The Sam Houston State Bearkats (25-11) and the No. 12 Houston Cougars (25-10) kicked off the inaugural Sanders Cup Tuesday evening at Constellation field in Sugar Land, TX. The Kats got out to a quick 5-0 lead, but the Cougars comeback bid fell short as SHSU picked up the victory by a final score of 5-4.
The Sanders Cup was created to honor Don Sanders, who has had a major impact on both the Bearkats’ and the Cougars’ baseball programs. Tuesday’s game was the first of three in this season’s series. One game at Constellation field, one at the University of Houston and one at Don Sanders Stadium in Huntsville.
This game was not only an opportunity to take the first game of the Sander’s cup, but it was an opportunity to boost the Bearkats’ RPI against the No. 12 Cougars.
“It’s a great opponent,” head coach Matt Deggs said “Super well coached; they have a lot of really good players.”
The Bearkats started the first inning hot, as three of the first four runners reached base, giving sophomore outfielder Hunter Hearn an opportunity at the plate with the bases loaded and one out. Hearn hit a ground ball to Cougar freshman third baseman Jared Triolo, but Triolo could not field the ball cleanly, making everyone safe on the base pads. The Kats jumped out to an early 1-0 lead. Sophomore outfielder Josh Biles then hit a sacrifice fly to bring home sophomore outfielder Mac Odom, making the score 2-0 in SHSU’s favor after one inning of action.
The Bearkats sent freshman starting right-handed pitcher Hayden Wesneski to the mound, and he kept the momentum going for the Bearkats in the early innings. Wesneski had 1-2-3 innings in each of the first two innings, fueled by two double plays. The Bearkats gave Wesneski some more run support in the top of the third as a double by senior catcher Robie Rojas brought in sophomore third baseman Andrew Fregia making it 3-0 Bearkats.
Wesneski did find himself in some trouble in the bottom of the fourth, as the Cougars had the bases loaded with two outs, but he was able to get a groundout to senior shortstop Taylor Beene to end the inning.
“With Hayden we knew he was going to come out and throw well,” Rojas said. “To give him two in the first inning he has some relief on him, so he came out and gave us an amazing start.”
The Bearkats got their offense going once again in the top of the fifth, as back-to-back singles by Fregia and Rojas put runners on first and third. A single by junior pinch hitter Blake Chisolm brought Fregia home for another run and moved Rojas to third. Redshirt senior infielder Lance Miles then hit another single to bring home Rojas and move Chisholm to third, making it 5-0 going into the top of the fifth.
Wesneski worked through another scoreless inning in the fifth, before coming out of the game after facing one batter in the sixth. Freshman left-handed pitcher Dominic Robinson replaced Wesneski and was able to set down the Cougars in the top of the sixth after allowing just two hits and no runs.
“I tried to fill the strike zone up,” Wesneski said. “I tried to get quick outs, be efficient with it. I haven’t been filling up the zone a lot so it’s nice to get quick outs and had the defensive help behind me.”
In the top of the seventh, the Bearkats loaded the bases, but were unable to cash in, keeping the score 5-0. Robinson started out the bottom seventh allowing a double and a triple, making it 5-1. Robinson forced a pop up, allowed a walk after that and was pulled from the game in favor of junior left-handed pitcher Riley Cooper.
Cooper was able to get second baseman Connor Hollis to ground into a fielder’s choice, scoring one run for the Cougars, and allowed a triple to center fielder Corey Julks, making it 5-3. The next batter, Jake Scheiner, then hit a single to left field, which cut the Bearkat lead to 5-4. Cooper was able to get out of the inning with the lead intact, as he was able to get right fielder Lael Lockhart to pop out to end the inning.
There was some drama in the top of the eighth as the Bearkats were able to get runners on first and third with two outs, but were not able to capitalize, as Chisolm grounded out to second to end the inning. Cooper stayed in as the pitcher in the bottom of the eighth and retired the first two Cougars quickly. It seemed that Cooper was going to have a quick 1-2-3 inning, but on what looked like a routine groundout to second, right fielder Wendell Champion hustled down the line and was able to beat the throw as sophomore Riley McKnight was slow getting to the bag.
After the infield hit the Bearkats brought in freshman closer Nick Mikolajchak, and he took just two pitches to retire sophomore Joe Davis. Mikolajchak made quick work of the ninth for the Bearkats, setting down the top of the Cougar lineup in order, as the Bearkats withstood a late Cougar rally to win 5-4.
“Well, they are a really good ball club,” Deggs said “They are a top 25 ball club for sure, in my mind top 15, they are in everybody’s conversation to host, so it’s a great opportunity for us.”
This win gives the Bearkats a 1-0 edge in the Sanders Cup, as the two still have two more games to play this season. Up next, the Bearkats will travel to Conway, Ark. to take on the Central Arkansas Bears.
First pitch is set for Friday at 6 p.m. at Bear Stadium.