Former Lion coaching Sam Houston offense to success through conference realignment, new challenges

photo by: AP Photo/Matthew Hinton

Sam Houston infielder Justin Wishkoski (5) celebrates a home run with Sam Houston outfielder Clayton Chadwick (12) and Sam Houston utility Tyler Davis (18) during an NCAA baseball game against Oregon State on Friday, June 2, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.

Conference realignment has affected almost every NCAA Division I school in some way or another. But the Sam Houston Bearkats have faced turnover at an increased rate. The team spent over 30 years in the Southland Conference before moving to the Western Athletic Conference for two years. This season, the Bearkats moved again to Conference USA.

“It’s been a journey,” Sam Houston assistant baseball coach Shane Wedd said. “Seniors are playing in their third conference.”

Through it all, Sam Houston’s baseball team has remained consistent, particularly in its offense — and much of that results from Wedd, a Lawrence High School and University of Kansas alumnus.

The former Chesty Lion and Jayhawk has long been around the sport, thanks to growing up in Lawrence. Whether around his father, Dirk Wedd; current Free State coach Mike Hill or LHS coach Brad Stoll, Wedd spent plenty of time with different baseball minds at a young age, which helped him reach his coaching and playing peak. A few years before he attended KU, the Jayhawks made their only College World Series appearance in school history in 1993.

Wedd later started at Sam Houston in 2015-16 as a volunteer assistant before taking over as the head coach of Northeast Texas Community College for a year. Wedd returned to Sam Houston in the volunteer assistant role in 2018 before moving up to director of baseball operations in 2019 and associate head coach in 2020 through today.

This season was his first as the associate head coach tasked with leading the team’s offense. The Bearkats offense has had a lot of individual and team success with Wedd around, although he says that the results are due to the bats the team brings in during recruitment.

The third Bearkat hitter in four years became a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award. Walker Janek, a catcher from Portland, Texas, led the team with a .368 batting average, 58 RBIs, 17 home runs and 81 hits. He is currently listed as the No. 23 prospect in the 2024 MLB Draft by MLB Pipeline. A few years ago, Colton Cowser — another Golden Spikes award semifinalist — went fifth overall in the 2021 MLB Draft to the Baltimore Orioles. The third semifinalist was Carlos Contreras in 2022, after a season in which he batted .415 with 90 hits and 89 RBI.

photo by: AP Photo/Aaron M. Sprecher

Colton Cowser (17) runs the bases during an Lamar University at Sam Houston State University NCAA college baseball game, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Huntsville, Texas.

photo by: AP Photo/Michael Wyke

Sam Houston State outfielder Carlos Contreras during an NCAA baseball game against New Mexico State on Friday, April 2, 2023, in Huntsville, Texas.

photo by: AP Photo/Matthew Hinton

Sam Houston utility Walker Janek (3) runs during an NCAA baseball game on Friday, June 2, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.

The college baseball scene has had dramatic shifts over the past few years. Pitchers at the collegiate level became better and faster. Wedd said it brought the hitting community together to “figure something out.” For the Bearkats, that’s been efficiency in the swing. It’s something they don’t spend a lot of time coaching, however. Instead, it’s what they focus on in recruiting.

“We don’t want to tinker with (their swing) too much,” Wedd said. “We try to put them in positions with an approach (at the plate) to be successful.”

The Bearkats also are a team of experience. With the transfer portal’s explosion, programs in the Power Five conferences primarily consist of older players, many of whom are transfers from mid-major conferences. Teams like Sam Houston must rely on their young guys to play early, which may be the key to developing players such as Cowser, Contreras, and Janek.

“We’ve prided ourselves as being a place where guys can develop,” Wedd said. “Our niche is taking the high school kid and developing (him). And the best way to develop is to play games and be on the field. We’ve been able to get guys out there as freshmen.”

The trio of semifinalists — Cowser, Contreras and Janek — were all regular contributors as freshmen, and the same goes for the other hitting leaders for the team over the past few years. Wedd said that the team overall has had a solid group of hard workers who’ve been open to coaching. Having those particular hitters as well has put the program on the map.

Sam Houston’s 2023 baseball season was, offensively, the best the school has ever had. In their second year as a part of the WAC, the Bearkats set school records in hits, home runs, doubles and runs scored. Although the team had no Golden Spikes Award semifinalists, teammates Tyler Davis (107 hits) and Joe Redfield (100 hits) became the first Sam Houston duo to eclipse triple-digit hits in the same season. The only other program in the country last year to have two 100-hit batters was the national champion LSU team with eventual second overall pick Dylan Crews and Tommy White.

This past year was a different team with an alternate offensive approach. The Bearkats emphasized scoring via stolen bases and strong execution. Even with fewer homers, the Bearkats still managed to win 34 games and compete in a competitive baseball conference in the C-USA. It was their 13th season since 2010 that the team won at least 30 games, with the only season in that time without reaching that mark being 2020, when the season was canceled after 14 games.

There is a lot to like about the Bearkats in the future. Rejuvenated by the new conference alignment, the team has a chance to compete further in the playoffs than in previous seasons as a part of the Southland Conference. C-USA received two NCAA Tournament bids: one for Dallas Baptist University, the winner of the conference tournament, and one for Louisiana Tech, the team with the best regular-season record in the conference. Wedd said that both schools likely would’ve earned at-large bids had a third team won the conference tournament.

“We had a lot of success in the Southland Conference for a long time, and we knew our opponents and had a good feel on how to win that league,” Wedd said. “The WAC was a little different in a whole different geographical part of the country (with) a different game. Now we’re in a conference where there’s some teams with really good resources and facilities. It’s been fun to up our end a bit and be on top of our game all the time.”

Turnover, change and irregularity are hallmarks of the modern college game, and the Bearkats have seen it all. However, the team is adapting to new styles and levels of play successfully. Whatever the latest wrinkle, the Lawrence native is helping lead the team to a bright future, no matter what conference or roster.

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