Another season is on the books for D-II, NAIA and D-III baseball.
With each spring surprise stories and successes are always abound, but this year the astounding occurrences seemed to be even more fruitful. None of the eventual champions were ranked in the preseason top 20 of their respective divisions, yet each overcame less-than-optimistic prophecies to earn their school’s first-ever national baseball titles.
A synopsis of each of the team’s route to success can be read below along with each division’s final Top 25 rankings. Also included are the Player and Pitcher of the Year for the three small school divisions as well as the naming of a Most Valuable Player for each.
NCAA Division II
On May 5th of this season I would have put down big bucks that Augustana wouldn’t have come anywhere close to bringing home a national championship trophy. I’m sure glad I didn’t because I’d be out a tank load of money.
Irrefutably the Vikings had D-II’s top winning percentage at the time with a 40-8 mark, but that record was bloated with wins over less-than-formidable opposition such as Adams State (who finished the season 3-47), Bemidji State (8-36), UMary (5-38) as well as sub-.500 NAIA schools Briar Cliff and Morningside. In their only games against teams of significant renown, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State, Augie went 2-4.
Another flag was thrown when Augustana split their final series with Wayne State which allowed Minot State to win the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular season title. Despite their favorably lopsided winning percentage, there wasn’t reason outside of Sioux Falls to believe they’d amount to much more than a couple of wins in the NSIC and Central Regional tournaments… but then the postseason began.
First came the NSIC Championship. The Vikings avenged their regular season-ending losses to the WSC Wildcats, then earned a second win over SCSU to take the season series with the Huskies. Following those victories Augustana dumped Concordia-St. Paul twice to earn their first NSIC title and NCAA tournament berth since 2014.
Nevertheless, it was apparent that the official selection committee didn’t have the highest hopes for the Vikings either. Augustana, despite their record and their newly minted NSIC tournament title, only received the fifth seed in a watered-down central region, which only had one ranked team among the competitors. Notwithstanding, the Vikings continued their winnings ways.
In their prior two regional appearances Augustana had gone 1-4, but needless to say, this wasn’t prior years. After dispatching Pittsburg State, Emporia and Central Missouri, Augustana played host Southern Arkansas. They lost their first game with the Muleriders, but won when it counted most, doubling up SAU 6-3 to earn Augie’s first trip to the D-II Baseball Championships.
Once again, Augustana’s winning ways were again questioned, with the Vikings receiving the fifth seed of the eight team’s remaining.
Tyler Mitzel shut down Southern New Hampshire in the opener, limiting the Penmen to four hits in a complete game victory, Mitzel’s 11th of the year. With the win Augie moved on to face top-ranked Florida Southern.
It was this game that demonstrated that the Vikings were a team of destiny. In the first inning Augustana got two men on with two outs, the next walked to load the bases. The Mocs’ starting pitcher incomprehensibility was called for not one, but two balks which gifted the Vikings a pair of runs. The next inning Augustana added another run the old fashioned way, via a Ryan Menssen home run, but that wasn’t the end of the scoring.
Florida Southern gifted the NSIC upstarts another pair of runs when a dropped fly ball – which would have ended the inning – upped Augustana’s lead to 5-0. FSC clawed their way back to within one, but again were their own worst enemy. A hit batter and another error allowed Augustana to increase their lead to 6-4. The Vikings would hold the lead and hang on to win the emotional rollercoaster of a game, 6-5.
Game 3 in Cary was another matchup with SNHU and in the end the results mirrored the first. Tyler Mitzel earned another win as the Vikings eliminated the Penmen by a final score of 8-2. The victory moved Augie to 3-0 in the championship series and clinched them a berth in the finals. As they were undefeated, a team would have to defeat Augustana twice to take the title from them. That opponent would be the Columbus State Cougars.
The unquestioned story of the championship game was that of senior pitcher Jacob Blank. Blank, the 2017 NCBWA National Pitcher of the Year, hadn’t suffered a loss in two seasons. He kept CSU off balance for nine innings, allowing only two runs on four hits. After the Vikings took a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth, Blank kept the Cougars scoreless. In the ninth inning, with the heart of the order up, Blank fanned all three batters to earn Augustana the title. With the win there left no doubt that Augustana was not only legit, but the national champion.
Perfect Game/Rawlings D-II Player of the Year
Zack Shannon, Delta State Statesmen
The DSU senior first baseman established school records with his NCAA leading 31 home runs and 93 RBI. Shannon also led all of collegiate baseball in slugging percentage (.955) and total bases (193). He started all 53 games, batting .406 with 72 runs scored, 82 hits, 14 doubles two triples and he walked 35 times.
