Bearkat baseball returns after regional appearance

Feb. 14—HUNTSVILLE — After an exciting finish in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament, Sam Houston baseball is set to face a bit of adversity as they transition to Conference USA.

But with four seniors that graduated, two members headed to the MLB and a couple of members in the transfer portal — the Bearkats will face a new conference and a bit of a rebuild on the diamond.

"One, it's exciting for those guys to continue playing and I think it's a good reflection of our program," Sam Houston baseball coach Jay Sirianni said. "When you turn guys over to pro-baseball and graduation it reflects well. The rebuild of the offense, so to speak, we have a lot of guys back, they just didn't get a lot of opportunities because of the older guys. Every year is a new year and you have to figure out the best nine."

As it becomes a great reflection, Sam Houston has plenty of holes to fill coming into this year. That starts on the dirt with Tyler Davis, Myles Jefferson and Justin Wishkoski all moving on. On the outfield grass, the 'Kats lost Carlos Contreras, Joe Redfield and Clayton Chadwick.

The lone member in the field to remain in second basemen, Easton Loyd, grabbed 61 starts for Sam Houston and batted a .274 average in 62 games. Being the lone member back, Sam Houston will have second base settled.

Junior Hunter Autrey has been a two-year member of the squad but hasn't had a lot of time to play with Davis being a lockdown first baseman. Autry has made appearances in 31 games. He has a .220 average with 11 hits in 59 tries.

With the right side of the dirt likely locked in, the Kats still need an anchor for the hot corner and shortstop. For Sam Houston last year, Wishkoski and Jefferson missed a total of three starts across the 64-game season.

But the Kats brought in several junior college recruits along with members on the squad that can play on the infield with sophomore Ryan Franden, junior Jake Rabe and junior transfer Brady Christensen to play on the dirt.

"Recruiting never ends and you have to be prepared for all the moving parts of college baseball. At the end of the day, recruiting never ends and you have to have somebody on the board and ready to go, knowing that they won't have the experience at this level. But that's OK, you get guys that are athletic and coach them up," Sirianni said.

One spot that remained filled is one of the most important spots. Junior catcher Walker Janek returned to the Bearkats after making 56 starts last season. He is a big part of the pitching staff, along with senior Wes Folse behind the dish.

Janek has been a staple for Sam Houston on both sides of the ball as finished last year with a .301 average for 68 hits. He hit 13 home runs and drove 65 runners in, which led the team.

Behind the plate, he has developed himself as one of the top catchers in College Baseball with his pitching staff.

Janek was rated as the No. 48 prospect for the 2024 MLB Draft by MLB Pipeline and was selected as the CUSA Preseason Player of the Year by Perfect Game Baseball. However, he was not selected by Conference USA for anything.

"The guys like throwing to Walker and Wes. But to have a guy back who has put up the numbers and has the experience, it's not very often that a guy catches as much as he did as a freshman. That year was kind of his growing pains and last year he made a move. The preseason stuff is good but Walker loves to win and does whatever he can to help us win," Sirianni said.

With questions on the lineup, Sam Houston will have a familiar face with the Friday starter being senior Coltin Atkinson.

Atkinson has been a key player for this squad for three years and has officially been named the Friday starter. Last year, Atkinson made 17 starts with one complete game. He finished the season with a 4.8 ERA but it was skewed a bit with 11 runs charged to him in the Kats Regional game against Oregon State.

With Fridays locked down, the Kats lost one weekend starter with Steven Beard being their Saturday guy.

Sirianni announced the weekend rotation on X (Formerly known as Twitter) with lefty Marshall Wales getting the Saturday start. In his junior year with Sam Houston, Wales made nine starts in 18 appearances and had a 5.43 ERA in 53 innings pitched.

The post also announced senior Miles Hellums as the Sunday starter. Hellums got one start in 16 games last year with 29 innings pitched. The first starting lineup is without redshirt junior Logan Hewitt on the starting slate where he was last year.

On the backend of the bullpen, Sam Houston retained a key piece from last year. Senior righty Chandler David came back to the 'Kats after a 2.34 ERA in 30 appearances. He had a perfect 6-0 record and grabbed two saves. Paired with Texas A&M transfer Wyatt Tucker the backend of the Bearkat bullpen should be top-tier.

"It has been a very competitive Fall on the mound. We have a lot of experience back, whether they got it here, junior college or the portal," Sirianni said. "Coach Simmons has done a really good job of mixing and matching the guys and having them compete every day. We like our pieces, we just have to figure out the where and how. It's nice to have Chandler David, Wyatt Tucker at the back end."

Another key piece the Bearkats grabbed in the transfer portal was Malachi Lott who Sirianni said would be used on the mound and at the plate. At UH, Lott had a 5.45 ERA and hit .291 over two years.

Sam Houston will open the season in CUSA, marking its third conference in four years. The Kats move to the new conference with only New Mexico State coming from the WAC with them.

In the preseason poll, the Bearkats were picked to finish fourth, behind Dallas Baptist University, Liberty and Louisiana Tech rounding out the top three.

With the upped competition in conference play in recent years, the Kats have always played a challenging schedule to help prepare them for this. This year it starts strong with 2023 regional host Oklahoma State coming to Don Sanders Stadium on opening weekend.

Additional games for the Bearkats feature Rice University, Dartmouth, the University of Houston, Texas State, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas to prepare them for CUSA play.

"We've gotten comfortable being uncomfortable, just tell us where we are going. The transition stuff, we don't get too worried about," Sirianni said. "We try to play a challenging schedule and we will see what happens. We are excited about it, but the transition is for somebody higher up than me."

Sam Houston opens the season on Friday, Feb. 16, with a home game against Oklahoma State. The first pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Don Sander Stadium and will be streamed on the ESPN+ Platform.