Friday, January 29, 2016

Previewing the 2016 Season, Region-by-Region

It is Christmas day in the world of Division II baseball, as 23 schools begin the 2016 season today in 14 different games. The first games of the season begin at 2 p.m. Eastern, as Davis & Elkins takes on Erskine and Holy Names faces CSU-Monterey Bay in the first game of a doubleheader today. That is one of two DH's today, with CSU-Stanislaus taking on William Jessup in a doubleheader at 4 p.m. Eastern. The lone conference game of the day begins at 6 p.m. with Palm Beach Atlantic against Embry-Riddle in SSC play. Unfortunately, one game has already been rescheduled, as Chico State's season-opener against Menlo has been moved to Saturday.

Before we kick off the 2016 season, let's take a look at how each of the eight regions is stacking up, as we preview the landscape of Division II baseball this year.

We will be using the NCBWA pre-season regional rankings here as a basis for our preview. While I don't fully agree with them, for the most part, every eventual region winner is probably receiving votes in the pre-season poll. I'll give some input on what teams there are to watch and if there's any schools in the region that could sneak up and compete for a trip to Cary. For national rankings, as usual, I'll be using Nick Herfordt's top 25, which is the best in the business each season.

We begin with the...

Atlantic Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. Mercyhurst (Pa.) (11): 40-11 (#13 in PG Top 25)
2. Millersville (Pa.) (2): 45-11 (#3 in PG Top 25)
3. Seton Hill (Pa.): 43-13
4. Winston-Salem State (N.C.): 42-15
5. Shepherd (Pa.): 39-12
6. East Stroudsburg (Pa.): 31-19 (#T25 in PG Top 25)
7. West Chester (Pa.): 27-15
8. Slippery Rock (Pa.): 30-18
9. West Virginia State: 35-16
10. Shippensburg (Pa.): 25-25
Rec. Votes: Concord (W.Va.) (30-23), Chowan (N.C.) (21-20), California (Pa.) (25-22), West Liberty (W.Va.) (28-21), Notre Dame (Ohio) (25-19).

On first look, it appears that the Atlantic region will be a two-team runaway. Mercyhurst and Millersville are by far the class of the field here. Mercyhurst is coming off its first appearance at the NCAA Division II baseball finals in school history, and will be anchored by Colin McKee in the rotation, one of the best returning starters in the country. He has a partner-in-crime in Hank Morrison that gives the Lakers a pair of aces that should be good for two wins a weekend in the tough PSAC. Mercyhurst is ranked 14th in the pre-season PerfectGame rankings. McKee is a pre-season Third-Team All-American with NCBWA.

Despite all that, the favorites in this region may end up being Millersville. The Marauders are constantly one of the top teams in the region and were tabbed the pre-season #3 squad in the land on the backs of Dan Stoltzfus and Brandon Miller, which gives Millersville one of the top hitting-pitching combos in the nation. Stoltzfus is a pre-season First-Team All-American according to NCBWA, while second baseman David Summerfield is listed as a Second-Team All-American.

If you couldn't tell by the number of Pennsylvania schools in the pre-season regional poll, the PSAC is the top dog of this region, although the Mountain East has littered a few schools in. Even the #10 team in these rankings, Shippensburg, has been to the national finals in recent seasons, along with West Chester, who won the national championship in 2012.

Seton Hill is always a formidable foe, but will have to try and weather the loss of player of the year Nick Sell. They will have a great bat in the lineup, regardless, with pre-season Second-Team All-American Chris Miller at the helm behind the plate.

The individual talent isn't found only in the PSAC in this region, as Shepherd's J.J. Sarty (OF) is a pre-season Second Team All-American along with teammate Sam Crater (SP), while Winston-Salem State's Jayson Baytop (OF) and East Stroudsburg's Ian Allen (UT) are listed as pre-season Third-Team All-Americans.

Central Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. St. Cloud State (Minn.) (5): 54-5 (#1 in PG Top 25)
2. Minnesota State (1): 43-9 (#9 in PG Top 25)
3. Southern Arkansas (1): 40-18 (#15 in PG Top 25)
4. Emporia State (Kan.): 40-16
5. Missouri Southern: 40-14 (#8 in PG Top 25)
6. Henderson State (Ark.): 33-21
7. Augustana (S.D.): 37-17
8. Central Missouri: 30-22
9. Ouachita Baptist (Ark.): 25-17
10. Harding (Ark.): 27-25
Rec. Votes: Arkansas Tech (30-21), Minnesota-Duluth (35-16) (#24 in PG Top 25), Washburn (Kan.) (33-20), Nebraska-Kearney (32-20).

