2018 NAIA Baseball Preview

Photo: Mike Campbell/Campbell Photography

In the event of a nuclear war it’s universally forecasted that the planetary climate would change violently and irrevocably. Temperatures would plunge below freezing, even in summer, endangering the world’s food supply as ashen clouds would block the sun. Burning cities and countrysides would devastate health conditions for any surviving plants and animals around the globe. Mankind would fight for its survival against radiation despite knowing its battle can’t be won.

However despite all this, one thing would unquestionably remain the same. Even as chaos reigns supreme while civilizations crumble and turn to dust, Pat McCarthy’s Faulkner Eagles will yet again be a favorite to contend for the NAIA baseball title.

Year after year after year the Eagles have found themselves among the nation’s elite. Top players come and go, yet somehow they are continuously and instantly replaced with other exceptional athletes to take their place. Under McCarthy’s direction Faulkner has advanced to the national tournament eight of the nine years with World Series appearances in six of the last seven. His team took home the title in 2013 and were the NAIA’s runner-up the past two springs.

This year Faulkner is expected to make the trip to Lewiston once again. The Eagles’ have five offensive starters back from last year’s club, which outscored opposition 481 to 218, and replenished the roster with another crop of capable hitters to fill in any holes. On the mound, the staff is almost an embarrassment of riches with the ilk of Tyler Tungate and Israel Fuentes who combined to earn the win in 22 of 23 decisions last season.

Nevertheless, the Eagles’ destiny is not set in stone. Faulkner will compete with the elite, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be taking home the championship trophy at the end of the season. There are dozens of quality teams ready to trade blows with them and another group of dark horse contenders ready to earn their chance to dog pile in Lewiston should the ball bounce their way.

The Eagles are Perfect Game’s pick to win it all this season, but from the Top 25 capsules below you can see that it will be another competitive and exciting year on diamonds across the country. Each of these teams, along with an optimistic handful of others, has what it takes to be the NAIA’s last team standing.

2018 Perfect Game NAIA Preseason Top 25 Teams


Rk. 2017 School ST ’17 Record
1 1* Faulkner Eagles AL 54-12
2 3 Oklahoma City Stars OK 50-10
3 11 Bellevue Bruins NE 51-11
4 24 St. Thomas Bobcats FL 35-19
5 18 Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs TN 47-15
6 15 Texas Wesleyan Rams TX 47-15
7 4 William Carey Crusaders MS 45-20
8 8 Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles OK 51-12
9 23 Clarke Pride IA 46-14
10 NR LSU Shreveport Pilots LA 40-21
11 17 Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies GA 40-21
12 9 USAO Drovers OK 45-17
13 10 Hope International Royals CA 35-18
14 6 Missouri Baptist Spartans MO 45-16
15 NR Concordia Cardinals MI 43-13
16 13 Northwestern Ohio Racers OH 44-12
17 1* Lewis-Clark State Warriors ID 40-14
18 7 The Master’s Mustangs CA 41-23
19 NR Cumberlands Patriots KY 43-17
20 18 Indiana Southeast Grenadiers IN 48-15
21 22 Webber International Warriors FL 39-17
22 16 Indiana Tech Warriors IN 44-14
23 NR Point Park Pioneers PA 35-19
24 NR Antelope Valley Pioneers CA 37-18
25 NR Taylor Trojans IN 35-21


1. Faulkner Eagles
After a pair of bitter bridesmaid finishes at the NAIA World Series, Faulkner is an easy choice for 2018’s preseason favorite. A quality core of experienced Eagles will mesh with another top-shelf recruiting class focused in earning head coach Pat McCarthy his second undisputed national title in five years. The Eagles’ bats will be rowdy as always, but it’s their pitching which will really sink their talons into opposition. Tyler Tungate and Israel Fuentes combined to go 22-1 last season despite facing one of the most strenuous schedules in the nation, and senior Jonathan Wilkins, who held opposition to a .157 average as a closer, is back in the bullpen.

