It didn't take long for Henderson State to make an impact in the conference and be in contention for GSC titles annually. However, the one program that struggled with the change was Reddie baseball.
Traditionally the GSC is one of the most competitive baseball conferences at the NCAA Division II level. The Gulf South Conference has sent 28 teams to the NCAA Division II World Series and produced five National Champions.
Competing against such historically rich programs such as Delta State (11 GSC Tournament Titles) Southern Arkansas (2 titles), North Alabama (5), and Valdosta State (2), and with the recent success of Ouachita Baptist, West Alabama and West Florida, Henderson State has made valiant efforts to compete with these programs but has never been able to bring all the elements together.
Henderson State's baseball success resides in when legendary coaches Clyde Berry and Billy Bock were at the helm. Coach Berry won two Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference titles with the Hall of Fame coach compiling a 205-129-2 record during 10 years as head coach.
Bock, who coached from 1976 to 1981, also claimed two championships and had a 92-71 record. Since winning its last conference championship in 1982 as part of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, Henderson State has never really challenged for a conference title. In fact the Reddies have not been a part of post-season play since 1993.
In 2005 John Harvey took over as head baseball coach of the Reddies. The former graduate assistant coach knew if he wanted to compete annually for a conference title he would have to start from the ground upward. "Coach Pete Southall did a great job of laying a foundation here," said Harvey. "He didn't get the results that he deserved, but he certainly left the program in a manageable position.
That first 30 win season was a result of his hard work." Despite working with limited resources, Harvey made an immediate impact as in his first year the Reddies finished with a 31-22 record, Henderson's first 30-plus win season in school history. However, the Reddies missed out on advancing to post-season play by one game.
Over the next three years, working without the aid of a full-time assistant coach, Harvey began hitting the recruiting trail trying to sell his program and convince potential players that they could be a part of something special.
"We have worked hard, just like every other coach in this conference, to find guys that are the right fit for Henderson State, Harvey said. "I have had some very good graduate assistants here. They may not have been paid like full-time guys, but they certainly put in the time. Our success this year would not have been possible without the two assistant coaches, Cody Hooten and Brent Martin. I hope we can find a way to keep those guys around for a while."
Trying to sell potential recruits on choosing Henderson State without a real baseball tradition was difficult for Harvey. However since taking over the program Harvey still managed to produce 22 All-GSC selections and two All-Americans.
Things started to come together in 2009 as the Reddies began the season 22-4 and following two wins against No.7 ranked North Alabama, Henderson State made statewide news being ranked No. 14 in the PING Top 25 Poll and 20th in Collegiate Baseball.
That season the Reddies also landed a school-record seven players on the All-GSC team. The year also marked a milestone for Harvey as he recorded his 100th win. Disappointed by missing the GSC Tournament for the 16th straight year, Harvey vowed that 2010 would be the year Henderson State would turn the corner.
"With the number of players returning and our recruiting class, we felt good that this would be the year we would break through and make the tournament," said Harvey. "The biggest question would be our pitching. We lost one of the best pitchers in HSU history and did not return many innings, but we had more than enough talent to put together a good staff."
Henderson began the 2010 season with a 12-5 record, including wins over nationally-ranked Northern Kentucky and regionally-ranked Southeastern Oklahoma.
As GSC play began, the schedule didn't favor the Reddies. Four of the seven conference series' would be played on the road including three of the first four series'. Things didn't look good for Henderson as the Reddies compiled a 3-8 GSC record over the first four weeks. Despite the slow start, the Reddies felt they had a chance to still make the tournament.
The first hopes actually occurred in Henderson's third GSC series when the Reddies played host to Ouachita Baptist. Not having won a series from the Tigers since 2004, Henderson was in a must win situation.
The Reddies opened the series with a thrilling 9-8 win that took 13-innings and over four hours to play. OBU captured game two of the series with a 10-1 win, however the finale belonged to the Reddies as Richie Wood slammed a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh-inning to lift Henderson to a 10-7 victory.
"Our guys have done really well this year when they have to win," Harvey stated. "Richie had sat out the last two seasons with injury and eligibility issues. He had worked hard in the classroom and on the field to be put in that situation, so it was good to see him get that big hit that turned the season around for us."
The feeling was Henderson would have to win seven of its remaining nine conference games to make the GSC Tournament.
The turning point came in a weekend series against Harding where the Reddies made GSC baseball history. Winning the series against Harding would be a step in the right direction, but no one could have predicted that Henderson State's pitching staff would shutout the Bisons the entire weekend.
The pitching staff entered the series with a 10.88 earned run average in Gulf South Conference play with opponents sporting a .374 batting average while averaging 11.3 runs per game. Henderson's starting rotation of Jonathan Dooley, Chase Cleveland, and Anthony Gilliland was brilliant. For the weekend series, the three compiled to strike out 28 total batters, walk just four, with Harding going 9-for-86 at the plate for a team .105 batting average. "It was awesome to see those guys put it together on that weekend," Harvey added. "Our pitching staff has battled injuries all year. We lost two guys earlier this year that we were counting on. Gilliland had mono that put him out for the first half of the season. Getting him back took some stress off Cleveland and Dooley."
It was the first time, since joining the GSC, the Reddies have shutout their conference opponents in three straight games. In fact, dating back to the early 1970's no Reddie pitching staff has recorded three straight shutouts in a 3-game series. According to Gulf South Conference records, no team has shutout an opponent in a three-game conference series dating back to at least 1995. Records prior to 1995 are inconclusive.
Next was a trip to Memphis, Tenn. to face Christian Brothers. The Reddies took care of business winning all three games and along the way Harvey picked up his 150th career coaching victory. One win from clinching a bid to the GSC Tournament, the Reddies returned home for their final GSC series, a three-game set with Arkansas-Monticello.
Although the team somewhat struggled the Reddies swept the Boll Weevils collecting their ninth straight GSC win and a spot in the tournament for the first time in school history. "We feel very good about what the guys did those last three series", said Harvey. "There is not an off weekend in the Gulf South Conference. You have to be ready to go every time you are on the field. The guys are elated to be the first team to represent Henderson State in the GSC tournament, but they are not satisfied with just making it. We knew from 'Day 1' that we had the talent it took to make the tournament. It has taken us a while to put it all together, but we feel we are playing well going into the tournament."
It's fair to say the Reddies have turned the corner and the excitement of Henderson baseball has grown tremendously. Where will the road lead next?
"We have to continue to get good players that are the right fit for HSU", said Harvey. "We have to build off the back to back 30 win seasons. Through the hard work of Coach Clyde Berry, Marty Filigamo, and their committee, we are going to put $150,000 into the baseball facility this summer. Henderson State is a good place to be right now."
Henderson State opens GSC Tournament play, Saturday at 1 p.m. in Millington, Tenn. at USA Stadium against the No. 1 seed from the East Division West Florida.
Troy Mitchell: Sports Information Director