Perfect Game/Rawlings D-II Pitcher of the Year
J.T. Hintzen, Florida Southern Mocs
Hintzen appeared in 32 games for the Mocs this season, throwing a combined 96 2/3 innings. In those appearances he earned a 14-0 record with a pair of saves and a 1.96 ERA. He only allowed 63 hits (.180 B/AVG) with only 13 walks, yet struck out 114 batters. In his two starting appearances, against Tampa and Texas A&M Kingsville, Hintzen threw 17 innings while only allowing six hits as FSC went deep into the postseason.
Perfect Game/Rawlings D-II Most Valuable Player
Logan Browning, Florida Southern Mocs
The Mocs spent much of the season at the top of rankings. This was in large part due to J.T. Hitzen as mentioned above, but more importantly Logan Browning. Browning led the team in batting, finishing the season at .440 with 14 doubles, three triples and four home runs. Despite this he may have been more valuable on the mound. He made 18 starts and one relief appearance (in which he earned a save) compiling a 3.07 ERA with an 11-2 record. In an elimination game at the D-II Baseball Championship he struck out 11 Columbus State batters over six innings in a 3-2 win to keep the Mocs’ title chances alive.
|2||NR||Columbus St. Cougars||GA||48-14|
|3||12||Florida Southern Moccasins||FL||45-10|
|5||23||Belmont Abbey Crusaders||NC||40-14|
|6||22||North Greenville Crusaders||SC||46-10|
|7||2||Delta State Statesmen||MS||42-11|
|8||14||Georgia College Bobcats||GA||44-12|
|9||NR||Illinois Springfield Prairie Stars||IL||47-9|
|10||NR||Southern New Hampshire Penmen||NH||41-16|
|11||5||Colorado Mesa Mavericks||CO||43-16|
|12||18||Nova Southeastern Sharks||FL||35-16|
|13||19||UC San Diego Tritons||CA||43-16|
|14||10||UNC Pembroke Braves||NC||39-15|
|15||11||St. Thomas Aquinas Spartans||NY||39-15|
|16||NR||Texas A&M Kingsville Javelinas||TX||42-16|
|18||16||Azusa Pacific Cougars||CA||41-11|
|19||NR||West Texas A&M Buffs||TX||40-14|
|20||NR||St. Leo Lions||FL||38-11|
|21||NR||Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles||IN||36-22|
|22||1||West Chester Golden Rams||PA||31-17|
|23||17||New Haven Chargers||CT||39-12|
|24||NR||USC Aiken Pacers||SC||35-19|
|25||NR||Southern Arkansas Muleriders||AR||41-19|
Despite Southeastern winning 50 games and coming within a single out of advancing to the NAIA World Series last season, the Fire looked like longshots to make another deep and successful run. Almost the entire roster was lost following the final out in 2017. Only one two batsmen were back (who totaled 195 ABs) and 63 2/3 of 499 1/3 innings thrown were returning to Lakeland. Even if the incoming transfers and recruits were top-of-the-line future All-Americans, it would still necessitate them gelling and performing as a team, with each player knowing and accepting their roles and responsibilities for them to be a title contender.
In the history of baseball, no player has been awarded a national title; it takes a team with chemistry and leadership to go the distance. Rarely does that occur over a period of a few months. Nevertheless, it occurred for SEU right from the get-go.
“The players actually meshed in the fall,” head coach Adrian Dinkel stated in the season aftermath. “With so many new faces they all connected quick because they all had one thing in common and that was new.”
The Fire won their first 20 contests which included a respectable sweep over TSC rival Webber International. However those victories included wins over the ilk of Brewton-Parker and Florida National, which weren’t exactly wins to write home about. With that the verdict on the quick turnaround was still a bit ambiguous, especially after SEU lost a home series to Judson to start March. Yet once again, the wins continued. SEU won another 20 games in a row and raised their record to an inconceivable 44-2. The Fire would end the regular season with an NAIA leading 50-5 (.909 wining percentage) record.
During the Sun Conference Tournament, is appeared that perhaps the Fire’s flame had lost a flicker as they went 1-2, which included a loss to Florida Memorial, a team SEU hadn’t lost to in their previous 18 contests dating back to the 2012 season. However those losses may have been just what the team needed headed into the extended postseason.
