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Monday, June 6, 2011

One to Remember:
Texas State Baseball 2011 Year in Review

It’d be tough to out-do some of the teams in recent memory for the title of Best Baseball Team in Texas State History, but the 2011 squad made a strong case for doing just that.

Think about it. The Bobcat faithful followed a 30-game hit streak at one time. They witnessed a 13 strikeout game followed by a 14 strikeout game, both by the same All-American right hander in back-to-back starts. Then, an unknown junior transfer adjusted so quickly to Division I baseball, it was good enough to break the school’s single season home run record on his first go-around. And there were single-game performances out the whazoo, from the first three-homer performance by a Bobcat in 24 years, to 11-run come backs and walk-off homers in consecutive contests, to a head coach winning his four-hundredth career ball game with a team that cracked the Top 25 nationally, and ended the year with its third straight Southland Conference regular season title to go along with the university’s fourth Conference Tournament championship as well. (Will there even be room for this new hardware?)

So now that the offseason is upon us after a wild 4-3 loss to the University of Texas (45-16) in the NCAA Regional Tournament Sunday afternoon sent the Bobcats (41-23) home, we recap what was more than a great season.

The title of “Best Ever” in any arena can’t be given out whimsically. And at first glance, the idea deserves strict scrutiny as teams from recent memory come to mind, with names on championship teams like Paul Goldschmidt, Laurn Randell, David Wood and Thomas Field still ringing in one’s ears. And considering other record-setting seasons as well, such as a 1997 championship club that sent two players on to Major League stints (Scott Linebrink and Jeremy Fikac), and a powerhouse 2009 ball club that saw three players move to the minor leagues, it’s a tough act to follow. Yet the Bobcats have been under a microscope all season, and the output from a 2011 Texas State team that held on to first place in the Southland Conference standings for most of the year, all the way to an NCAA Regional appearance, makes an easy case for considering this squad as one of the best ever.

We could start with anyone, but let’s begin with Tyler Sibley. The junior second baseman gave fans a good feeling about the team from game one (even if they didn’t entirely realize it at the time) by building on a hit streak he started at the end of the previous season. “Sibs” as his teammates call him, totaled a program record 30 games with a hit, one of the nation’s longest streaks this year, topping the old mark by nine games before going 0-5 at the plate against No. 18 Arkansas (the streak ended six games shy of the conference record of 36). From that point on, Sibley hit safely in 27 of the final 36 games in which he played, including the postseason, picking up an SLC All-Tournament Team selection along the way.

That propelled the team to a hot start. With a 6-2 record out of the gate, including handing Baylor University its biggest home loss in two years, 12-3, the Bobcats began Southland Conference competition 7-0, and held on to first place for the majority of the season. The ‘Cats rattled off a season best seven-game win streak early on, and by season’s end, never lost games on consecutive days all year. Head coach Ty Harrington repeatedly praised the team for its resiliency and ability to bounce back with its tails up against a wall – however every hero eventually hits that wall at some point.

But still – that adds to the argument in favor of the strengths of this ball club – the Bobcats made losing efforts look good.

When No. 18 Rice came to town on Feb. 23, the Owls flew back to Houston as 11-10 winners, but not before Texas State made it interesting in the ninth. Thanks to a handful of bases loaded walks, all with two outs and down by six, Kyle Kubitza’s grand slam to center field gave fans at Bobcat Ballpark a reason to cheer, and folks were buzzing about the game later that week.

And that would be the story of games against ranked opponents all spring.

Harrington’s boys finished 2011 with a 1-8 record against ranked teams (1-10 including the postseason), and yet each of those games was very close: in all but one game, that being a 15-5 trouncing by Texas A&M, the Bobcats lost by merely two runs or fewer when battling ranked ball clubs. It goes to show what this squad can handle against a national spotlight, and if just one or two dying quails had found a hole, it might easily be a different story.

Amazing in itself is that when loosing games overall this year, the club didn’t give it up by much. In fact, aside from that ten-run loss to the Aggies, the ‘Cats’ second worst loss all season was by six runs, once to Central Arkansas and another time to Nicholls State. That is to say Texas State never fell very far behind, as 14 of its 23 losses were by two runs or fewer; only a handful of times did Texas State lose by three or four runs this season - they clearly didn't make winning a breeze on the other guys.

