The College Baseball Blog recently had the chance to talk with Donnie Watson of Stephen F. Austin to discuss his program. He is entering his third season with the Jacks after taking over in 2004 when the school decided to bring the program back after an eleven year absence.
1. Stephen F. Austin finished the 2007 season with a 31-28 overall record after having a tough first season in 2006 which saw the Jacks struggle to a 15-41 record. Who has improved the most over the summer and during fall workouts?
You have to remember we started a program from scratch. 32 players that have never played Division I Baseball cause its own set of problems. No upperclassmen to learn from, no experience to work from in the classroom or on the field and any real level of expectation was really hard to sell. We focused on trying to make our own history. We talked about using the 1st 3rd of the season to learn what it meant to play at this level, against some real established programs – Baylor, TCU, Arkansas, Tulane and The University of Houston. We talked about using the 2nd 3rd of the season as a transition period to learn how to finish at bats, innings, and games. We talked about what we would look like and learn if we could survive the 1st 2/3’s of our schedule and that, IF we were legitimate Division I players and could make the transition, we would be as good as anybody in our conference the last 1/3 of our schedule – and we were! We beat Houston late in the year when they were ranked 10th in the country, knocked 2 teams out of a bid for The Southland Conference Tournament and won 7 of our last 10 games. When all was said and done and saw that we had lost 19 games, over the course of the season, by one or two runs and how we finished it was hard to look at the year as anything but an important growing experience. We needed the experience and we survived year Number One. Experience is the greatest teacher and with that year of experience and a better understanding of where we were on the totem pole our confidence going into 2007 was extremely high. A 10 inning loss and a dramatic 1st win over Texas Tech to start the year, a record 31 wins and a first ever appearance in post season play highlighted by 1st Team All-American Steven Hill, 4 players taken in the major league draft and the rewriting of SFA’s baseball record books made “history making” a reality – in year 2 of a brand new program. We are now a veteran team and 12 of those original 18 freshmen are juniors and they are expected to be the nucleus of a team aspiring to win a conference championship in 2008.
Erich Lehmann, Jr.RHP, is 17-5 in his 1st 2 years at SFA,
Zach Gardner, Jr. CF, is developing into one of the best defensive/offensive CF packages in the country,
Ryan Sinclair, Jr. C, is maturing like we hoped when he signed as a catcher out of HS, 1.7-1.8 pop time, if he proves he can hit, he won’t be in college next year,
Erik Gregersen, Jr. RHP, 6’5” 90+ mph, probably improved the most this fall, he has command of 3 pitches and is getting a lot of attention from the scouts.
Adam Bosley, Jr. 1B, L-L, is back from hand surgery after red shirting last year, he is healthy and he can swing it.
Noel Trevino, Sr. 2B/OF, is our marquis player, has speed, power, a great arm and he should get consideration for SLC Player of the Year honors.
2. Erich Lehmann and Jared Schrom are your top two returning starting pitchers for the Jacks. Lehmann went 9-2 with a 4.38 ERA in 17 starts and Schrom went 5-3 with a 4.64 ERA. The Jacks have to replace Lance Luetge who went 7-5 with a 4.22 ERA. Who is expected to fill Luetge’s spot in the weekend rotation?
Much of our success last year came from Lehmann and Schrom giving us quality starts and keeping us in many games late enough to get Richard Folmer, 2007 SFA Pitcher of the Year, into closing situations. Lance Luetge, 6’4 LHP, pitched, in 2007, on an 80% arm from Tommy John surgery in 2006 and he has applied and been awarded a 6th year of eligibility. He is the equivalent to a 1st round draft choice and he will be back on the mound as our workhorse in 2008. He is 100% now and he wants to prove he is healthy and improve all his numbers from last year.
3. Steven Hill who started 33 games behind the plate in 2007 has graduated and led the team in hitting with a .387 average. Is Ryan Sinclair expected to take over behind the plate? Who is going be able to take over as the top hitter on the team?