“I believe it clicked after our conference tournament,” Dinkel recalled. “We had a meeting about selfless versus selfish and that is when everyone decided it was time to give up all selfish goals.”
From then on, Southeastern wouldn’t lose another game from the rest of the season.
SEU was the top seed in the Kingsport, Tennessee bracket of the NAIA National Tournament Opening Round. After holding off a rapidly improving Clarke team, the Fire twice defeated host Tennessee Wesleyan to earn their first trip to the NAIA World Series.
In Lewiston SEU put up five W’s against the crème de la crème of the NAIA. The Fire dispatched the winningest team historically in the nation, Oklahoma City, the team with the most NAIA national titles, Lewis-Clark State College, and the team that had been the top-ranked club the duration of the 2018 season, Faulkner. Capturing the title would also require handing upstart Freed-Hardeman a pair of defeats.
In the championship game FHU had jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, but SEU pitchers were unabashedly stingy allowing bases after that. When the offense put up a five-spot in the top of the fourth, thanks to both timely hitting and some help from Lion’s miscues, it proved to be all the runs the Fire would need. The Fire finished the game doubling up FHU by a score of 6-3 to earn Southeastern the NAIA baseball title.
Perfect Game/Rawlings NAIA Player of the Year
Kiki Menendez, Texas Wesleyan Rams
Menendez had the single most prolific season in Texas Wesleyan history as he led the NAIA with a Rams’ record 26 home runs, a .995 slugging percentage and 190 total bases. He was second in the nation in RBI with 84 and finished third in batting average with a .466 mark. He also had a school record 21-game hitting streak and has hit safely in 46 of 51 games played.
Perfect Game/Rawlings NAIA Pitcher of the Year
Jonathan Bermudez, Southeastern Fire
The junior lefty from Puerto Rico put together a historic season for the national champion Fire, going 15-2 with a 1.95 ERA and 153 strikeouts. The marks in wins and strikeouts were single season SEU records and his victory mark topped the nation. In 110 2/3 innings he only allowed 70 hits (resulting in a third in the nation .178 B/AVG) while recording 153 strikeouts.
Perfect Game/Rawlings NAIA Most Valuable Player
Lane Milligan, Oklahoma City Stars
Milligan batted a fourth-in-the-nation .462 while leading OCU to its 16th NAIA World Series appearance. During the season he hit 10 doubles, 15 triples (a new NAIA record) along with 15 home runs. In addition to leading the division in triples he was also first in hits with 103 and RBI with 90. He complied those numbers as the Stars’ starting catcher and handled a staff that had a 3.43 team ERA.
|3*||11||Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies||GA||50-12|
|5||4||St. Thomas Bobcats||FL||56-9|
|6||2||Oklahoma City Stars||OK||51-10|
|8||8||Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles||OK||53-8|
|9||17||Lewis-Clark State Warriors||ID||40-13|
|10||24||Antelope Valley Pioneers||CA||46-14-1|
|11||NR||William Jessup Warriors||CA||41-17|
|13||23||Point Park Pioneers||PA||47-9|
|16||5||Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs||TN||39-21|
|18||20||Indiana Southeast Grenadiers||IN||41-14|
|19||16||Northwestern Ohio Racers||OH||43-20|
|20||22||Indiana Tech Warriors||IN||44-21|
|21||NR||Middle Georgia State Knights||GA||45-18|
|22||10||LSU Shreveport Pilots||LA||40-22|
|24||21||Webber International Warriors||FL||37-24|
|25||7||William Carey Crusaders||MS||36-25|
NCAA Division III
The Patriots spent the bulk of 2017 firmly entrenched in the D-III top 10. During the season they steamrolled through their schedule as they set a school record for wins, however a pair of quick setbacks in regional play put an abrupt stop to their national title aspirations. While their top two hitters from last season had graduated the rest of everyday lineup was intact. That, combined with an experienced pitching staff, had the team pegged 21st in the initial preseason Perfect Game rankings, a ranking which seemed generous and overly optimistic only couple of weeks into the season.
Early on it looked like UT Tyler had lost much of their mojo from the season before. They started the season an unchampionesque 10-8 and were expunged from the national rankings. The rest of the regular season had its up and downs. There were occasions where the Patriots would rattle off a series of impressive wins, but they were never quite convincing in their ability. Starting with a series against Centenary in late March, UT Tyler never managed to win more than three games in a row and only thrice were able to conjure up double-digit runs.