One of the most competitive regions heading in to this season appears to be the Central, headlined by the top team in the pre-season PerfectGame rankings with St. Cloud State. The Huskies ran roughshod through the regular season in 2015, but fell short of claiming the regional title as the Reddies pulled the upset and made their way to Cary. It isn't often you get one poll's top 25 team in the "receiving votes" portion of the regional poll, but we have that here with Minnesota-Duluth, the #24 team in the PG rankings, standing on the outside looking in at the pre-season regional poll. That bodes well for an extremely competitive region this season.

The Huskies, on paper, are far and away the favorites to claim the title here, led by one of the best players in the country in Reese Gregory, a three-time All-American. Gregory is paired with teammate Sheldon Miks on the NCBWA pre-season First-Team All-American list as pitchers, while third baseman Zak Hoffman is on the team as well, and teammate Kyle Lieser (SS) is on the third team. SCSU is full of talent in the field and on the mound, and should be the favorites throughout the season.

One of the biggest challengers they'll face is in their own conference in Minnesota State, a perennial national title contender. The Mavericks return the entire starting rotation for the most part, and always have a way of performing well in big situations, with a host of experience on their side.

A surprising development in this regional poll is with Missouri Southern, the #8 team in the PG Top 25, but only #5 in the region with the NCBWA. The Lions are led by a pair of pre-season All-Americans in OF Chris Hoffman (first team) and DH Jesse Rall (second team), who are going to combine for a lot of pop in the middle of the MSSU lineup.

The reigning regional champions, Henderson State, didn't put up any huge numbers last season, but they won when it mattered. This season, the Reddies will have a top-end bullpen arm in Nick Vanthillo, a pre-season First-Team All-American, but the task on hand for them will be to get the ball to him with a lead.

The Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth are the outlier here in terms of rankings, but they are led on the field by 1B Alex Wojciechowski, a pre-season Second-Team All-American. It will be a tall task to try and get over both St. Cloud State and Minnesota State not only in the region, but in the conference. The Bulldogs will need some things to go their way, but in most other regions, they could be a dark horse favorite to win. They still might be.

East Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. Franklin Pierce (N.H.) (6): 48-4 (#2 in PG Top 25)
2. Southern New Hampshire (2): 31-14 (#23 in PG Top 25)
3. Wilmington (Del.) (1): 37-13
4. St. Thomas Aquinas (N.Y.): 30-19-1
5. Stonehill (Mass.): 34-15-1
6. Dowling (N.Y.): 27-17
7. Chestnut Hill (Pa.): 29-14
T8. Bridgeport (Conn.): 25-24
T8. New Haven (Conn.): 17-16
T8. Post (Conn.): 21-18
Rec. Votes: Pace (N.Y.) (21-18), LIU Post (N.Y.) (18-18), Adelphi (N.Y.) (20-21), Dominican (N.Y.) (20-25), Merrimack (Mass.) (17-18).

This is one of the few regions in which we appear to have a clear favorite to reach Cary. However, that was the case going in to the regional tournament in 2015 and it didn't come to fruition. Franklin Pierce dominated the landscape and was even ranked as the top team in the country for a while, but faltered in the regional tournament, dropping games to St. Thomas Aquinas and then the title to Wilmington. Despite that, the Ravens should be heavily-favored again to escape the region. Last season, they put up gaudy numbers both on the mound and at the plate, ranking among the team leaders in a multitude of pitching and hitting categories. There's no reason they can't do it again. As a sidenote, it is unreal that 3B Jay Jabs is not on one of the pre-season All-American teams.

The biggest challenger for that crown does appear to be Southern New Hampshire. The Penmen will continue to have one of the best rotations in the country, like most seasons, led by Alex Person and Justin Valdespina, a pair of aces most other teams would love to have one of. Their offense won't be too shabby either, with OF Carson Helms and SS Manny Cruz both earning pre-season All-Region honors for the Penmen.

The reigning regional champions, Wilmington, will have to replace some pitchers, but have a pair of pre-season all-region returners in SS Christian Adorno and 3B Mike Annone to help buoy the offense. If they can find an ace on their staff to replace the pair of aces they had in Jamie Treml and Frank Samluk, they can make another run, except with their offense leading the way. This was a senior-laden team last season, so they will need to develop quickly to be in the hunt again.

