2021 NAIA Baseball Opening Round Teams – Who Should Get At-Large Invites?

30 schools have secured their berth into the opening round of the NAIA baseball tournament. Those teams are: Bryan Lions, Central Methodist Eagles, Columbia Cougars, Concordia (NE) Bulldogs, Corban Warriors, Cumberlands Patriots, Doane Tigers, Fisher Falcons, Freed-Hardeman Lions, Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies, Indiana Tech Warriors, Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats, IU Southeast Grenadiers, LSU Shreveport Pilots, Mayville State Comets, MidAmerica Nazarene Pioneers, Mt. Vernon Nazarene Cougars, Northwestern Ohio Racers, Oklahoma Wesleyan, Olivet Nazarene Tigers, Ottawa Braves, Our Lady of the Lake
Point Park Pioneers, Science & Arts Drovers, Southeastern Fire
St. Katherine Firebirds, St. Xavier Cougars, Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs
Vanguard Lions and the William Carey Crusaders.

Four more schools have secured a bid as they were named hosts of regionals: Bellevue Bruins, Faulkner Eagles, Loyola Wolfpack and the Westmont Warriors.

That leaves 11 teams left to receive at-large invitations to the field of 45.

If it were up to me (and frankly it should be) here are the eleven additional schools which I would invite to the national postseason along with an explanation why.

Oklahoma City Stars – An easy decision. The Stars were second place finishers behind USAO in the Sooner Athletic Conference regular season and the conference tournament. They spend the entire season the in Top 25 and have a 33-17 record. That’s a gimmie. They’re certainly in.

Benedictine Mesa Red Hawks – The Red Hawks finished second in the California Pacific Conference regular season standings as well as the tournament. They’ve been ranked all year long. Plus their head coach is a Tottenham Hotspur fan and has suffered enough already this season. Another easy decision. They are in.

Hope International Royals – The Royals have the Golden State Athletic Conference Player and Pitcher of the Year and were the regular season co-champion. With a 27-13 overall record and wins over Benedictine Mesa, Lewis-Clark, St. Katherine, Vanguard and Westmont, they’re in. That’s another simple decision.

Keiser Seahawks – Keiser spent the entire season ranked in the Top 25 and finished with a 33-16 record and a third place finish in high caliber The Sun Conference standings. They were 0-4 against Southeastern, but who wouldn’t be? They’re in.

Middle Georgia State Knights – The Knights are 34-19 and earned wins over Georgia Gwinnett, William Carey, Loyola and Faulkner. Another no-brainer. Consider them in.

St. Thomas Bobcats – Admittedly the Bobcats are a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde program and didn’t quite play up to the caliber as anticipated this season. They have some high quality wins over Georgia Gwinnett, Keiser, Bellevue as well as a pair over Southeastern, but also some curious losses (three losses to Ave Maria?!!?). They are better than their record and will be dangerous in the postseason. They are in.

McPherson Bulldogs – The Bulldogs spent much of the season in the Top 25 rankings before tailing off at the end of the season with series losses to Kansas Wesleyan and Bethany. They did sweep four games from Doane and won two over Ottawa, who are two other clubs in the tournament – not the top teams in the tournament by any stretch, but quality opponents nonetheless . A win over Oklahoma Wesleyan in the KCAC tournament is nice as well. I also really like their logo especially considering their old one looked like it was taken from a clip art CD. With a 36-13 record they make the cut, but barely.

Warner Royals – The Sun Conference is going to get four teams in the tournament. It is the best overall quality conference in the NAIA and if you think otherwise you are wrong. They can claim wins over Southeastern, St. Thomas and Keiser, who are all top Top 25 teams. Warner is in.

Antelope Valley Pioneers – Due to California COVID restrictions the Pioneers were limited in their on-the-diamond action this spring. When they did play they put up a handsome 18-5 overall record and won the Cal Pac regular season crown. Of their five losses, four were to teams in the national tournament. Their wins include three victories over Benedictine Mesa and two over St. Katherine. I really would have liked to see them play more games to get a better feel of their overall quality, thus selecting them is a bit of a leap of faith. Nevertheless, it is one I am willing to take. Put them in.

Benedictine Ravens – The Ravens were among a group of teams in the Heart of America standings in a virtual deadlock for third place in the conference. What sets them apart in my book is their advantageous out of conference schedule which included games against IU Southeast, LSU Shreveport, Science & Arts and Lyon. They played highly ranked Central Methodist close in each of their games and won a contest over the Eagles as well as one against MidAmerica Nazarene. They are an exciting club on offense who has placed in the top twenty nationally in the unlikely pair of categories of stolen bases and slugging percentage. What may keep the out of the opening round is that they were technically the fifth place finisher in their conference standings, BUT they played a more more difficult schedule. Peru State didn’t face Central Methodist of MidAmerica Nazarene and Clarke only faced CMU twice (both losses), while the Ravens played that duo a total of eight times – that’s a huge difference. The difference in strength of schedule shows as the Ravens were 17th in the most recent Bo Chip rankings and 25th in Boyd’s Iterative Strength Rating. The Ravens should be in.