In the American Southwest Conference Championship the Patriots went 3-2. After they were eliminated the team had to scoreboard watch and hope that some results shook out in their favor. Coming into the postseason the Patriots were only sixth in the regional rankings and were by no means assured of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, they heard their name called and were sent to Sauget, Illinois as the third seed in the Central Region.
In regional play UT Tyler bested Aurora in their opener, but were saddled with a loss to top-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater in their second contest. Advancing beyond the region would require them to emerge out of the loser’s bracket where three times they’d need to play twice in the same day. It turned out to be an outcome they did with the perfect combination of skill and luck.
UT Tyler’s pitching dominated opposition the next three games. They defeated Franklin College and Webster, avenged and eliminated UW-Whitewater and shutout Rhodes to force a winner-take-all finale. In the four games leading up to the final showdown, Patriot pitchers only allowed a single earned run in 36 innings on the mound. The regional finale was one of the most remarkable and improbable wins in recent college baseball history.
The Patriots were down 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. A single and a walk put two men on and a double scored one. Another pair of consecutive walks plated another run to put UT Tyler within one with the bases loaded. The next batter knocked the ball to third where the ball was misplayed and the score was tied. The runner from second rounded third and was given the stop sign by the coach, but he continued to barrel towards home. The shortstop who had fielded the booted ball made the throw home in an attempt to keep the score tied, but it too got away. The Patriots scored four runs on just two hits and advanced to the NCAA D-III Baseball Championship for the first time in program history.
In Appleton, balls continued to bounce UT Tyler’s way. After dispatching Oswego State and Misericordia to start the series, the Patriots were bested by Randolph-Macon. Yet once again, the club rebounded to avenge and eliminate a top 10 team and sent the Yellow Jackets home. The win left only former conference opponent and regional rival Texas Lutheran between them and their first baseball title.
The Patriots completed their at-one-time improbable title with two impressive wins: an 8-1 win in the first game and then closed it out with a 9-6 victory.
“These guys have worked so hard and what they’ve done these past two weeks is something I’ll be thankful for the rest of my life,” UT Tyler head coach Brent Porche stated after the wins. “This group of men fought for their brothers and we’re national champs. They are the definition of toughness and grit. They weren’t going to be denied. It’s been so fun to watch and I’m so proud.”
Perfect Game/Rawlings D-III Player of the Year
Daytona Bryden, UW-Whitewater
UW-W was the top team in the nation for much of the season, thanks in large part to the batting of outfielder Daytona Bryden. Bryden finished the season with a third-in-the-nation .488 batting average which included 17 doubles, nine triples and nine home runs. He also successfully swiped 29 of 31 bases and played errorless outfield.
Perfect Game/Rawlings D-III Pitcher of the Year
Nathan Malinovsky, Texas Lutheran Bulldogs
Malinovsky, the 2016 and 2018 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year, earned a 12-2 record with a pair of saves while compiling a 1.34 ERA as he helped the Bulldogs reach the D-III baseball finals. He threw a complete game in six of 14 games started, amassing 110 2/3 innings on the season. While on the mound he only allowed 75 hits (.188 B/AVG) while striking out 108. His outings included wins over Trinity, Centenary, Texas-Dallas and Wooster.
Perfect Game/Rawlings D-III Most Valuable Player
Michael Wielansky, Wooster Fighting Scots
Wielansky kept Wooster in title contention the entire season earning All-American honors for the second season with his superb play at the plate and at shortstop. His .401 batting average topped the team and was sixth in the North Coast Athletic Conference, and his 76 runs scored were first nationally. He also added 20 doubles, seven triples and six home runs while only striking out 17 times against 40 walks to complete the season with a .508 OBP. Perhaps most impressively he only was charged with eight errors in 233 total chances for a .966 fielding percentage.
|1||21||Tyler Texas Patriots||TX||40-18|
|2||NR||Texas Lutheran Bulldogs||TX||42-12|
|3||18||Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets||VA||38-9-1|
|4||5||Concordia University Chicago Cougars||IL||40-15|
|5||3||Wooster Fighting Scots||OH||40-10|
|8||2||Cortland State Red Dragons||NY||35-12|
|10||24||Christopher Newport Captains||VA||35-12|
|11||13||Southern Maine Huskies||ME||30-15|
|12||7||La Roche Redhawks||PA||35-10-1|
|13||NR||Oswego State Lakers||NY||30-14|
|20||12||North Central Cardinals||IL||29-14|
|21||NR||Baldwin Wallace Yellow Jackets||OH||33-14|
|23||NR||The College of New Jersey Lions||NJ||29-11|