2. Oklahoma City Stars
The Stars are the winningest program in college baseball since 1991 with 1,336 wins and by all accounts that number will continue to rise in 2018. The Stars finished last season in the top 10 in slugging percentage, runs, RBI, hits, batting average and doubles and likely will be among the nation’s leaders once again. In addition to returning three hitters who batted a combined .382 with 73 doubles, the Stars have Lane Miligan, who batted .405 in 33 games, and a trio of D-I transfers to fortify their starting lineup. The pitching staff has a pair of seasoned starters highlighted by Matt Young, who rebounded from injury to throw 101 innings and amass 125 strikeouts while only allowing 80 hits.

3. Bellevue Bruins
Coming off back-to-back 50-win seasons, seven consecutive NAIA opening round appearances and a runaway North Star Athletic Association title with a 23-1 conference record, the Bruins will be a national title contender once again. Despite losing some key players, BU returns six position players and three starting pitchers along with a quality recruiting class that will look to give Bellevue their second World Series appearance in three years. The Bruins pulled off one of the coups of the offseason in signing Austin Alexander (.377/.450/.719) away from Georgia Gwinnett to insert in the middle of an already potent batting order.

4. St. Thomas Bobcats
‘Cats Coach Jorge Perez is excited about his well-balanced, veteran-laden team and believes they’ll be able to compete with anyone in the country.  Erne Valdes returns as a certified ace who finished last season in the top 10 nationally in hits allowed per nine innings (6.28) and opposing batting average (.198) while compiling 100 strikeouts in just 76 innings of work. Transfers Elih Marrero and Nelson Mompierre give St. Thomas some added bulk in the lineup. Both are SEC vets as Marrero was a starter for Mississippi State (and a 2014 PG All-American) and Mompierre led Missouri with a .327 average last season.

5. Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs
After a two-season stint away, head coach Billy Berry has returned to TWU where he previous led the Bulldogs to eight national tournament appearances, a trio of trips to the NAIA World Series and a national title in 2012. Also back on campus are five everyday starters and six experienced pitchers who appeared in at least 10 games. Collin Ridout, one of the NAIA’s top hitting shortstops who clubbed 18 home runs last season, will get some additional support in from a pair of D-I transfers in Tristan Clarke and Braden Mosley.

6. Texas Wesleyan Rams
The Rams everyday nine will be imposing with players who provide solid offense and defense up and down the lineup. Returners Kiki Menendez and Caden Williams combined to bat .400 with 60 extra-base hits last season and lead a core of hitters who’ll have opposing outfielders playing with their heels on the warning tracks. While the pitching staff isn’t deep, they can tout Stephen Yancey as their ace. Last season Yancey led the team in strikeouts, threw six complete games and closed the regular season by recording back-to-back shutouts.

7. William Carey Crusaders
The Crusades had a deep postseason run last season on the heels of a standout senior offense. This year it will be the pitching staff which will carry Carey. Each of the staff starters return who combined to throw 255 innings along with another pair of relievers who combined for another 80. The offense has a lot of new faces but their coaches feel like they have an exceptional recruiting class for this season, highlighted by David Pimentel, who helped Delta State to a D-II, title and Tyler Reid and Marcus Buckley, who impressed at the JuCo level.

8. Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles
Despite leading his team to 51 wins and an NAIA World Series appearance last season, head coach Matt Parker believes this year’s OKWU club could be even better. The Eagles have reigning national player of the year Christopher Acosta-Tapia back who led the NAIA in doubles (27), total bases (208) and runs scored (89) along with finishing among the top 10 nationally in 11 other categories to lead an influx of new high-octane offensive bats. While their top pitching starters graduated, OKWU does have three durable relievers back in town, capped by All-American closer Tyler Shumpert, who earned 14 saves.

9. Clarke Pride
For the fourth time in five seasons head coach Dan Spain led the team formerly known as the Crusaders to a school record number of wins, ending the season with a 46-14 mark. As improbable as it may seem, that milestone could be eclipsed again this year. Spain’s leading hitter returns, along with three middle-of-the-order batsmen who combined for 41 home runs and 171 RBI.  On the mound Michael Lopez will be looking to take home Heart of America Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year honors for the second straight after going 12-2 with seven complete games and a pair of shutouts last year.

