The 2021 Opening Round starts on Monday, May 17th at nine sites across the nation. The winners of each of the five team brackets, along with host Lewis-Clark State College, will earn an invite to Lewiston, ID to compete for the 2021 NAIA World Series title.
1. Science & Arts (OK), Rank 6
2. MidAmerica Nazarene (KS), Rank: Not ranked
3. Concordia (NE), Rank 19
4. Bellevue (NE), Rank: Not ranked
5. Saint Xavier (IL), Rank: Not ranked
The Drovers started the season as the number two team in the Perfect Game preseason rankings, never fell out of the top eight and are currently positioned sixth overall, and are a strong favorite to win this region. Concordia is the only other member of the five that is currently in the rankings. They’d advanced to 19th following their capture of the Great Plains Athletic Conference’s regular season and conference titles.
What could make this region interesting is the weather forecast for the Omaha area. It is expected to be a wet week with not just rain, but constant thunderstorms in the region. This region features some of NAIA’s top pitchers in USAO’s Colton Williams and Richardo Velez, MidAmerica Nazarene’s Jhon Vargas and Concordia’s Jake Fosgett who have struck out a combined 429 batters in only 294 innings. Should any of that quartet take to the mound and then iced during a weather delay, it could adversely affect their performance going forward.
While their offense is solid, the starting pitching will ultimately determine if the Drovers return to Lewison. Their three starting pitchers of Williams, Velez and Jean Muntanger (who is much, much better than his 5.52 ERA earned this season) have thrown 64% of the teams total innings this season so they’d like to keep them on the mound and effective as long as possible. That isn’t to say there should be much apprehension for Head Coach Mike Ross to use his bullpen. They too have some very capable arms, including Drew Shaver, who has appeared in 20 games and struck out 67 batters in 45 innings while only allowing 28 hits.
Weather issues or not, USAO should advance to Lewiston out of this bracket.
1. Tennessee Wesleyan, Rank: 1
2. IU Southeast, Rank: 8
3. Warner (FL), Rank: Not ranked
4. Northwestern Ohio, Rank: Not ranked
5. Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio), Rank: Not ranked
No reason to draw this out with unnecessary analysis. Tennessee Wesleyan, who has spent the entire season as the number one team in the Perfect Game NAIA rankings, should have no problem winning this quintet of teams.
IU Southeast, who lost three games to the Bulldogs in early February (two of which in a very lopsided fashion), are a much better team than they were at the start of the year, but the Bulldogs are just as good now as they were then, if not better.
1. Southeastern (FL), Rank: 3
2. Middle Georgia State, Rank: 24
3. Bryan (TN), Rank: 17
4. USC Beaufort (SC), Rank: Not ranked
5. Fisher (MA), Rank: Not ranked
The Fire have been the number two or three team in the Perfect Game ranking the entire season. With this talented team playing at home, where they are 32-2, there is no reason to think they won’t advance to Lewiston once again.
Middle Georgia State and Bryan were both in the national top ten rankings at one point during the season, but both have tailed off the second half of the spring. The Knights have gone 7-9 in their last 16 and the Lions finished their last 22 games going 13-8.
USCB has two wins over SEU this season, but also four losses which include a combined 25-5 drubbing in the last two games of The Sun Conference tournament.
1. Oklahoma Wesleyan, Rank: 11
2. Indiana Wesleyan, Rank: 21
3. Columbia (MO), Rank: 22
4. Olivet Nazarene (IL), Rank: Not ranked
5. Indiana Tech, Rank: Not ranked
Overall this is the NAIA’s most balanced opening round bracket with no clear cut favorite in the group. Regardless of who wins, it shouldn’t be a surprise. This bracket is especially interesting as the only team in the group which was ranked in the preseason is the fifth seed, Indiana Tech.
Host Indiana Wesleyan suffered seven of their 12 losses to start the year when they advantageously faced Southeastern and Faulkner to start the season. Since then they went 43-6 and won the Crossroads League regular season and tournament titles.
Oklahoma Wesleyan on the other hand started the season hot. The Eagles won 38 of their first 41 games. Those wins propelled them all the way up to the sixth position in the rankings before cooling down over the last couple of weeks.
Columbia and Olivet Nazarene each finished first in their conference’s regular season standings. As did Indiana Tech, kinda of… Don’t get me started on that.
With much trepidation I’m selecting the Wildcats to win. They have home field advantage which will give them the edge in this competitive group.
Ugggg!!! No, nevermind. I’m picking OKWU. I really want to choose someone other than the top seed, but the Eagles simply have too much power. They’ve hit an NAIA leading 133 home runs and scored and are also in the top ten in runs, hits and batting average. If the other teams had some stronger pitching I could be convinced OKWU isn’t the team to beat, but I have to go with the Eagles here.
1. Vanguard (CA), Rank: 13
2. Faulkner (AL), Rank: 7
3. St. Thomas (FL), 25
4. Freed-Hardeman (TN), Rank: Not ranked
5. Our Lady of the Lake (TX), Rank: Not ranked
This is another difficult bracket to pick and the first in which I am not going to select the top seed. I’m choosing Faulkner to advance to Lewiston for what seems like the zillionth time in school history.
Top seeded Vanguard has been forced to play on the other side of the county which can’t be beneficial. They’ve also gone an unimpressive 14-11 of their last 25 games which doesn’t scream of being Lewiston-bound.
St. Thomas and Freed-Hardeman were both ranked in the top five to start the season but have not lived up to their preseason prognostications. St. Thomas has a number of excellent wins this season over the ilk of highly ranked Southeastern, Georgia Gwinnett and Keiser, but too many unanticipated curious losses to teams which they had no business being defeated by. FHU, who was the Perfect Game preseason favorite in 2019, needed a strong finish to end the year over .500. If either of one these two win the region it would definitely be a surprise, but not a shock.