Midwest Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. Quincy (Ill.) (5): 40-17 (#7 in PG Top 25)
2. Grand Valley State (Mich.): 34-18
3. Indianapolis (Ind.) (2): 34-19
4. Southern Indiana: 28-21 (#22 in PG Top 25)
5. Ashland (Ohio): 38-19 (#20 in PG Top 25)
6. Trevecca Nazarene (Tenn.): 36-18
7. Drury (Mo.): 33-24
8. Truman State (Mo.): 34-22
9. William Jewell (Mo.): 38-19
10. Ohio Dominican: 30-18
Rec. Votes: Wayne State (Mich.) (24-25-1), Alderson-Broaddus (W.Va.) (33-17), Missouri-St. Louis (25-17), St. Joseph's (Ind.) (24-22-1), Northwood (Mich.) (28-23), Kentucky Wesleyan (32-18).

Talk about a region that has been turned on its head. The reigning champions, Truman State, find themselves barely hanging in the pre-season regional ranking at #8. Quincy has been the trendy pick across multiple places to take home the title this year, while the most talented team in the region may be down at Ashland.

Quincy has an emerging ace up its sleeve with Graham Spraker, who is combining with Mark Niebrugge to form a formidable 1-2 punch, although not the best in the region. That may go to Ashland, a team that has a pair of future professionals on the mound in Jake Baldwin and Brandyn Sittinger. The Eagles will have to find some offense in a hurry, but until they do, their starting pitchers can keep them in ball games.

The #2 team in the region, Grand Valley State, is usually one of the top teams in the region and should compete for a spot in the regional tournament yet again. However, they are going to need to replace more offense than possibly anyone else in the region after losing a pair of All-Americans from last season's team. They have a force behind the plate in Connor Glick, but will have to lean on utility man Matt Williams more than anyone. Williams had a coming-out party in last year's GLIAC Tournament at the plate, and is also one of the top closers in the region.

Speaking of closers, it is hard to not mention the top relief pitcher in the region in UMSL's Austin Simokaitis. The pre-season Second-Team All-American tallied 11 saves and an ERA under 1 last season, and should be the safe pick to be in that RP slot on the post-season all-region teams, provided his offense can get him the ball with the lead late in games.

Both Indianapolis and Southern Indiana seem to find their way despite where they are ranked in pre-season polls. USI has found themselves lifting the trophy the last two times any team from the region won the national title, and the coaching staff always seems to find stars along the way. This year, it will be Kyle Kempf returning to lead the offense in a big way. He should contend for the regional Player of the Year title.

A wildcard here may be Trevecca Nazarene. TNU gets a bit of a benefit in playing in a weaker conference, and should boast a gaudy win-loss record at the end of the season. 40+ wins should not be out of the discussion for them. They have loaded up on solid non-conference opponents, facing Tusculum, Quincy, Alabama-Huntsville, Southern Indiana, Newberry, Lee, Carson-Newman and North Alabama this year and will have to survive some of those games, but they should easily capture the conference crown again. 2B Tyler Tichenor is one of the best hitters in the country, batting over .400 last season, and should be another candidate for regional Player of the Year.

South Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. Tampa (Fla.) (5): 43-13 (#6 in PG Top 25)
2. West Alabama: 42-11 (#17 in PG Top 25)
3. Nova Southeastern (Fla.) (1): 39-13 (#16 in PG Top 25)
4. Lynn (Fla.): 35-15-1
5. Florida Tech: 38-13-1 (#11 in PG Top 25)
6. Alabama-Huntsville: 36-11-1
7. West Florida: 30-18 (#10 in PG Top 25)
8. West Georgia: 33-15
9. Delta State (Miss.): 25-18
T10. St. Leo (Fla.): 36-13 (#19 in PG Top 25)
T10. Lee (Tenn.): 39-19-1 (#T25 in PG Top 25)
Rec. Votes: Florida Southern (22-23), Valdosta State (Ga.) (28-19), Stillman (Ala.) (15-21).

With all due respect to the other regions mentioned, now we are getting in to the heavy hitters. There are seven teams up there ranked in the pre-season PG Top 25, and all of them are well worth it. If it wasn't for parity sake, you could probably put three more teams in there, as well.

