Coming off their first American Southwest Conference baseball tournament appearance in 12 years, coupled with a solid nucleus and influx of young talent on board, expectations are as high as they’ve been in more than a decade for the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets — certainly higher than the seventh place projected finish in the ASC preseason coaches and media poll.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to preseason rankings. I think those are overrated,” said HPU head coach Stephen Lynn, who enters his 10th full season in charge of the program. “I certainly think we’re better than the seventh team in the conference and I think we proved that last year. We’re getting people to believe in our program and it starts with these guys in uniform. One through nine I feel like these guys are capable of more than they were last year. Every weekend in this conference is very difficult, but I feel like we can bring a trophy back to Brownwood.”

The Yellow Jackets host Southwestern at 1 p.m. today, then venture to McMurry next Tuesday before opening ASC action against Mary Hardin-Baylor Feb. 20-21.

“Our expectations are the same as they have been all along,” Lynn said. “We want to get into the tournament and give ourselves a chance to win. Having a bunch that went last year, and having a lot of guys from last year’s bunch back makes it easier to understand that it’s something that’s doable. This bunch is working in a way that you can tell they’re hungry and they understand what it takes to get there.”

Having just two games to prepare for conference action has positives and negatives, according to Lynn.

“The good of it is we’re fresh,” Lynn said. “If you’re able to get off to a hot start early in the year you can build on it and gain a little momentum and it works to your benefit. The bad part is, from a pitching standpoint you’re not able to condition guys to where they can go deep into games. You have to utilize your bullpen more, but we feel confident. We’re young but we’re deeper, and that will help bridge the gap between the starters and the late-inning guys.”

Opening league play with three games against Mary Hardin-Baylor is exactly what the Yellow Jackets wanted to see after dropping all four games against the Cru a year ago.

“They’re excited to get started with UMHB,” Lynn said. “They came to our place and kicked us pretty good, embarrassed us at home. We played them in the first round of the tournament and played better, but they still got the best of us. After an 0-4 record against them, the guys are hungry. They’ve talked about that several times. They want to play UMHB and get a little revenge.

“It’s a long year and you can’t put a lot of emphasis on the third, fourth and fifth games. You can’t win the conference in February, but we definitely want to get off to a good start.”

HPU’s 4.42 team ERA a season ago was its lowest in more than a decade while defensively, the Yellow Jackets committed 93 errors in 43 games for a .938 fielding percentage. The Yellow Jackets also batted .269 as a team and averaged five runs per game, but Lynn cited further improvement on the mound and in the field as the biggest keys in HPU’s quest to earn its first conference title since 1997.

“We have to pitch and play defense, that’s the name of the game no matter what level,” Lynn said. “We’ve always been able to hit, we’ve done a good job with that. But pitching and defense is the cornerstone of any successful program.”