10. Lsu Shreveport Pilots
The Pilots bring back solid experience at the plate and on the mound which will make them a favorite to return to the NAIA World Series for the first time since their back-to-back appearances in 2011-12. Coach Brent Lavallee believes this year’s club has the same cut of the jib as those teams with a power laden lineup fronted by Ryan Pouwells, who led the team with a .394 batting average, and transfer Carlos Andujar, who hit .386 with 14 home runs at Northern Oklahoma College-Enid. Renny Tolentino is a bona fide ace on the mound, finishing seventh nationally in hits allowed per nine innings (6.06) and eighth in opposing batting average (1.96) while leading the Red River Athletic Conference in strikeouts despite being a starter in just 10 of his 18 appearances.

11. Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies
The Grizzlies hope that solid upperclass pitching will finally provide the impetus they need to send them to their first NAIA World Series appearance since reaching it in their program’s sophomore season in 2014. Head coach Brad Stromdahl has beefed up his arms arsenal with Cole Uvila, who was a Friday starter at Georgia State before injury sidetracked his career. He’s made acquaintance with Ferrum College transfer Hunter Peck, who threw complete games in four of nine starts for the Panthers and topped the team in wins, ERA and strikeouts. The Grizzly offense lost some of their biggest run producers over the summer, but they still have standout sparkplug Marcus McCorkle. A preseason All-American, McCorkle batted .398 last season with 12 doubles and eight triples and should pass the 100 stolen bases career mark early in the season after adding 49 to his total last season.

12. University of Science & Arts Oklahoma
The Drovers finished last season with a 45-17 record and reached the World Series for the second time in program history, earning their first Lewiston win. Offensively USAO suffered some setbacks as their biggest hitters won’t be back in Chickasaha, but their pitching staff will make meeting or exceeding last year’s accomplishments a real possibility. Head coach Mike Ross has been dealt a pair of aces in Jose Hidalgo and Francis Ventura who are just as good as any tandem in the nation. Together they accounted for 188 strikeouts and 20 wins and held opposition to a .200 batting average.

13. Hope International Royals
The Royals had a majestic season last year, surpassing expectations on every level as they earned their first conference title, made their first trip to the World Series and had a player drafted in what was only their third season since the program was reinstated after a 30-year hiatus. Their sudden success already has made them and head coach Erich Pfohl favorites for Lewistown. The Royals have five batters back who had over 100 plate appearances and added touted prospect Frank Garriola, who transferred in from Glendale CC after the summer.  The pitching staff doesn’t dominate but gets the job done. If a pitcher or two elevates their games this club could really be something special in 2018.

14. Missouri Baptist Spartans
Few coaches, if any, are more enthused about their team’s chances than MBU’s Eddie Uschold. He considers this year’s club to be the deepest he has had the past few seasons, which is saying a lot considering the Spartans reached the World Series last year and have averaged 45 wins the past handful of springs. Much of the Spartans’ success rests on the shoulders of a warm weather recruiting class bolstered by Domonique Hernandez, who hit .392 at Cerro Coso CC, and Northwoods League all star Brandon Downey, who transferred the five-minute drive from nearby Maryville University.

15. Concordia Cardinals
The Cardinals’ 42 wins last season were the most in program history and its very likely that record will be broken again this season. Concordia returns seven of eight position players and three-quarters of their rotation which has expectations high in Ann Arbor. Jacob Maas led the team at the plate last season, pacing the club in batting average (.356) and topping the conference with 13 home runs. He also earned national gold glove honors for his ability in the outfield. Mashall Oetting spears the pitching staff as he topped the team with eight wins and held opposition to a 2.26 ERA. The Cards’ also added some important transfers, including 6-foot-7 hurler Elijah Abenth, who originally signed with D-I Coppin State.

