GSC West Lead on the Line Beginning Friday

Arkansas Tech’s baseball program has come a long way in a short time under first-year head coach Dave Dawson.

This weekend, the Wonder Boys will find out if they are ready to run with the big dogs in Gulf South Conference baseball. Arkansas Tech (25-11 overall, 7-1 GSC) will entertain nationally third-ranked Southern Arkansas (29-3, 8-0) for a three-game set at Tech Field in Russellville. The series begins with a 2 p.m. doubleheader on Friday. The final game of the series will be at 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission will be free. Radio station KCAB 980 AM and will have live play-by-play coverage.

Click here to access an Internet stream of the broadcasts.

The Wonder Boys have already posted their highest win total since 2005, and they are just five victories away from the eighth 30-win season in Tech baseball history. Add in a No. 8 ranking in the National College Baseball Writers Association NCAA Division II South Region poll, and the Wonder Boys are in fine position to make some noise during the month of April. It begins with perhaps the sternest challenge they will face all season. Southern Arkansas has won 18 consecutive games, including a doubleheader sweep at nationally-ranked Southeastern Oklahoma State in non-conference action on Tuesday. The Muleriders do not have a weakness, statistically speaking.

SAU’s offense ranks fourth in the country in runs per game (10.4). The Mulerider pitching staff is 11th in the nation in team earned run average (3.19). And then there is the Southern Arkansas defense, which ranks seventh in the country with a sparkling .973 fielding percentage. None of this is a big surprise. The Muleriders are defending co-GSC West Division champions and defending GSC Tournament champions. They went on to reach the 2009 NCAA Division II Baseball Tournament, host the NCAA South Regional and finish with an overall record of 52-11. Southern Arkansas returned three All-GSC performers and a total of six starters from that team. Consequently, the Muleriders were picked as preseason favorites to win both the GSC West and the GSC Tournament again in 2010. The surprising team has been Arkansas Tech. The Wonder Boys were picked to finish sixth in the GSC West, but right now Tech is in sole possession of second place and two games clear of third place. Arkansas Tech has surpassed expectations with a blend of speed and a dominant pitcher. The Wonder Boys lead the GSC and rank third in the nation in stolen bases (113). That has led to an average of 9.5 runs per game, which ranks 16th in all of NCAA Division II. The role of ace pitcher has been more than ably filled by right-handed senior Josh Floriani. The Malvern product is 8-0 with a 3.25 earned run average in 2010. He has recorded 59 strike outs against only 13 walks in 55 and one-third innings of work. Floriani is tied for the NCAA Division II lead in pitching victories this season (8). One of the players he is tied with is likely to be his opponent on the mound in game one of this weekend’s series — Southern Arkansas right-hander Hayden Simpson. Simpson has been almost untouchable in 2010. The junior from Magnolia is 8-0 with a 0.67 ERA. Simpson has only allowed four earned runs in 53 and two-thirds innings. Opposing hitters are batting .155 against him. After this weekend, the Wonder Boys will have three conference series remaining — home with Ouachita Baptist April 10-11; at Delta State April 17-18; and at Harding April 24-25. If Arkansas Tech finishes in the top four of the GSC West Division standings, it will advance to the GSC Baseball Tournament for the first time since 2007. The postseason league tournament is scheduled for May 1-5 in Millington, Tenn.