Tampa is your reigning national champion, and although they have lost a lot of production from last year's squad, they are still Tampa, and they will still be in the hunt for another national title. There almost isn't anything to talk about with them pre-season wise, because they will fill holes with transfers and keep winning as always. Until someone proves otherwise, they should be the favorite.

West Alabama was a force to be reckoned with last year, but will have to find a way to replace nearly the entire starting rotation. Their offense, led by C Jack Cockrum and OF Nick Delgado, will be fine. If the pitching staff catches up, they should compete for a top-half seed in the region again.

Nova Southeastern was one of the biggest surprises of last season, breaking through the barrier in a big way. Alex Mateo will anchor the rotation, but the offense will have to find a way to replace some All-Americans and the bullpen will have to replace Ryan Castellanos, although Devin Raftery is still one of the top closers in the region. They have the talent to do it, and should find themselves in the thick of it again.

The most intriguing team in this region, to me at least, is Florida Tech. The Panthers have been hanging around the middle of the SSC pack for a while, but found themselves competing for the title last season. They will have to replace a few guys, including a professional backstop, but should have no problem doing so. Reid Neal will lead the way on offense, and I am confident the Panthers will continue making strides to become a powerhouse in the region.

West Florida, St. Leo and Lee are the remaining ranked teams in the region, and all of them have the potential to end up in the top half of the regional rankings. St. Leo led the universe in hitting for the first month of 2015 and kept pace, for the most part, throughout the year. Lee is entering their first full season of D-II eligibility and could crash the regional party in year one. West Florida is continuing their yo-yo trajectory after winning the national title, and seem to be back on the upswing.

South Central Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. Colorado Mesa (8): 47-7 (#5 in PG Top 25)
2. St. Edward's (Texas): 40-13 (#4 in PG Top 25)
3. St. Mary's (Texas) (1): 41-16
4. Angelo State (Texas): 42-18
5. Colorado State-Pueblo: 39-14
6. West Texas A&M: 36-20
7. Texas A&M-Kingsville: 29-23
T8. Oklahoma Christian: 35-22
T8. Arkansas-Fort Smith: 28-21
10. UT-Permian Basin: 30-15
Rec. Votes: Lubbock Christian (Texas) (23-25), Colorado Mines (19-25), Metro State (Colo.) (28-22), Tarleton State (Texas) (22-25).

This region is already shaping up to be a 5-team race. Mesa should be the clear favorite, with a bevy of returning sluggers, led by OF Alex Fife, a pre-season First-Team All-American for the Mavs. They have hitting, they have enough pitching to get them out of the region, and they are riding a wave of momentum over the last handful of seasons. They are the comfortable favorite here.

The biggest challenger to escaping the region for the Mavs looks to be St. Edward's, who is actually ranked just above Mesa in the top 25 rankings. The Hilltoppers should have an extremely potent offense, as MLB draftee J.D. Arrowood returns to SEU to help lead the way at the plate along with catcher Joseph Olson. On the mound, a pre-season Second-Team All-American will serve as ace for the Hilltoppers, with Collin Sherrod taking the ball to begin each weekend, I am guessing.

Angelo State has a contender for the regional Player of the Year award in SS Paxton DeLaGarza (plus it is fun to say), and they have plenty of pitching returning to possibly get ASU over the hump and in to the top three of the region.

St. Mary's is an interesting case. The #3 team in the region didn't have a single player on the pre-season all-region team, but they always find a way to battle it out for the Heartland Conference championship with St. Edward's. Usually they are pretty interchangeable, both by name and place in the conference, and despite SEU's lofty pre-season ranking, I wouldn't be surprised to see St. Mary's crash the party.

The Thunderwolves in Pueblo may not have the ace pitchers, but they sure do have the offense to compete in this region. A trio of pre-season all-region honorees will lead the way, with 1B Dominick Bregar, 3B Manny Menocal and OF Jordan Godman all landing second-team plaudits to begin the season. They gave Mesa a bit of a scare in the RMAC race last year, and will probably be in position to do the same this season. 

Southeast Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. Catawba (N.C.) (10): 47-15 (#21 in PG Top 25)
2. Mt. Olive (N.C.) (2): 39-16
3. North Georgia: 38-17
4. Armstrong State (Ga.): 34-14
5. UNC Pembroke: 38-13
6. Tusculum (Tenn.): 33-19
7. Flagler (Fla.): 32-15
8. Wingate (N.C.): 33-26
9. Georgia College: 33-19
10. USC Aiken: 34-17
Rec. Votes: Columbus State (Ga.) (35-14) (#18 in PG Top 25), Lander (S.C.) (22-26), Newberry (S.C.) (34-18), North Greenville (S.C.) (29-25), Belmont Abbey (N.C.) (25-25).