16. Northwestern Ohio Racers
The Racers will once again have an explosive offense which will make them competitive in every series they play. Many of the main players are back and they welcomed powerful Australian slugger Jack Barrie to the middle of the lineup by way of the Minnesota Twins organization. Meanwhile their pitching staff is absolutely oozing with talent and will be dominating if they’re able to develop. Austin Gridley and Jacob Hulcher are potential draft picks and newcomer Olivier Mailloux from Quebec not only adds to the team’s international flavor, but he already has a no-hitter after handcuffing UM-Dearborn in the fall.

17. Lewis-Clark State Warriors
The Warriors are the defending national champions, but the pitching staff that earned them the title was completely decimated to graduation and the draft. No LCSC hurler who threw more than 10 innings and had an ERA lower than 5.00 is back on the club. Pitchers Gage Burland and Rian Bassett may not have put up pretty numbers last season, but scouts have them on the short-short list of NAIA potential draft picks. While not as dramatic, the offense suffered similar setbacks. Nevertheless, the Warriors have been able to reload once again with players able to make an immediate impact and compete for a title.

18. The Master’s Mustangs
The Mustangs will be aiming to make their fourth trip to the World Series in six seasons with another balanced roster with potential breakout performers on the mound and at the plate. Over the past summer a trio of the Mustangs’ top performers played together for the Chugiak Chinooks of the Alaskan Baseball League, which should help them continue to develop as players and teammates. All American in-the-making shortstop Aaron Shackelford, who hit .313 with 14 home runs last season, will lead the offense. Robert Winslow was an ABL All Star after starting 17 games for TMU and compiling a 2.95 ERA with 100 K’s.  They’ll be reunited with Chinook teammate Preston White who has transferred from D-III powerhouse Birmingham Southern.

19. Cumberlands Patriots
When asked about his team’s chances in 2018, Cumberlands head coach Brad Shelton pours on the praise. He claims this year’s edition of the Pats is the best he’s seen in 17 years at the helm. The offense returns five starters and added three top JuCo prospects which should keep them scoring early and often. Despite losing All American Noah Gapp, the staff looks better, returning 28 wins and 11 saves while adding another influx of junior college talent. Anthony Martinez, a transfer from D-I Texas Southern, where he started 10 games, including against LSU in the NCAA Regionals, should be a difference maker.

20. Indiana Southeast Grenadiers
The Grenadiers finished last season with 48 wins, eclipsing the previous school record by five and were one game short of packing their bags for the World Series. Head coach Benjamin Reel is hoping on completing that trip to Lewiston this season with an apt, experienced team laden with leadership and an offense that will be explosive in the batters box and on the bases. In addition to an already robust roster of returners, Reel has talented transfer reinforcements added to the mix, coming in with playing pedigrees from the ilk of Vanderbilt and Keiser.

21. Webber International Warriors
Webber should parlay their breakout 2017 success and benefit from reloading years by conference mates Southeastern and Keiser into another successful season on the diamond.  The Warriors welcome a solid mix of returners and touted transfers which will make them deeper on the mound while adding more pop and zing to the offense. Upgrades on defense also have Head Coach Brad Niethammer optimistic that his team will be able to surpass last year’s 39 win mark which set a new standard for WIU baseball.

22. Indiana Tech Warriors
The Orange and Black attack ended last season with an impressive 44 wins, which, unfortunately for them, was one victory short from a trip to the World Series. The Warriors will attempt to remedy that shortfall with a staunch offense centered around a pair of All American sluggers in Matt Bandor and Glen McClain. The duo hit a combined .455 last spring with 62 extra-base hits. The big question mark for Tech is if their pitching will be able to provide enough comfort for the offense to swing freely. Fortunately Jason Sterrett and transfer Natan McBroom appear up to the task as they both threw admirably in fall action with four quality starts between them.

23. Point Park Pioneers
The reigning River States Conference regular season champions will be embroiled in a battle for top-of-the-conference title with IU Southeast. If the Pioneers are able to earn their fifth conference crown in six years it will most likely be large in part to a solid rotation punctuated by the 1-2 punch of Addison Domingo and Nicholas Beardsley who are as good of a tandem you can find anywhere in the NAIA. They’ll be supported by a solid roster of returning hitters rejoined by 2016 honorable mention All American Jake Horew, who missed last season due to injury.

