Despite every effort to provide the most complete and accurate rankings portrayal each spring, there are always a couple of teams whose on-the-field performance exceeds their preseason predictions. These overlooked and slighted schools compile win after win and prove their unexpected early season success simply isn’t by virtue of a simple good start, but rather they are legitimate title contenders.
Along with the updated rankings this week a school from each division is highlighted in which I completely and admittedly miscalculated their aptitude. Each started the season unranked but have worked their way into the top half of the table.
Whether or not they were overlooked or are overachieving at this point is irrelevant. What can be unequivocally stated is that each should be considered a legitimate contender to be the last team standing once the dust settles.
Rankings are based on games through Sunday, April 7.
NCAA Division II
Catawba has consistently been one of the strongest teams in D-II’s southeast region and can often be found on top of the South Atlantic Conference standings. However, last season was not their strongest on the diamond. As is the norm, they were in the early national rankings but fell out quickly after starting the season an abysmal 1-8. Results improved, but they still were an unimpressive 11-16 by mid March. They finished the season a respectable, but still underwhelming, 30-24.
Considering their lower-than-anticipated win total in 2018, the graduation of top sluggers Chance Bowden and Luke Setzer, who combined to hit 32 home runs, and a pitching staff that had amassed a husky 6.04 ERA, not much noise was expected to come from the Catawba clubhouse this spring. Needless to say, that hasn’t been the case. The Indians have almost exponentially rocketed up the Top 25 rankings and have made their way into the Top 10 as they currently sit at sixth in the nation. Their impressive 33-9 record includes wins over quality opposition such as Mount Olive, UNC Pembroke, Wingate, Lincoln Memorial, USC Aiken and Carson-Newman.
Catawba’s success this season hasn’t been so much due to an instant influx of reinforcements, but rather several players taking their game to a new level this spring. Jackson Raper put up very good numbers last year, batting .356 with 22 doubles and nine home runs, yet this season he has raised his average to .378 and nearly matched last year’s extra-base hit totals with a month left to play. Bryan Ketchie is another noteworthy athlete who has remarkably elevated his production. In 11 games last season he had a robust 6.75 ERA and opposition batted .300 against him. This year he is leading the team in ERA at 3.12, has a perfect 7-0 record with two complete games and only allowed 62 hits and nine walks in 60 2/3 innings.
However the biggest breakout has unquestionably been utility player Hunter Shepherd. Shepherd hit .238 in limited action at the plate last season and had an inflated 5.37 ERA in 57 innings on the mound. This year he is one the most important players at the plate and on the mound. He is currently second on the team in average, batting .348 with nine home runs as the team’s regular first baseman. As a starter on the mound he has a 3.61 ERA in a team-leading 62 1/3 innings.
The Indians have what will be their most critical series of the season on deck as they travel to play Newberry, a team that made their Perfect Game rankings debut last week (currently positioned 24th). The Wolves currently lead the SAC standings.
Despite their breakout success this season, Indians head coach Jim Gantt thinks that early results this season will only be a sign of better things to come. The turnover in team personnel has created a cache of younger players who are gaining in experience and ability as they play together.
“Our guys have done a good job with their preparation and in game play,” Gantt stated. “We only have five seniors. We do have a heavy junior class that has played a lot of college – school and summer – baseball. I believe this experience has contributed to our successes this spring.”
|1||1||North Greenville Crusaders||SC||31-7||4-0|
|2||3||Colorado Mesa Mavericks||CO||27-7||2-2|
|3||5||North Georgia Nighthawks||GA||26-10||3-1|
|7||10||Lubbock Christian Chaparrals||TX||25-9||2-1|
|8||6||Columbus St. Cougars||GA||22-13||2-2|
|10||12||West Florida Argos||FL||27-11||3-1|
|11||11||Central Missouri Mules||MO||22-11||2-2|
|12||13||Texas A&M Kingsville Javelinas||TX||23-13||3-2|
|13||9||UC San Diego Tritons||CA||21-7||2-2|
|14||15||West Texas A&M Buffs||TX||28-8||4-0|
|15||17||Angelo State Rams||TX||29-7||4-0|
|17||20||Southern New Hampshire Penmen||NH||24-7||5-1|
|18||21||Nova Southeastern Sharks||FL||23-13||3-1|
|20||14||St. Cloud State Huskies||MN||22-6||1-3|
|21||16||Mount Olive Trojans||NC||24-11||2-2|
|22||23||Minnesota State Mavericks||MN||22-8||4-1|
|25||25||Metro State Roadrunners||CO||23-9||4-2|
Dropped out: Illinois Springfield (19).