Steven Hill played 1st base last year after catching the majority of the year in 2006. Steven was named SLC “Hitter of the Year”, SLC “Player of the Year”, SLC 1st Team “All-Conference”, 1st Team All-Region, 1st Team Louisville Slugger All-American” and is the best college hitter I have ever coached. Kevin Croft caught most of our games last year and if he wasn’t the best #9 hole hitter in the country he was the most dangerous. Ryan Sinclair will see plenty of action behind the plate in 2008. Croft is returning, Sinclair is ready to play and senior transfer Matt Whatley, a left handed hitting C from Arkansas-Monticello, was named our fall Most Valuable Player. Our best hitter is Noel Trevino and our line up figures to center around him. He can hit for power, high average and feels comfortable hitting 2nd, 3rd or 4th in the line up. Returnees Kevin Crabtree, Justin Long, along with Croft, Sinclair, Whatley, Bosley, Trevino and JC transfer Jeffrey Kello have all shown the ability to hit for power. We will enter a solid line up against RHP and LHP, be more balanced and have more speed than we did last year.
4. Have any of your incoming freshmen impressed you during Fall Workouts? Do you see any of them breaking into the starting lineup this season?
After playing a bunch of freshmen in our 1st year, I am glad to say that we do not have to throw our freshmen to the wolves during their 1st year. Luke Baker, SS, Alex Moshier, RHP/C, and Jared West, RHP, have been the most impressive freshmen this fall and all 3 have a chance to see action this spring.
5. How will the new rules with the way the scholarships can be split on the team affect your program? Do you think it is a good change for college baseball?
The new rules are getting a lot of attention, mostly negative, all across the country as baseball coaches began to realize how they will impact the day to day operation of their programs. The 11.7 scholarship total, for a basic 25 man roster, has always limited teams and most school’s ability to compete. The new rules are like the new math and I am not sure most of us got in this business to figure out what is countable aid and what is not or why a walk-on kid must be excluded from a roster due to roster limits. I have seen too many kids develop, in college, into the player nobody thought they could become in HS, to restrict a youngster’s passion and desire to play this game because a rule forces them to go somewhere else. I agreed with 99% of Ron Polks’ letter and felt that he spoke for many of the nation’s baseball coaches about the uniqueness’s of our sport and that we should not be compared to the full scholarship sports when it comes to figuring the APR. I am in favor of the new transfer rule that requires a player to sit out a year of eligibility because it solves most of our problems. If players will make a commitment to get a college degree and coaches will commit to develop the kids in their program, baseball and the APR problem will go away.
6. What is your biggest challenge on and off the field in dealing with young men from 18-23?
The biggest challenge on the field is keeping a balance between each individual player and where they are emotionally, physically, and mentally with the demands of overseeing the needs of the whole team. But that has been the biggest challenge from Day One. Bringing a program back to life after an 11 year absence is all about patience and player development. We knew we weren’t going to be an automatic contender in Omaha without taking all the steps and going through all the motions that every successful program in the country had to go through 1st. Every body wants to be 18-23 their whole adult life. I cannot imagine any reason why you would not want to be around kids that age. It is the most important years of their lives, athletically, academically and socially and I get to watch them go through the biggest changes in their life. Sometimes I hope I made a difference.
7. What is your expectations for the program in 2008? What team in the Southland Conference will be your toughest challenge for a conference championship?
We have one goal and that is to compete for and win a conference championship. The honeymoon is over. We have 8 seniors and 13 juniors returning and they played in the post season tournament last year. Setting the bar higher is another mountain to climb in our development as a program.
The Southland Conference is a very balanced conference and every team is very tough to play, especially at their home field. Sam Houston has really stepped to the top of the conference and I think they are the front runner. Great winning traditions at Lamar, UTSA, Northwestern State and Texas State always make them conference championship contenders. If Southeastern gets some extra offense going with their great pitching staff or Central Arkansas gets a little more pitching to go with their explosive offense the Southland Conference may have 6 or seven teams going into the last weekend with a chance to win the league out right. However I am confident that A&M Corpus Christi, UTA, and Nicholls State, just like SFA, intend to have plenty to say about who wins the conference and qualifies for the post season tournament.
The College Baseball Blog would like to thank Donnie Watson for taking the time to talk with us. If any other coaches would like to do an interview shoot us an email by clicking here.