Stephen Lynn thought his Howard Payne baseball team finally had the experience this season to be a contender, even though the Yellow Jackets were picked eighth in the American Southwest Conference preseason poll.

“We knew we had strong leaders and a good recruiting class coming in,” Lynn said, “but I’d be lying if I told you I thought we’d be (ASC) regular-season champs. I dreamed it, but I don’t know that I envisioned it.”

That’s because Lynn, a former HPU player who became head coach at the tender age of 22 in 2006, toiled through 12 consecutive seasons (2007-2018) without posting a winning record in ASC games. This year, though, armed with a senior-laden lineup, the Jackets won their first 11 conference games and secured their first ASC regular-season title in 22 years by finishing 17-4 with last weekend’s series sweep of Hardin-Simmons.

The 11-0 start enabled the Jackets to lead the ASC from wire to wire this season.

As a reward for their historically good regular season, the Jackets will host the Blue Bracket of the ASC baseball tournament Thursday-Saturday at Don Shepard Park, where they are 17-3 this season. HPU (26-14 overall) will open the tournament against LeTourneau (21-19) at 3 p.m. Thursday. Louisiana College (29-10) will face UT Dallas (20-19) in Thursday’s other opening game.

The four-team, double-elimination tournament will continue through Saturday, with the winner advancing to face the winner of the Red Bracket tournament hosted this weekend by Concordia. The two bracket winners will play a best-of-three series to determine the ASC champion.

“In the past, we were just trying to make the (ASC) tournament. This year, we’re going strong into the tournament,” said Jackets’ centerfielder Noah Payne, who already has set an ASC single-single record with 11 triples. “We didn’t want to just sneak into the tournament this year. Our goal was to host it and win it.”

The No. 1 reason this has been a breakthrough season for HPU is the presence of 14 seniors. Of the Jackets’ nine position players and designated hitter, six are seniors — centerfielder Payne, leftfielder Cliff Lunceford, shortstop Josh Gerig, third baseman David Groves, second baseman Jacob Rodriguez and designated hitter Jacob Salazar. Starting pitcher Chandler Clark also is a senior, along with reliever Brenden Clanton, who leads HPU with seven saves.

Most of the seniors have played 115 games for HPU over the last four years so there aren’t many surprises. The senior stability helped the Jackets overcome a 0-5 start back in February against Hawaii Pacific, a NCAA Division II program that offers athletic scholarships.

“Instead of being frustrated, the seniors understood the bigger picture,” Lynn said of the 0-5 start in Hawaii. “We wanted to play somebody that was better than us, somebody that would test us.

“Our players weren’t frustrated because they had experienced adversity before. They used those first five games as a springboard into the rest of the season.”

Experience played a role in HPU logging three consecutive walk-off wins over Mary-Hardin Baylor — 11-10, 5-4 and 2-1 — in the second conference series March 1-2.

“That series alone built a lot of confidence,” Lynn said. “Before we knew it, we were 11-0 in conference.”

Experience played a role in last weekend’s conference-clinching series against archrival Hardin-Simmons. In the series opener, the Jackets trailed 11-6 entering the final inning before Rodriguez hit a two-run double and Payne blasted a three-run home run that helped rally HPU to a 12-11 win.

The Jackets clinched their first conference title since 1997 before a crowd twice the normal size for home games at Don Shepard Park.

“The stands were full. I’d never seen that before,” said Gerig, who is batting .303 this year. “It was exciting. We knew what was on the line, but we weren’t nervous. We knew all the hard work we had put in, and one of our big goals — the regular-season championship — was right there for us to take.”

Experience will now lead the Jackets into the ASC postseason.

“We have so many seniors that have put in so many hours, so many practices and so many off-seasons,” Gerig said. “We’ve played baseball basically our whole lives. For most of us, we know this is the end of our baseball careers coming up.

“We’ve put in all this time and effort. We want to make sure all those hours were well spent. We’re ready for it. We want to bring a championship to the program and to the campus.”

Lynn and eight-year assistant coach Robert Anders are quick to credit the players with this year’s breakout season. In addition to triples, Payne leads the ASC in on-base percentage at .503 and runs with 49. Gerig leads HPU in walks with 23, and Clanton leads the ASC in saves with seven. Ten pitchers, including Clark and Kory Owen with four wins each, have posted victories this season.

“The players have played with confidence that I’ve not seen here before,” Lynn said. “Their ability to execute and compete is the be-all-and-end-all.

“They have so much experience and have played so well this season, we (coaches) have been able to sit back and watch some of it — and it’s been phenomenal to watch. I can’t say I’ve done that before. It seemed like before we were always not as talented and had to play perfect just to have a chance to win.”

Statistically, the Jackets don’t lead the ASC in any team categories but rank in the top half in all the major categories — a trend Lynn likes.

“It speaks to the level of our consistency,” he said. “I think we have a good offense, a good defense and a good pitching staff. I’d much rather be somewhat consistent across the board as opposed to being first in one category and last in another. That’s not sustainable for winning.”

While crediting the players, Lynn and Anders, both former HPU players themselves, had to remain committed to their process of recruiting players through a lot of mediocre seasons before it paid off on the field this year.

“I won’t lie. There were some frustrating years when we were 10 games under .500,” Lynn said. “But even in those years, there was evidence of the golden nugget — the student athletes in our program. We knew what kind of players and people we wanted in our program, and we stayed away from questionable characters.

“I’m not boasting, but it has been rewarding for us as coaches that we have remained thorough with doing it the right way. We have not compromised our beliefs and morals just to win three or four more games.

“I’m proud that we stuck to what we wanted to do,” Lynn said. “It makes these moments sweeter that we have enjoyed success without compromising the integrity of our program or university.”

•••

ASC BASEBALL

CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT

 

(Blue Bracket at Howard Payne, Brownwood )

Thursday, May 2 (double elimination)

Game 1 - #4 Louisiana College (29-10) vs. #5 UT Dallas (20-19), 11 a.m.

Game 2 - #1 Howard Payne (26-14) vs. #8 LeTourneau (21-19), 3 p.m.

Friday, May 3

Game 3 - Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 (elimination), 10 a.m.

Game 4 - Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 1 p.m.

Game 5 - Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4 (elimination), 4 p.m.

Saturday, May 4

Game 6: Championship - Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 1 p.m.

Game 7: If needed - Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 4 p.m.

 

(Red Bracket at Concordia, Austin)

Thursday, May 2 (double elimination)

Game 1 - #3 East Texas Baptist (28-12) vs. #6 Hardin-Simmons (18-20), 3 p.m.

Game 2 - #2 Concordia Texas (29-10) vs. #7 Sul Ross State (17-20), 7 p.m.

Friday, May 3

Game 3 - Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 (elimination), 11 a.m.

Game 4 - Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 3 p.m.

Game 5 - Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4 (elimination), 7 p.m.

Saturday, May 4

Game 6: Championship - Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 1 p.m.

Game 7: If needed - Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 4 p.m.

 

(Championship Gold Bracket

Hosted by Highest Remaining Seed)

Thursday, May 9 (Best 2-of-3 Game Series)

Game 1 - Blue Bracket winner vs. Red Bracket winner, 2 or 6 p.m.

Friday, May 10

Game 2 - Blue Bracket winner vs. Red Bracket winner, 2 or 6 p.m.

Saturday, May 11 (if needed)

Game 3 - Blue Bracket winner vs. Red Bracket winner, 2 or 6 p.m.