It only took one year, but Arkansas-Little Rock pitcher and Watson Chapel graduate Chance Cleveland left his mark on the Sun Belt Conference.

It only took one year, but Arkansas-Little Rock pitcher and Watson Chapel graduate Chance Cleveland left his mark on the Sun Belt Conference.

A year after closing out 17 games for Crowder College, a junior college in Neosho, Mo., Cleveland became UALR’s No. 1 starting pitcher from the first day on campus.

By the end of the year, Cleveland led the league with 98 strikeouts and tied the conference lead with nine victories to earn First Team All-Sun Belt Conference honors.

“I think without a doubt I had a good year,” said Cleveland, who just finished his junior year. “I started off hot and it carried on pretty well.”

Cleveland started 14 games for UALR (26-26, 12-18 in the Sun Belt) and finished the year with a 9-4 record, a 3.93 ERA and held opponents to a .244 average in 91 2/3 innings.

Those numbers may not come as a surprise to the fans who saw Cleveland pitch for Watson Chapel. He earned All-State honors as a senior and was a part of Watson Chapel’s 2008 state runner-up team.

Cleveland chose to attend Crowder College after his senior year and his freshman year did not go as planned. He began the year as a starter but did not stack up many innings because he had a strain in his elbow and developed “some tendenitis.”

“It was nothing that required surgery,” Cleveland said. “It was just a nagging injury. It has never come back and I just needed a long rest.”

After Cleveland got some quality rest and recuperation, he was picked as the team’s closer his sophomore season. Cleveland closed out a school-record 17 saves while striking out 43 in 32 innings of work.

The breakout season drew interest from NCAA Division I programs and Cleveland had offers from Missouri State, Marshall and UALR. Missouri State and Marshall wanted him to close, naturally, but UALR wanted him in the rotation.

“That’s not want completely convinced me to come to UALR,” Cleveland said. “I really liked the facilities and loved the college, and after visiting with the coaches, it really opened my eyes to the school.”

So started Cleveland’s return to the starting rotation, but he was confident the transition from closer to starter would go well since it was not new territory to him.

“It can be difficult, but considering throughout high school I was a starter and it was just one year as a reliever, it wasn’t a huge jump,” Cleveland said. “I think closing gave me an advantage because it is one of the toughest things in baseball. If I got in a jam, I just became a bulldog and act like I was closing down the situation.”

The one thing that really surprised Cleveland, though, was how his strikeout total remained high in his transition from reliever to starter.

He struck out 9.62 per nine innings and had three games with 10 or more strikeouts, including 12 in a 5-3 win over Troy on March 23.

“I didn’t expect that even though I knew with my pitches and the way I pitch, I have always been a strikeout guy,” Cleveland said. “In the rotation, you don’t expect that many strikeouts to follow. When I went to the rotation, I just made sure I kept throwing strikes.”

Despite having such a great year, Cleveland was disappointed the team missed the Sun Belt Conference tournament a year after the Trojans won it.

“That’s an understatement that it was a disappointment, because what we did last year, we had high goals,” he said.

Cleveland said he has heard from the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs leading to the MLB Draft, which runs from June 4-6. Cleveland said there was some interest in him leading up to last year’s draft, too.

“Last year there was a lot of talk and nothing happened,” Cleveland said. “I have heard a bit, and whether it happens, I don’t know. It’s a crap shoot.”

Right now, Cleveland is already looking to duplicate his success at UALR next year and help get the Trojans back to the SBC tournament.

“I think I can repeat and just make sure I get more wins,” he said. “Just make sure my team has the chance to win.”