But woulda-shoulda-coulda’s were forgotten by the time the Houston Cougars came to town – and junior transfer Casey “Ory” Kalenkosky announced his presence with authority. Big-O capped an 11-run comeback over the Cougs Mar. 12 when he hit a three-run, no-doubter over the left center field wall to finish the massive walk-off win, his fifth homer of the season at that time. But Bobcat Nation didn’t know it was in for such a treat however, as he shocked his coaches and surprised his fans with a sooner-than-usual offensive adjustment in the transition from junior college to Division I baseball.

In the postseason, he sat tied for first on the single-season home runs list with 18 for a while before hitting a dramatic number 19 - the record breaker - which bolstered a momentum shift for the Bobcats in the Southland Conference Tournament, who used the spark to come back from a bleak situation and win the tournament crown. Kalenkosky stroked 21 long balls altogether in 2011, putting a stamp on the title of Single-Season Home Run King in his first year at Texas State. His offense was also the key that earned him Tournament MVP honors, as he won over quite a host of new fans along the way as well.

The individual moments that define this ball team as a whole only continue. Senior center fielder Bret Atwood ends his Bobcat career at the top of two important record book categories: he has the most hits in a Bobcat uniform with 259, and after two stolen bags in the NCAA Regional, his 49 career stolen bases is tops in program history. Between the jewelry and memories of his diving catch against Stephen F. Austin that made SportCenter’s Top Play, he’ll have to make room for an SLC All-Tournament Team plaque as well.

Junior righty Carson Smith managed to one-up himself, showing that his nod as Louisville Slugger Third Team All-American in 2010 wasn’t a fluke, walking away from 2011 as a Second Team All-American, taking his second straight Southland Conference Pitcher of the Year title with him. During the regular season in which he was named the Southland’s top Pitcher of the Week three times, Smith tossed some of the best games of his life, including a 13 strikeout game against McNeese State, which at the time set a new career high. Just a week later in his next start, he K’d 14 UTSA Roadrunners, tying the school record for strikeouts in a game. Louisville Slugger noticed again and named him its National Player of the Week. Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning: he’s the new single-season strikeout man as well with 129 punch outs, set against Princeton on Saturday.

Kyle Kubitza set a career record for walks as a Bobcat, and ended his junior campaign in double digit homers with 10. In his first career start, Joseph Dvorsky shocked San Marcos, as normally a bullpen pitcher, he tossed a complete game, four-hit shut-out to win a the Tournament Championship game over SFA (talk about answering the call). And still on May 1, junior outfielder Jeff McVaney (who has foregone the gridiron as “The Next Tim Tebow” to play baseball exclusively) hit three long balls in one game for the first time since, well… he wasn’t even born yet. But at the helm of it all was Harrington, who led the team to it’s third straight regular season championship, and first SLC Tournament title since his first year in 2000. Moving on to the national scene, “T-Y” as some friends call him, got his squad its first win in an NCAA Regional since that same year, a 3-1 win over Princeton on Saturday. Garnering his four-hundredth career win April 23, his always-modest approach was apparent as he wondered in shock why he was receiving a Gatorade bath after just another ball game. But leaving this year with a second Coach of the Year award, Harrington now has 416 wins under his belt, and will spend the offseason ready to build on still more success, as a potential eight players will return as seniors in 2012.

So what are the criteria for Best Team in This-or-That? Is it wins? This year tied a career high for Harrington with 41 overall W’s. Is it record-setting? This team had five different pitchers move into the top 10 in various all-time categories, with four hitters doing the same offensively (McVaney being one to double dip into both categories, as an outfielder and bullpen guy). Or is it raw ability? Texas State has been, more or less, one of the top three teams in the conference in many offensive categories year in, year out, with some of the best quality starting pitching as well. But that still doesn’t out-do other Texas State teams…

But a two-fold, regular season and Conference Tournament championship season does, set up by the school's longest, nationally recognized hit streak and a record-setting home run campaign. A scrappy outfielder became a celebrity for a day and cemented a legacy as a singles machine – while becoming quite the kleptomaniac on the bases as well. An All-American right handed hurler, who was deemed to have an "obvious future in professional baseball" by his head coach, made obvious that his Big League arm would carry the starting rotation, in front of the 2011 Coach of the Year, who spurred this ball team to the rest of those various records, including a milestone career win for himself.

That's a mouthful. That's a record-book-full. So was this the best Bobcat baseball team ever? Was it simply one of the best seasons in Texas State history? If it's anything, it’s certainly up for a vote.

Either way, 2011 was a pleasure to watch – and certainly one to remember.

Mason Robinson, KTSW Assistant Sports Director

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