The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets captured the American Southwest Conference baseball regular season championship, and Thursday through Saturday will host one of two four-team pods to open ASC tournament play.
Sophomore first baseman R.J. Roberts, a transfer from Vernon College, has played a vital role in the success for the Yellow Jackets (26-14, 17-4) this season.
“It's really surreal for me because coming out of junior college I didn't know if I was going to play baseball again,” Roberts said. “I didn't play that much in junior college and the opportunities I did have I didn't play very well. Coming out of Vernon I had zero offers, zero looks. I was struggling with it and had to pray about it and went into summer ball really hopeful. I got a call from Howard Payne to come here, Coach (Stephen) Lynn gave me the opportunity and look where we are now.”
Standing at 6-4, 280 pounds, Roberts leads all Yellow Jackets with 17 doubles, is tied for the team lead in home runs with six and ranks second in batting average at. 359, and RBIs with 39. He has started 38 games this season and committed just five errors in 250 chances.
“Being in this environment has helped me a lot,” Roberts said. “I credit my hitting and offensive stats to our hitting coach, Tony Heiser. I think if you talk to anyone on our team, they would credit him as well to not only helping us with our swings but our offensive mindset, getting up to the plate and being confident in ourselves.”
Reflecting on the season, Roberts felt the Yellow Jackets had a legitimate chance to compete for the ASC championship since before the season started.
“Honestly that's been the expectation since day one with our program,” Roberts said. “That's what the coaches told us and that's the expectations the players held for ourselves. It's crazy to me that if you look at the preseason rankings we were tied for eighth, and just like that we're first place. But we think we're good enough to not only win a conference championship, but a national championship. We feel like we're good enough to compete with anybody on any given day and come out on top.”
The Yellow Jackets' season began with a five-game road trip to NCAA Division II Hawaii Pacific — all losses — then a van accident coming back resulted in broken bones for several players, and hospital stays for a couple more. But that traumatic event only strengthened the team's bond.
“It was emotional and sad, but it did bring us together more because one of our biggest assets as a team is being a family,” Roberts said. “We're all friends, there's no cliques, we're one big family that loves each other and plays for each other. There's no one selfish on our team and I think you see that in the way we play the game, especially on offense with the way we get guys over and sacrifice. It's okay if I don't get it done because the guy behind me is going to pick me up. I have that confidence and trust in my teammates and my family.”
The No. 1 seed Yellow Jackets host No. 8 seed LeTourneau at 3 p.m. Thursday in their four-team pod of the first half of the ASC championship tournament. Howard Payne dropped two of three games at LeTourneau April 11-12, but the Yellow Jackets own a 17-3 record at Don Shepard Park this season, with only one loss coming in ASC action.
“If you look at our first opponent Thursday it's LeTourneau and we went to LeTourneau and lost the series to them on two walk-offs,” Roberts said. ”We've said it since day one we are unbeatable at home, at The Don, because it's our house and it plays a certain way and only we know how to play it. We think it's the biggest advantage we can get. We have said since we've been in the lead that if we can host the conference tournament then we should win it. If people have to come through our house, they're not going to leave victorious.”
The winner of the Howard Payne pod will battle the winner of the Concordia pod in a best of three series May 9-11 to determine the ASC champion and automatic qualifier to the NCAA Division III national tournament, which ASC member UT-Tyler won last season.
Roberts, a graduate of Mansfield Lake Ridge High School, is a Kinesiology major with aspirations of one day becoming a college coach.
“That's the goal now after seeing some stuff around here,” he said.