24. Antelope Valley Pioneers
The Pioneers completed 2017 with an overall record of 37-18, a conference mark of 24-6 and earned the program’s first ever NAIA national tournament berth. Those accomplishments are likely to quickly become an afterthought as bigger and better feats are most certainly in the future. UAV returns four of their top five hitters from last season, punctuated by their first ever preseason All American in Tyler Pittmon, who hit .404 last season with 16 doubles, 10 triples and nine home runs.  The Pioneers share the same problem as a number of programs in that their pitching is a bit thin, but can claim Gilberto Arroyo as a cornerstone to the staff after he threw 100 innings last year.

25. Taylor Trojans
Taylor returns entire the starting lineup from a team that finished in the top 10 nationally in runs per game, doubles, and slugging percentage and in the top 15 in both steals and batting average. Consequently head coach Kyle Gould’s team shouldn’t have much problem creating scoring opportunities. The question is if their treasure-trove runs will be enough to hold off the opposition. The pitching staff finished with a 5.75 team ERA last season, and, for better or worse, has few returners back. Tucker Waddups, a transfer from D-III Anderson University, where he led his team in ERA and innings, should help hold off Huntington and Marian for Crossroads League supremacy.

2018 NAIA Top 15 Prospects (by Brian Sakowski @B_Sakowski_PG)

Rk Name Pos. B-T HT WT School Hometown ST
1 Elih Marrero C B-R 5-7 189 St. Thomas Miami FL
2 Eddie Jimenez RHP R-R 6-2 230 Southeastern Lawton OK
3 Gage Burland RHP R-R 6-3 215 Lewis-Clark Otis Orchard WA
4 Austin Gridley LHP L-L 6-2 210 Northwestern Ohio Fairfield OH
5 Frank Garriola 3B R-R 6-1 195 Hope International Pasadena CA
6 Rian Bassett RHP R-R 6-5 220 Lewis-Clark Vancouver WA
7 Brent Burgess RHP R-R 6-0 210 Middle Georgia State Lithonia GA
8 Jacob Hulcher RHP R-R 6-6 255 Northwestern Ohio Montgomery AL
9 Jalen Thomas OF R-R 6-4 215 Madonna Southfield MI
10 Brock Ephan 1B R-R 6-4 265 Lewis-Clark Kalaheo HI
11 Adam Wolfe SS R-R 6-0 195 Arizona Christian Scottsdale AZ
12 Matt Bandor 3B R-R 6-1 190 Indiana Tech Fort Wayne IN
13 Brandon Gonzalez OF/IF L-R 6-2 200 Hope International Orange CA
14 Dylan Shockley C R-R 5-11 195 University of Rio Grande Minford OH
15 Glen McClain 1B R-R 6-2 215 Indiana Tech Fremont IN

The No. 1 prospect at the NAIA level for the 2018 season is catcher Elih Marrero, son of the former big league catcher of the same name (although spelled Eli), who was a Perfect Game All-American during the summer of 2014. He was ranked 118th in the high school class of 2015 by the time the draft rolled around that year, and after he was selected in the 29th round by the Reds Marrero opted to honor his committed to Mississippi State. After hitting .233 (35-for-150) as a freshman in 2016, he didn’t receive much playing time as a sophomore, and that, along with a run in with the law, led to him transferring to St. Thomas for his junior year. Before that, Marrero enjoyed a stop in the Florida Collegiate Summer League where he was named the league’s fourth-best prospect. Here is the report filed from the summer:

The former 29th round selection of the Reds in 2015, and a PG All-American the summer before, showed some of the best defensive instincts behind the plate. While his arm strength is the tool that stands out the most his ability to block and receive are also impressive traits. While the offensive game has room to improve the switch hitter showed good plate discipline (1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio during the summer season) and has surprising pop with eight extra-base hits in only 86 at-bats.

This article originally appeared on the Perfect Game website here: https://www.perfectgame.org/Articles/View.aspx?article=14837

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