The first week of 2016 Division II play is in the books, and it was an eventful week to say the least. I had anticipated that it will be tough to do weekly rankings this year, and that proved to be pretty accurate. If the first week of play is any indication, there will be a lot of interchangeable teams as the season trucks on. Anyone appears to be able to beat anyone. The coming weeks will weed some teams out and bring the contenders to the forefront, but in the meantime, we will enjoy the craziness and parity of the D-II baseball landscape.
Read on to check out some interesting tidbits from the opening weekend and a short preview of this upcoming weekend's action.
We begin with the defending champions. Tampa got off to a blistering start in defending their crown, crushing Bentley in a three-game sweep to begin the year, outscoring them 28-4 in the three contests. The Spartans hit .381 as a team over the weekend, and the pitching staff wasn't stressed, as nobody threw more than four innings in the series. Michael Calkins threw four hitless innings, Brad Hencke threw four one-hit innings, and David Heintz threw four shutout innings with eight strikeouts. Needless to say, it appears that Tampa is on a war path to reclaim their top spot in the rankings. They'll face Georgia College this weekend.
Catawba appeared to struggle a little bit in finding their traction after capping last season as the national runner-up. The Indians went 1-2, albeit against a pair of ranked teams. They fell to Barry (12-7) and Lynn (6-4), then earned their first victory, 5-2, over Nova Southeastern. National Player of the Year candidate Will Albertson already has two home runs, but the pitching staff is going to have to find some success and he's going to need to find a partner in crime in the lineup before conference play begins and he starts getting pitched around. Catawba is off this weekend.
Cal State-Monterey Bay got off to a good start out on the West Coast, going 3-0 to begin their season with a DH sweep over Holy Names and a victory over Fresno Pacific. That match-up against Fresno Pacific was a big win, as I have an inkling that these two teams could be on the fringe of making the West regional tournament come the end of the year. They'll face off again in a doubleheader in a few weeks. Kevin Davidson hit two home runs and drove in six in three games for the Otters, while Matt Urakami hit .500 and drove in five in the opening weekend.
Lander, a team that had high hopes last year but finished below .500, is off to a much better start this season. The Bearcats split a pair of games with Mount Olive to begin the year, then beat Wingate and North Greenville, a pair of regional hopefuls, during the week. Matt White already has three home runs in four games, and the pitching staff has 36 K's in 36 innings of work. They face North Greenville two more times this weekend.
Some of you may remember the incredible start Saint Leo got off to last season, seemingly being among the universe's leaders in hitting for the first month of the year. They aren't as potent so far this season, but the Lions swept a three-game series from Montevallo to open the year, all one-run games, two of which went to extra innings, both of which were walk-off victories. Saint Leo is off this weekend and then hit the road (I'm guessing willingly) for a FIVE-game trip to Hawaii Pacific (told you).
One team to keep tabs on this season, making their first foray in to the Division II baseball world, is Embry-Riddle. ERAU was a powerhouse at the NAIA level, nearly winning the national title in 2015. They began their first season in D-II with a series victory over conference foe Palm Beach Atlantic, winning 2-0 and 6-1 before falling in an 18-12 football game to wrap up the weekend. ERAU should bolster their record pretty easily until we get to the beginning of March. This looks even more impressive considering Palm Beach Atlantic went on to beat Lynn in a mid-week game on Tuesday.
One of the early-season favorites to take home the crown in Cary this season is Mercyhurst, and they got off to a pretty good start, going 3-1 against Stillman in the opening weekend. That may not seem like much, as Stillman isn't necessarily a world-beater, but Stillman will most likely find themselves in the South regional tournament. They are going to be one of the favorites in the SIAC, where the conference winner will land an automatic spot in the regional tournament. It might be as the sacrificial lamb to the powerhouse that lands the top seed in that region, but it still means a lot when it comes to regional seeding elsewhere if you have a 3-1 record against another regional tournament team. Although it was in a loss in the opener, Colin McKee picked up for Mercyhurst where he left off last year, striking out 10 in five innings of shutout ball. The Lakers won't play again until February 19th.
Speaking of last year's D-II finalists, Henderson State got off to a rough start, dropping two of three to Tarleton State. Tarleton won 10-5 and 13-5, but the Reddies picked up a 5-2 victory in the middle. Tarleton State and Henderson State both head to Houston this weekend to take part in the Houston Winter Invitational at Minute Maid Park, and they'll meet up there again. They'll be joined there by another pre-season favorite in St. Cloud State, which will set up a couple very compelling match-ups at the home of the Houston Astros.
Finally, we had a bit of a three-team rotation going on. Tusculum, a fringe regional tournament candidate, went 2-1, picking up wins over ranked Lynn and Nova Southeastern, but fell to Barry. Barry beat Tusculum and Catawba, but fell to Newberry. Newberry, on the other hand, went 3-0, beating Barry, Lynn and Nova Southeastern, claiming superiority over the Sunshine State Conference for at least one weekend. In my opinion, Newberry had the best opening weekend of any team in the country. A huge weekend for them considering they would also be considered a fringe regional tournament team to begin the year. They face Belmont Abbey for three games this weekend and face North Greenville on Tuesday. They have an opportunity to build up an impressive record early on, much like Lenoir-Rhyne did last season. They won't face much stiff competition until they get in to conference play at the end of the month.
