RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. - With three weeks until the start of the baseball season in the Great American Conference, the league's head coaches voted Oklahoma Baptist as the preseason favorite, the conference office announced on Thursday.
In their first year competing in Division II, the Bison made a spectacular debut, posting a 43-15 record, including a 22-11 mark within the GAC. They closed the year with a 15-game win streak that included 10 straight wins in NCCAA postseason play. The streak culminated in a game-winning grand slam by Hunter Heath that clinched a national title. The Bison bring back a pair of All-Conference pitchers - Jinny Parra and Carson McPherson. Parra also claimed the GAC Pitcher of the Year award after going 12-3 with a 2.49 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 108.1 innings. McPherson went 7-3 while holding opponents to a GAC-leading .176 batting average. Heath returns after hitting .356 with 11 home runs and 64 RBI.
Arkansas-Monticello, the reigning GAC Tournament champions, and Southwestern Oklahoma State, the GAC regular-season champion, shared second place. The Weevils won a program-record 40 games last season and advanced to the title game of the NCAA Central Region Tournament. They return Braden Chambers, a First-Team All-GAC pitcher, who went 11-1 along with First-Team second baseman Nick Piraino and reliever Dawson Moser, who registered nine saves and a 1.88 ERA. They must replace GAC Player of the Year and All-American Corey Wood, the GAC single-season record for home runs and RBI.
In addition to winning the GAC regular-season title, The Bulldogs advanced to their first NCAA Regional. They graduated seven of their nine 2016 All-GAC selections, but will return a pair of pitchers - starter Gunnar Cook and reliever Quintin Dougherty. Cook ranked third in the GAC with nine wins and struck out 85 in 80.1 innings pitched while Dougherty posted a 1.86 ERA with seven saves. He struck out 34 and walked just five in 29.0 innings of work and held the opposition to a .237 average.
Southern Arkansas placed fourth in the poll. The Muleriders extended their streak of 30 or more wins in a season to 16 as they finished 2016 with a 30-20 record. They return a pair of All-GAC honorees in outfielder Trevor Rucker and starting pitcher Kenneth Tabor. Rucker, a three-time All-GAC performer ranks third among active Division II players with 78 career stolen bases while Tabor went 8-4 with a 3.43 ERA in 2016.
Henderson State took fifth in the poll, followed by Southeastern Oklahoma State. The Reddies went 31-25 and advanced to the final of the GAC Championships. They return their five pitchers that combined to start all 56 games last season along with a pair of All-GAC hitters - Jordan Taylor and Hayden Lessenberry - both of whom hit .300. The Savage Storm went 29-25 in 2016. Head coach Mike Metheny enters the season needing seven victories to become Division II's all-time leader in wins. Joe Roberts won 1,314 games in 34 seasons at Armstrong State. He must replace all six of his 2016 All-GAC selections.
Arkansas Tech finished seventh in the voting, followed by Harding and East Central. The Wonder Boys earned the eighth seed for last year's GAC Championships, but upset the top-seeded Bulldogs in the best-of-three series. The Bisons roster features only one senior, Matt Brashear, and 20 freshmen. Last year, ECU qualified for the GAC Championships for the first time in program history. The Tigers return Second-Team All-GAC utility player Kaleb Matthews; his .441 on-base percentage ranked sixth in the conference.
Northwestern Oklahoma State, Ouachita and Southern Nazarene filled out the poll.
The GAC season begins on the opening weekend of February. East Central and Southern Arkansas hold the honors of playing first as both open on Thursday, February 2. Arkansas Tech, Henderson State, Northwestern Oklahoma State, Oklahoma Baptist, Southeastern Oklahoma State and Southern Nazarene take the diamond the next day while Arkansas-Monticello, Harding, Ouachita and Southwestern Oklahoma State debut on Saturday, February 4.