Nov 24, 2014

Southwestern U Baseball Coach Finally Has a Team of His Own

Southwestern University baseball coach R.J. Thomas has been building up the team, with hopes for a conference championship in the coming season and a national championship in the future. Photo courtesy of Southwestern Athletics

Southwestern University baseball coach R.J. Thomas has been building up the team, with hopes for a conference championship in the coming season and a national championship in the future. Photo courtesy of Southwestern Athletics

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story transposed words in a quote by R.J. Thomas. The error has been corrected in paragraph 18.

By Taylor Lynne Smith
For Reporting Texas

R.J. Thomas finally has a team he built on his own.

He arrived at Southwestern University in 2012 to a baseball program made up of strangers – players recruited by the coach who preceded him.

The Southwestern Pirates went from winless in conference play during Thomas’ first season as coach to a team that won 10 conference games last spring. Now Thomas thinks he has the depth and the skill on the team to start thinking about championships.

“We are two, and some places three, deep at every position,” Thomas said.

Recruiting was a priority for Thomas when he came to Southwestern, a college with about 1,500 students at its campus in Georgetown. He attributes that to his earlier success as the baseball coach for an Arkansas liberal arts college.

“We recruited and recruited and recruited and tried to get the best talent we could,” Thomas said.

Thomas previously coached at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., where over six years he became the winningest baseball coach in Hendrix history. He led the Hendrix Warriors to a Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference championship title in 2009.

He left Hendrix for Southwestern with his sights on a national championship.

“I want to win a national championship, and this place provides you the tools,” Thomas said.

Thomas added 18 players to the baseball program one year after he accepted the head coaching position, including three players he’d earlier recruited to play at Hendrix.

Second baseman Charlie St. Clair, a junior from San Diego, Calif., was one of them.

”Coach Thomas is the reason I chose Hendrix,” St. Clair said. “I was pretty disappointed [when he left] to be honest, but I understood why he did it. And now I ended up here.”

This year, Thomas attracted 22 players to Southwestern – 16 first-year players and six transfers – nearly half the team roster and the largest recruiting class in recent school history. He said that he needed at least 15 to 18 new players to create depth in the field and provide more arms for the bullpen.

“The quality of guys that just kept showing up, showing interest and wanting to be around the program kept coming,” he said. “We would go through and evaluate a guy and evaluate his position and we needed him.”

Freshman catcher Jared Bogosian of Flower Mound considered offers from Hendrix, Trinity University, Southwestern and Harding University. After visiting all the schools, he said that coming to Southwestern was an easy decision.

“The coaches went through a whole lot more effort to show us around and show us what it was like,” Bogosian said. “They were a lot more open and friendly. We got a chance to connect more deeply with the players.”

Thomas said he believes in giving recruits an honest look at what the program is about and encourages them to meet all the players on the team.

“In any situation, you are going to have players that love you, you are going to have players that can’t stand you on a day and you are going to have those guys in the middle,” Thomas said. “If a player can walk into a situation and have the opportunity to meet someone from each group, then they are going to get the real perspective. There are coaches out there that don’t do that.”

Thomas’ own collegiate baseball career was cut short by an injury.

Thomas transferred from Hendrix to the University of Central Arkansas after his freshman year. He blew out his elbow at UCA during his sophomore year. That ended his baseball-playing career.

He later graduated with a degree in business administration. Thomas started looking for a job but found baseball to be his only passion.

“My wife and I sat down one night and talked,” he said. “I couldn’t get baseball out of my system.”

That’s when Thomas accepted an assistant coaching position at Hendrix, where he had played before injuring his arm. The position paid only a $5,000 stipend, so Thomas also worked 40 hours a week at a distribution center. After two years as an assistant coach, Thomas accepted the head coach position.

Thomas recently told Southwestern alumni that he thinks the coming season is when his team will come into its own.

“We are done rebuilding,” Thomas wrote in an email to alumni. “We are ready to go. Everything that we need on the field to win is here. We’ve got to figure out what the lineup looks like; we’ve got to figure out how the pitching staff is going to fit, but we’ve got everything we need to win. Now we just need to do it.”

The large number of recruits Thomas helped attract creates both disadvantages and advantages for players.

“There [are] going to be guys who deserve playing time, and the guy ahead of him is going to be just a tick better,” Thomas said. “So there [are]going to be some young guys who won’t get as much as they would, maybe, if we have a smaller class.”

But Thomas said the healthy competition in a large and talented group of players only pushes everyone to excel and earn playing time.

“Competition breeds competitiveness,” he said.

Bogosian said competition for playing time is exactly what a baseball program needs.

“I think it’s good though for all of us to know we have competition because that’s what is going to make the team better,” Bogosian said.

After one year of rebuilding, Southwestern already saw success in the baseball program.

From a team that won no conference games and finished 3-38 overall in Thomas’ first season as head coach, the Pirates finished 10-8 in conference play and 14-28 overall last season.

“We were talented last year, but we were really thin,” Thomas said.

But now, Thomas said, “We’ve gotten more talented across the board. It’s going to be fun to see what this group can do. They should be able to jump off and get started pretty quick.”

Thomas’ goal for this season is a conference championship. “We want to put a ring on these guys’ fingers,” he said.