Texas Wesleyan Rams
Last season there were grand aspirations for the Texas Wesleyan Rams, so much that they were placed sixth in Perfect Game’s preseason rankings. Those lofty exceptions appeared apropos as the team spent much of the year in or around the Top 10 as they tallied their second longest winning streak in school history with 17 consecutive victories. Nonetheless, the ides of April were bitterly devastating to their postseason aspirations. A spell in which they lost six of seven games pushed them to the tail-end of the Top 25 and changed them from being a sure bet to receive a postseason berth to a school on the bubble. Despite a pair of blowout wins in the Sooner Athletic Conference Tournament, in which they outscored opposition 31-5, NAIA voters snubbed the Rams and kept them out of the 45-team tournament.
It was a sour end to a disappointing season which also featured Texas Wesleyan making the national news when their (now former) head coach Mike Jeffcoat drafted an email to a potential recruit from Aurora, Colorado which stated he probably wouldn’t be a good fit for the TWU program as Colorado’s “liberal politicians” made it troublesome for players to pass drug tests.
This season appeared to be a rebuilding year for the club. The Rams would be without the reigning Sooner Athletic Conference and NAIA Player of the Year Kiki Menendez, who batted .466 with 26 home runs and 84 RBI, as well as a number of other important supporting sluggers. Additionally they’d be without the services of ace Stephen Yancey who signed with the Los Angeles Angels and was a three-time All-SAC selection, as well as Brad Sugg, their only other regular starter with a sub-6.75 ERA.
Nevertheless the Rams have been one of the NAIA’s top programs this spring, bringing an impressive 33-8 record into the this week’s games, and they are only a half game back of first place in the SAC standings after taking two of three from frontrunner Oklahoma City two weekends ago.
While the team won on the backs of a few dominating players last season, this year the talent seems to be more spread around making them deeper and more dangerous as a whole. Currently the entire team combined doesn’t have as many home runs as Menendez had himself last season despite over a 1,000 at-bat advantage, yet they are winning just the same. Not to say they don’t have any standouts on offense – Brayden Bahnsen is batting .350 with brilliant speed and Caden Williams has been on fire as of late, raising his average to .449.
The overall pitching staff is perhaps the biggest difference from this year to last. They are giving up a full earned run less this season and have six pitchers who’ve started a game with an ERA well under 5.00. Creighton transfer Houston Glad has seven wins, four complete games and 67 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings, and Parker Robinson, one of the few returners from last year, has dominated out of the bullpen. In 21 games he has five wins, five saves and is limiting opposition to a .149 batting average over 42 2/3 innings on the mound.
The Rams host feeble Bacone this week, which should be three easy wins. After that they’ll face the staunchest part of their regular season schedule when they host LSU Shreveport (another surprising team this spring) and perpetual power University of Science and Arts.
For Robert Garza, who was elevated to head coach last July after being the interim head coach following Jeffcoat’s dismissal, this season’s success hasn’t been a surprise. He knew his team had the talent, they just needed to play together.
“When we started class back in August we knew we could have a team that could make a special run.” Garza stated, “Our players accepted the challenge of linking up for ‘One Team, One Goal.’ That moto has been at the center of our program.”
|3||3||Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies||GA||31-8||4-0|
|4||4||Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs||TN||34-7||4-1|
|7||10||Middle Georgia State Knights||GA||30-9||4-1|
|9||6||Oklahoma City Stars||OK||33-9||3-3|
|9||8||St. Thomas Bobcats||FL||31-11||2-1|
|11||7||Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles||OK||27-9||2-2|
|14||14||Texas Wesleyan Rams||TX||33-8||3-1|
|15||18||LSU Shreveport Pilots||LA||34-8||3-0|
|17||15||Central Methodist Eagles||MO||24-8||3-3|
|18||22||Indiana Tech Warriors||IN||22-12||6-2|
|20||NR||The Master’s Mustangs||CA||27-9-1||4-0|
|23||23||Webber International Warriors||FL||27-15||1-2|
|24||24||William Jessup Warriors||CA||21-11||0-0|
|25||NR||William Penn Statesmen||IA||25-6||4-0|
Dropped out: Tabor (20), Taylor (21).