Missouri Baptist Spartans – I don’t believe MBU is the best of the remaining teams; however I do think they are the most deserving to be included. The Spartans finished as the runner-up in both the American Midwest Conference regular season standings as well as the in the conference tournament. With a 30-17 record overall and wins over Oklahoma City, Northwestern Ohio and Columbia, the Spartans have demonstrated that they can compete against tournament teams. They also played close contests against Concordia (NE) and Indiana Tech. The AMC is a small conference with only eight teams, but they’ve annually demonstrated to be a competitive group worthy of at least a pair of clubs in the national NAIA tournament. Therefore, Missouri Baptist gets my vote for the final club in the competition.

For me, the most problematic team left out of the tournament will be the Concordia (MI) Cardinals. I’m not sure why the Cardinals didn’t get the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference’s automatic bid as the conference’s regular season champion. The Cardinals finished 15-5 in the conference and Indiana Tech was 16-6. As far as baseball standings go, that put them even; however Concordia has a better winning percentage with a .750 besting .727. As such I would have reckoned Concordia would get the nod, but apparently not. If you look at head-to-head as a tie breaker, the Cardinals were 2-0 against Indiana Tech so that wasn’t used as a tie breaker either. Overall Concordia is 37-17 compared to Tech being 31-25; therefore that wasn’t the deciding factor either. It seems that Tech’s extra win is what gave them the title. Concordia’s had a double-header against Lawrence Tech mid April cancelled. Lawrence Tech played a sparse schedule and went 11-14 overall, therefore it is probable the Cardinals would have earned the extra wins to put them over Indiana Tech or at least give them the same record. That cancellation appears to have cost them the WHAC crown and will likely keep the out of the tournament. Concordia has games canceled with Huntington, Indiana Wesleyan and Mt Vernon Nazarene that would have improved their overall stock. The silver lining is that I’m assuming Concordia will be able to play in the NCCAA World Series as a consolation. The Cardinals won that tournament in 2019.

The remaining clubs up for consideration are: Reinhardt Eagles, Asbury Eagles, Georgetown Tigers and Huntington Foresters. If one of the above teams don’t receive an at-large invite, I’d be shocked if one of those four didn’t get the berth. Here are some quick thoughts on the final quartet of schools up for consideration.

Reinhardt Eagles – The Eagles finished flat going 4-9 to end the year. That could and should hurt their chances of getting a bid. You’ve got to finish strong – that’s one of the unwritten rules of getting into the postseason. They were second in the Appalachian Athletic Conference standings (a half game above Bryan) and still get some NAIA pollster love so there is a chance they could get their name called, but for me they don’t make the cut.

Asbury Eagles – Asbury finished second in the River States Conference just above Point Park. They have a great 38-12 record, but putting them in would give the RSA three teams which seems a bit generous. Don’t get me wrong, they are a deserving club, but I’m not sure they are more deserving than any of the other schools listed here. They went 2-3 against fellow bubble team Georgetown so that is a problematic. It would be difficult to put them in over the Tigers.

Georgetown Tigers – The Tigers have a solid 35-18 overall record and finished third in the always competitive Mid-South Conference. Their wins include a victories over Cumberlands, Indiana Southeast and Freed-Hardeman. It is unfortunate that many of their early games were canceled as they had games scheduled against Faulkner, Tennessee Wesleyan, Georgia Gwinnett, Reinhardt and Huntington. Had they played those games it most definitely would be easier to gage their worthiness of an at-large bid. The Tigers were bested in the 14th inning by Freed-Hardeman late in the MSC tournament. Had they won that contest they would have earned an automatic berth.

Huntington Foresters – Of all the teams in this group, the Foresters are the most I see most likely to not make it in. They are a definite long shot as I just don’t see three teams getting in from the Crossroads League. The Foresters did sweep three games from Indiana Southeast, but that was way back in February. Aside from those wins, HU’s only wins over teams in the tournament are a pair of victories over Mount Vernon Nazarene.

Super duper mega longshots to make the tournament are: Clarke Pride, Kansas Wesleyan Coyotes, Mobile Rams, South Carolina-Beaufort Sandsharks, Southwestern Christian Eagles, Tabor Bluejays, Taylor Trojans, Texas Wesleyan Rams, Webber International Warriors, William Jessup and William Penn. I would be shocked if one of these schools were included in the mix. They are good teams who put together quality seasons, but not quite good enough to make the tournament. If one of these schools gets in I’d bet someone in the program has compromising photos of someone on the selection committee.

Southwestern Christian wouldn’t be too much of a shock I guess. They do have wins over Oklahoma Wesleyan and Oklahoma City. What keeps them out IMHO is that they have too many fluff wins over the ilk of non NAIA schools Randall, Arlington Baptist, Dallas Christian and Ecclesia College. They have 16 wins against that group to pad their victory total.