Bear Stadium at the University of Central Arkansas becomes the Southland Conference baseball headquarters beginning Wednesday.
The eight-team, double-elimination Southland Conference tournament begins a four-day run at UCA in what is considered to be the most balanced field in history.
Sam Houston State is the top seed and with its record, RPI and strength of schedule has a shot at an NCAA berth if it does not win the tournament title, which carries an automatic berth. The Bearkats claimed their third consecutive regular-season championship and enter the tournament with a 40-15 overall record to go with a 22-8 mark in league play. It was their first 40-win regular season since 1987.
UCA entered the tournament last season as the No. 7 seed, came out of the losers bracket to win it and eventually reached an NCAA regional final at Mississippi State. The Bears, sixth-seeded this year, open at 7 p.m. Wednesday against third-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which won two out of three from them earlier in the season at Corpus Christi.
A victory puts the Bears (29-21, 17-13) in a 7 p.m. winners bracket game Thursday night. A loss and they will turn around a play an elimination game at noon Thursday. They will play either the winner or loser of the Nicholls State-McNeese State game. UCA has won six games in a row.
Bryce Biggerstaff (6-5), with a 2.89 earned-run average, will start for UCA, which is led offensively by senior center fielder Doug Votolato, a first-team selection who is second in the conference in hitting at .377. He also leads the SLC in stolen bases (22), is second in on-base percentage (.459), fourth in runs scored (47), sixth in hits (75) and 10th in slugging percentage.
Votolato has reached base in 22 consecutive games entering the tournament.
Sophomore Tyler Langley of Conway leads the Bears with four home runs and four triples and is slugging .462.
UCA brings a .267 batting average and a 3.59 earned-run average to the tournament. Junior Chris Caudle has a team-high seven victories on the mound, followed closely by Biggerstaff and sophomore Connor Gilmore with six each. Junior Connor McClain of Conway has a team-high three saves, including two last weekend in the Bears’ sweep at New Orleans.
An all-tournament pass, which allows entry into all 15 possible games of the tournament, is $35 for adults and $25 for children ages 3-12.
An adult single-day pass, which will include four games on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with a possibility of three games on Saturday, is $14 each day, while a single-day pass for children is $10.
Tickets are available for purchase in person at the Central Arkansas ticket office, by phone at 501-852-2234, and online at www.ucasports.com/tickets.
Scanning the tourney field by seeding
1. SAM HOUSTON STATE: Sam Houston State won its third consecutive and fourth overall regular-season conference championship and enters the tournament with a 40-15 overall record to go with a 22-8 mark in league play ... it is the first time since 1987 that the Bearkats had won 40 games in the regular season … the Bearkats are making their 13th tournament appearance and their fourth in a row ... Sam Houston leads all current members with four tournament titles ... Senior catcher Anthony Azar was tabbed the league’s player of the year and is also a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award, an honor given to the best catcher in college baseball. The Bearkats are on a 12-game conference winning streak.
2. NICHOLLS STATE: The Colonels are 32-24 overall and were 21-9 in Southland contests ... Nicholls is making its fifth appearance and its and first since 2010 ... The Colonels are 7-5 in the tournament ... Nicholls senior pitcher Taylor Byrd was named the league’s pitcher of the year while coach Seth Thibodeaux was named the Clay Gould Coach of the Year … Nicholls is the first team in league history to win 20-plus conference games the year after only posting single-digit league wins.
3. TEXAS A&M-CORPUS CHRISTI: The Islanders bring a 30-25 overall and 19-11 league record into the tournament ... A&M-Corpus Christi is making its fifth all-time appearance in the tournament ... The Islanders have made the tournament field the last four seasons and are 7-8 all-time in the postseason ... A&M-Corpus Christi was one of three teams to place five players on the all-conference teams.
4. NORTHWESTERN STATE: The Demons finished in a third-place tie with A&M-Corpus Christi ... Northwestern enters the tournament with a 31-24 overall record and was 19-11 in league play ... It is the league-leading 18th tournament appearance for the Demons, who are back in the tournament for the first time since 2010 ... Northwestern, which is 19-34 in the tournament, is looking to win its first conference title … the Demons are 0-5 all-time in championship game appearances, last making the finals in 2006 ... Former Conway Wampus Cat star Chris Curry is coming home for the tourney. He’s an assistant coach for the Demons.
5. SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA: Southeastern Louisiana, which brings a 33-23 overall record into the tournament, finished 18-12 in Southland games … The Lions are making their ninth overall appearance and seventh in a row … Southeastern are 0-2 in title games, having fallen the last two seasons in the championship. ... Junior outfielder Andrew Godbold was named the league’s newcomer of the year … Godbold led the Lions with eight home runs and was second with a .353 batting average, which were fourth-and fifth-best in the Southland, respectively … Godbold was one of two Lions to earn a spot on the all-conference teams … junior pitcher Andro Cutura was named to the first team was Godbold was slotted on the third team.
6. UCA: The Bears swept their season finale against New Orleans to clinch a spot in the field and earn the No. 6 seed … UCA is making its third overall appearance and is 5-3 all-time … The Bears are led by senior outfielder Doug Votolato, who earned first-team all-conference honors … Votolato led the Bears with a .377 batting average and posted a team-high 22 steals … UCA ace Bryce Biggerstaff tossed four complete games on the season and had a team-high 54 strikeouts in 93.1 innings.
7. MCNEESE STATE: The Cowboys tied for sixth with UCA after posting a 28-26 overall record and a 17-13 conference mark … the Cowboys are making their third consecutive and 13th overall tournament trip … McNeese is 13-19 all-time in the postseason and 2-1 in championship games, claiming titles in 1993 and 2003 ... The Cowboys are looking to become the second No. 7 seed in as many years to claim the tournament title.
8. LAMAR: Lamar finished 31-23 overall and 16-14 in the Southland … The Cardinals won its final two conference games on the road against Oral Roberts to finish one-game ahead of the Golden Eagles for the eighth and final spot … Lamar is returning to the tournament for the second straight year and for the 15th time overall … The Cardinals have three tournament titles and are 33-22 all-time in the Southland postseason.