NCAA Division III
Concorida University Chicago Cougars
Last season may have been the best in Cougars’ history. CUC advanced to the Division III World Series for the second consecutive season and reached the 40-win plateau for the first time ever. The staggering 73 wins over the past two seasons were amassed largely on the backs of an outstanding senior class, which continued and elevated the school’s tradition of success. The graduates included Mike Formella, who set season and career records in saves as well as the career record for wins, and Joe Silva, who was the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference Player of the Year as both a sophomore and a senior. Three other departing senior players, Andrew Massey, Mitch Wilson and Alex Meyers, also received All-NACC honors last spring.
With the loss of such top-shelf talent and experience, CUC’s prognosis for another significant postseason run was deemed an unlikely occurrence. It would not only require several players elevating their influence on and off the diamond, but also an immediate impact from incoming players to fill in any gaps. Considering CUC’s 19-1 record and their position as having the nation’s longest winning streak of 19 games (the last nine of which were by a lopsided 10-3 average margin), it’s safe to say that the Cougars’ ability to revamp and reload was grossly underestimated.
Senior shortstop Jose Marcado has been one of D-III’s most dangerous weapons at the plate and in the field. Not only is he batting a lofty .423, but he has successfully stole 24 of 25 bases. His .974 fielding percentage is freakishly high as well. The team also has a pair of lumbering mashers in the middle of the lineup who both are in the top 12 nationally in home runs per game. Brody Mariotti and Connor Brandon have combined for 13 home runs in only 140 at bats (as well as a plush .328 batting average). The two only hit a combined four home runs last season.
Cougars’ head coach Mike Stawski had this to say about this lineup’s increased offensive production.
“We said from the beginning that our offense was going to be good but it was just going to be different,” Stawski explained. “We don’t have Silva, Massey, or Wilson to rely on to string together a bunch of hits so we can pile runs on. We thought we would have to manufacture more runs this year and win some low scoring games.
“This has been the surprise. Our power numbers are way up from a year ago and we are scoring runs in bunches. We have led the country in stolen bases the past three years and we currently have 60-plus through 20 games, that aspect of our game hasn’t changed but it once again has given us a chance to score multiple runs in an inning.”
On the mound Kyle Strepek, a transfer from Illinois Springfield, has been pitching immaculately. He has a tiny 1.36 ERA and has limited opposition to a .179 batting average. Another upperclassman import, Alex Crinigan, has brought the same success he had as a part of Oakton’s NJCAA Division III title-winning team to Chicago. He struck out 107 batters in 98 1/3 innings for the Owls last season. This year he is again striking out over a batter per inning (32 in 29 1/3) and has a 3.38 ERA with a 4-0 record.
It hasn’t been all newcomers solidifying the pitching staff. Cole Marman had an inflated 5.79 ERA in eight appearances last spring. This year he is leading the team in ERA at 0.95 with a sub 1.00 WHIP and 26 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings.
“The coaching staff fully expected to contend with the best in the country,” Stawski declared. “We had a lot of people return from the past two World Series teams and we added some great arms to our staff … The last two years were trying to stay close for the first six innings because we knew were not going to give up runs 7-9 (innings).
“This year’s pitching staff is totally flipped. We have four or five starters that can get us to the sixth and seventh with a sizeable lead.”
|1||1||Christopher Newport Captains||VA||23-3||3-1|
|2||2||Southern Maine Huskies||ME||16-3||4-1|
|4||6||Wooster Fighting Scots||OH||13-4||6-0|
|5||3||Texas Lutheran Bulldogs||TX||21-8||3-1|
|6||10||Concordia University Chicago Cougars||IL||19-1||6-0|
|7||5||Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets||VA||14-6||2-2|
|20||14||Cal Lutheran Kingsmen||CA||18-9||0-3|
|22||NR||The College of New Jersey Lions||NJ||17-3||4-1|
|23||20||Johns Hopkins Blue Jays||MD||18-7||2-2|
Dropped out: Heidelberg (21), Huntingdon (24), La Roche (25).