Southern Arkansas sits atop preseason conference poll

Great American Conference Graphic

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – In advance of the 2018 Great American Conference baseball season, the league’s head coaches voted Southern Arkansas as the preseason favorite, the conference office announced on Wednesday. The Muleriders received nine of the 12 first-place votes.

In 2017, SAU won its fourth GAC regular-season championship and advanced to the NCAA Regional Tournament for ninth time in its last 10 years. The Muleriders return a quartet of All-GAC performers in First-Team selections Mark Fontenot, Jacob Richardson and Cortland McPherson and Honorable Mention pitcher Kenneth Tabor. They must replace the league’s unanimous Player of the Year, Trevor Rucker. He finished at GAC’s all-time leader in 10 major offensive categories.

Oklahoma Baptist collected the outstanding three first-place votes and placed second in the poll. The Bison won consecutive NCCAA Championships during their transition from the NAIA to the NCAA. They bring back first 2017 All-GAC selections Juan Gonzalez, Brett Berghammer and Josh Timms. All three ranked in the top 10 in the GAC in batting average. Honorable Mention third baseman Zane Gelphman led the GAC in RBI and starting pitcher Zach Fowler ranked fifth in ERA.

Arkansas Tech finished third. Starting pitcher Kyle Wilson, a unanimous First-Team selection, returns after posting an 8-1 record with the league’s second best ERA, 2.53 He ranked third with 93 strikeouts. Shortstop Dylan McDearmon placed seventh in average and slugging percentage.

Arkansas-Monticello, the GAC Tournament champions, took fourth, edging out Henderson State, the tournament’s runner up. Tournament MVP Brain Ray returns for his senior season along with First-Team second baseman Andres Rios, Second-Team first baseman Sean Wagner and Honorable Mention reliever Dawson Moser. The Reddies feature 2017 GAC Pitcher of the Year Bryant Haralson and Second Team reliever Blake Patterson. Haralson earned All-American honors after he led the GAC in ERA, strikeouts, opponent’s batting average, complete games and shutouts. Patterson led the conference with 13 saves, five more than any other reliever.

Southwestern Oklahoma State garnered the sixth position while Southeastern Oklahoma State finished one point clear of Harding for seventh. For the first time since 1980, a coach besides Mike Metheny will lead the Savage Storm as Zach Crabtree took over for the retired Metheny. Metheny finished his 37-year career with the Division II record for coaching wins.

Five points separated Ouachita, Northwestern Oklahoma State and East Central for the ninth, 10th and 11th spots. Southern Nazerene rounded out the poll. The Rangers feature a new head coach in Ryan Bowen, a former assistant at Southeastern Oklahoma State.

The 2018 season begins on the opening weekend of February. SAU, Arkansas Tech and Southeastern Oklahoma State head to Grand Prairie, Texas for the Air Hogs DII Classic. Henderson State travels to the Astros’ Minute Maid Park for the Houston Winter Invitational. All 12 teams take the field for the first time that weekend.

East Central kicks off the spring season at 1 p.m. Feb. 1, hosting Southwest Baptist at Ken Turner Field. It’s the first of the four-game season-opening series with the Bearcats.

The GAC Baseball Championships returns to David Allen Ballpark in Enid set for May 5-8. The format also reverts back to a six-team, double-elimination event.

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Jeff Cali has been covering sports in the Ada area since the mid-90s. He graduated from Byng High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from East Central University.