Faulkner, with their pair of aces in Antonio Frias and July Sosa, are simply too good to pick against. That duo combined to strike out 184 batters in 133 innings while only allowing 88 hits this spring. A pair of pitchers like that should give them two quick wins to open the region. Offensively Faulkner hits well with pop and they are extremely aggressive on the basepaths.
New Orleans Bracket
1. Loyola (LA), Rank: 15
2. Keiser (FL), Rank: 23
3. Oklahoma City, Rank: 16
4. Benedictine (KS), Rank: Not ranked
5. Ottawa (KS), Rank: Not ranked
If a high seed is going to win a region I think this is the one where they’ll succeed. Benedictine earned their invite to the postseason in part by playing an aggressive schedule with high caliber opponents. Ottawa earned wins over Columbia, McPherson and Oklahoma Wesleyan on their way to winning the KCAC Tournament. Both of these schools have shown they can compete with the best of the best. If either advances it would not be a jaw-dropping event. Nevertheless, I’m picking third seeded Oklahoma City to win the region.
The Stars have not blown my socks off with their success this season. While they have wins over MidAmerica Nazarene, LSU-Shreveport and USAO, they also have suffered too many unOCU-like setbacks which makes me wonder which version of Stars team will arrive in New Orleans. I’m going to go with my gut in this one and think that the OCU club that whalloped 107 home runs and finished in the top five in slugging percentage and tenth in batting average will be the one to take to the field. Their team ERA is thick at 5.58, but talented enough to keep opposition at bay while the offense does it’s job.
1. Central Methodist (MO), Rank: 5
2. William Carey (MS), Rank: 12
3. Benedictine Mesa (AZ), Rank: 18
4. McPherson (KS), Rank: Not ranked
5. Doane (NE), Rank: Not ranked
This bracket is a tough one to pick with strong teams for three different regions being represented. The type of baseball being played in the west, midwest and southeast have their own je ne sais quoi which differentiate the three. It’s the same sport, but the flavor of the game is just different. There is typically little overlap in the schedules so schools from these divisions don’t play each other often.
I think William Carey is a great club and they are undeniably hot having won their 13 games in a row. However they struggled against the top teams in the regular season going 1-8 against Faulkner, Loyola and Middle Georgia State. As such, I’m going to defer to Central Methodist or BenU as the winner.
After much consideration I’m picking the Eagles to advance. This choice is made heavily due to the arms of Nick Merkel and Mason Schwellenback. The duo had 2.00 and 2.14 ERAs respectively and both struck out well over a batter per inning. Schwellenback is the NAIA MVP. Not only has he been remarkable on the mound, he also is second on the team in batting at .397 with 11 home runs and 101 total bases. The Eagles also have two other mashers in Sergio Macias and Logan Haring who will make keeping this team off the scoreboard difficult.
Santa Barbara Bracket
1. Georgia Gwinnett, Rank: 4
2. Hope International (CA), Rank: 20
3. Westmont (CA), Rank: Not ranked
4. Saint Katherine (CA), Rank: Not ranked
5. Corban (OR), Rank: Not ranked
The Grizzlies got hosed by not only not getting to host a regional despite having one of the best (if not the best) facilities in the NAIA, but they were also shipped across the county to California to play their region. However, the Grizzlies are the top seed in a bracket in which only one other school is ranked – and not particularly highly ranked at that.
Gwinnett has a 42-9 record this season and played a highly competitive schedule which pitted them in 20 games against nine teams in the NAIA Opening Round: St. Thomas, Cumberlands, Reinhardt, Freed-Hardeman, Tennessee Wesleyan, Northwestern Ohio, Middle Georgia State and Fisher. GGC should have little difficulty earning another invite to Lewiston. If any other of the four teams should advance it would be the biggest surprise of the opening round.
1. Cumberlands (KY), Rank: 2
2. LSU Shreveport (LA), Rank: 10
3. Reinhardt (GA), Rank: Not ranked
4. Point Park (PA), Rank: Not ranked
5. Mayville State (ND), Rank: Not ranked
This bracket will come down to either Cumberlands or LSUS.
Cumberlands are the second ranked team in the nation and aside from their preseason position and the initial update, have been in the top three all season long. Consequently the Patriots seem to be an easy choice to advance. Despite that, there is something about the LSU Shreveport team which makes me think they could usurp their host to win the region.
LSUS was ranked sixth in the preseason and almost fell out of the rankings mid-season – they spent two weeks at the end of March at the 25th position. The team had been besieged with complications due to COVID, weather and injuries. However since April 1st the Pilots have gone 28-3 to reclaim their spot in the top ten.
What makes selecting a winner between these two teams a bit difficult is that neither school has earned a win over a team that is currently ranked in over two months. Cumberlands last win over a team currently ranked in the Perfect Game Top 25 was March 8th against IU Southeast. LSUS’ was March 13th against Oklahoma City. Thus, they’ve both basically earned their rank and reputation with quantity of wins rather than quality.
Looking at each team’s numbers, the edge definitely goes to the Patriots. They play in different conferences, but I’d state that the Mid-South and Red River are comparable.
The Pats have a higher team batting average and slug significantly higher as well. The Pilots advantage is on the basepaths as they’ve stolen 170 bases on the season. The Cumberlands’ pitchers have a 3.31 ERA compared to the Pilots overall of 4.81. Opposing teams are hitting .242 against the Cumberlands and have struck out 494 times in 397 ⅓ innings compared to .253 and 429 K’s in 419 for the Pilots.
I’m choosing the Cumberlands and their home field advantage (they’re 21-3 at Doyle Bhul Stadium this year) to win the region and advance to Lewiston.