Erskine has already taken advantage of a favorable early-season schedule, going 4-0 against Davis & Elkins and Benedict. The Flying Fleet are leading the known universe in hitting early on, batting .413 as a team, led by Chaz Davey, a redshirt freshman, who is batting .375 with two home runs and 11 RBI. He provided the first runs of the entire D-II season against Davis & Elkins with a two-run homer. Erskine's starting pitchers have allowed only two runs and five walks with 24 strikeouts in 20.2 innings of work. Erskine will face a much stiffer test this weekend with three games against Columbus State.
Cal Poly Pomona picked up a victory in their first game of the season, 9-8 over Concordia. The West region favorites didn't look sharp, but good teams still grind out those victories, and they did just that. They'll face Concordia in three more games over the weekend.
Finally, let's move on to the second weekend of the season! Below are some match-ups and weekend series' that I am very excited to keep tabs on, as they feature postseason candidates.
My "Marquee Match-Up of the Week" is...
#16 Nova Southeastern (0-3) at Alabama-Huntsville (0-0)
Friday, February 5th, 12 p.m. Central (DH) - Live Stats
Saturday, February 6th, 12 p.m. Central (DH) - Live Stats
The Sharks, one of the top teams in the South region last year, are off to a very rough start. They went 0-3 against Tusculum, Newberry and Catawba. In their defense, however, those are all teams that could be playing in the Southeast regional at the end of the year. NSU is full of talent both in the lineup and on the mound, and should find their footing. It is going to be tough, however, to find it this weekend. The Sharks head to Alabama-Huntsville to take on the Chargers, a team that went 36-11-1 last year but found themselves on the outside looking in when it came to the postseason after going 1-2 in the Gulf South tournament. UAH was a top-10 team most of last season, and I anticipate they will find themselves moving up in to the rankings early on this year. In the coming weeks I will have a more in-depth preview of my Marquee Match-Up of the Week, but since it is the early season, not much is known, particularly a pitching rotation or lineup possibilities, to really expand on. Next week, we will begin highlighting this match-up with its own post and a more in-depth breakdown.
Other series' to watch this weekend:
Point Loma (0-0) at Chico State (3-0)
Friday, February 5th, 2 p.m. Pacific - Live Stats ||| Audio ||| Video
Saturday, February 6th, 11 a.m. Pacific - Live Stats ||| Audio ||| Video
#14 California Baptist (0-1) vs Cal State-Los Angeles (1-0)
Thursday, February 4th, 6 p.m. Pacific @ CBU - 8-2 Cal State-Los Angeles
Friday, February 5th, 6 p.m. Pacific @ CSLA - Live Stats ||| Video
Saturday, February 6th, 12 p.m. Pacific @ CBU - Live Stats
Carson-Newman (0-1) at North Georgia (1-1)
Friday, February 5th, 3 p.m. Eastern - Live Stats ||| Audio ||| Video
Saturday, February 6th, 1 p.m. Eastern - Live Stats ||| Audio ||| Video
Sunday, February 7th, 1 p.m. Eastern - Live Stats ||| Audio ||| Video
Belmont Abbey (0-0) vs Newberry (3-0)
Friday, February 5th, 4 p.m. Eastern @ Newberry - Live Stats ||| Audio
Saturday, February 6th, 12 p.m. Eastern @ Belmont Abbey (DH) - Audio
#18 Columbus State (0-0) at Erskine (4-0)
Friday, February 5th, 2 p.m. Eastern - Live Stats
Saturday, February 6th, 12 p.m. Eastern (DH) - Live Stats
Western Oregon (1-0) at Azusa Pacific (0-1)
Thursday, February 4th, 5 p.m. Pacific - 3-1 WOU
Friday, February 5th, 3 p.m. Pacific (DH) - Live Stats
Saturday, February 6th, 12 p.m. Pacific - Live Stats
Stanislaus State (3-0) vs Fresno Pacific (0-1)
Friday, February 5th, 4 p.m. Pacific @ FPU (DH) - Live Stats
Saturday, February 6th, 4 p.m. Pacific @ Stanislaus St. (DH) - Live Stats ||| Audio ||| Video
#3 Millersville (0-0) at Winston-Salem State (0-0)
Friday, February 5th, 4 p.m. Eastern
Saturday, February 6th, 1 p.m. Eastern (DH)
Sunday, February 7th, 12 p.m. Eastern
#17 West Alabama (0-0) at Palm Beach Atlantic (2-2)
Friday, February 5th, 6 p.m. Eastern - Live Stats ||| Video
Saturday, February 6th, 12 p.m. Eastern (DH) - Live Stats (G1) ||| Live Stats (G2) ||| Video
2016 Houston Winter Invitational @ Minute Maid Park (Hosted by Central Missouri)
Friday, February 5th
10 a.m. Central - Arkansas-Monticello (0-0) vs Tarleton State (2-1) - Live Stats
2 p.m. Central - #1 St. Cloud State (0-0) vs St. Mary's (2-1) - Live Stats
6 p.m. Central - Henderson State (1-2) vs Central Missouri (0-0) - Live Stats ||| Audio
Saturday, February 6th
10 a.m. Central - Henderson State (1-2) vs St. Mary's (2-1) - Live Stats
2 p.m. Central - Arkansas-Monticello (0-0) vs Central Missouri (0-0) - Live Stats ||| Audio
6 p.m. Central - Tarleton State (2-1) vs #1 St. Cloud State (0-0) - Live Stats
Sunday, February 7th
10 a.m. Central - #1 St. Cloud State (0-0) vs Central Missouri (0-0) - Live Stats ||| Audio
2 p.m. Central - Henderson State (1-2) vs Tarleton State (2-1) - Live Stats
6 p.m. Central - Arkansas-Monticello (0-0) vs St. Mary's (2-1) - Live Stats