It is hard to fathom having any team not named Mount Olive be the favorites in the Southeast Region, but here we are. The thinking here has to be with a guy named Will Albertson. The odds-on favorite for the post-season national Player of the Year returns to the Indians after being drafted in June. The usually-catcher hit a gaudy .467 and is the returning leader in D-II in home runs with 26 long balls last season. The national runners-up last season will have to find a way to pick up the slack on the mound with the departure of Craig Brooks, now pitching in the Cubs organization, and Shafer Shephard is a good start.

For the Trojans of UMO, 1B Joe Koehler and 2B Zak Orrison will lead what should be a fairly potent offense. They always seem to find a big arm or two in the mix throughout the season, and I wouldn't put it past them to do it again.

This may be the most interesting region, ranking-wise, when you consider that the highest team in the national top 25 isn't even inside the top 10 of the regional rankings. PG has tabbed Columbus State as the #18 squad in the country to begin the year. The Cougars had high expectations last year but a rocky start to their season prevented them from ever reaching their potential. They are an easy candidate to pick to move quickly up the regional rankings in 2016.

Armstrong State and Flagler are two of the most intriguing teams in this region. Both teams have been gaining momentum the last few years and inching closer to competing for the regional tournament and, in turn, the tournament. In Flagler's case, being the best team in the region from Florida is always a good combination. On the other end of the spectrum, and much in the same light as Columbus State, you have Lander, who was a pre-season top 10 pick in 2015 but never found footing on the field and struggled to a sub-.500 finish. The Bearcats are always stocked with talent and should not find themselves in that situation again in 2016.

West Region

NCBWA Pre-Season Regional Ranking (Rk. Team (1st place votes): 2015 Record)
1. Cal Poly Pomona (6): 46-17 (#12 in PG Top 25)
2. UC San Diego: 36-21
3. Dixie State (Utah): 32-19
4. California Baptist: 31-22 (#14 in PG Top 25)
5. Azusa Pacific (Calif.): 34-20
6. Fresno Pacific (Calif.): 39-18-1
7. Western Oregon: 29-24
8. Point Loma (Calif.): 33-18
9. CSU-Monterey Bay: 32-20
10. Chico State (Calif.): 18-25
Rec. Votes: Montana St.-Billings (27-23), Hawaii-Pacific (27-20).

Despite being one of the most talented, and toughest, regions each year, this appears to be a case in 2016 where we have a clear favorite. The Broncos of Cal Poly Pomona are going to have to replace a ton of talent that has either graduated or been drafted, but they seem to certainly have the horses (ha, get it?) to do so. Ryan Olson might be even better than last year's borderline first-round pick, Cody Ponce, was. Olson actually put up the better numbers all season long and could be the favorite for national Pitcher of the Year come season's end. Want to know just how much talent CPP lost from 2015? Besides Olson, the Broncos don't boast a single player on the pre-season all-region teams. Still, they are the favorite.

UC San Diego has a big loss to rebound from in their own right, as they begin the post-Justin Donatella era. They have a trio of big bats to lean on to buoy that loss, with OF Jack Larsen, DH Gradeigh Sanchez and utility man Troy Cruz returning for the Tritons, and we will get a sense early on in the season if they will be challenging CPP for the crown in both the conference and region.

The Lancers of California Baptist have more than enough potential to break in to the top spot of this region if CPP can't find the offensive firepower they need. Cal Baptist has one of the top pitchers in the region in Tyson Miller, and a host of offensive talent returning in C Stephen Lohr, 3B Antonio Chavarria and 1B A.J. David, including Chavarria being a pre-season Second-Team All-American.

There are a number of up-and-coming teams in this region that I feel like we will hear a lot about in the coming years. Azusa Pacific, Fresno Pacific and Point Loma are additions to the Division II landscape within the last five years, and all of them seem to be poised to build powerhouse baseball programs. The PacWest conference is going to be a blast to watch this season and beyond. If everyone finds their footing as they have the potential to do, we could be looking at the PacWest as the top conference in the region as opposed to the CCAA, if we don't already. 

Between that trio of teams, Trevecca Nazarene and Lee, it seems like we will have a handful of teams around the country making their marks known in Division II baseball sooner rather than later.

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