re probably going to do it, but as far as starting him, probably not quite ready yet.”

Lester said the Stars need to change their approach at the plate.

“We need to play a little more small ball,” Lester said. “We need to be a little bit better with pressure at-bats. Hopefully, the big swing will come late. We’re trying to do a little too much early in the game, and it’s kind of putting us behind the sticks a little bit, so we’ve got to be a little bit better with that.”

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