The inaugural 2023 Perfect Game NAIA Top 25 Rankings include a special bonus! Not only do they contain a rundown of the top teams for the new season, they also include a summary of their results so far. Typically the initial ranking report is published prior to the first pitch of the season, but this year they are admittedly a little late. Thus, to help get things back on track, this week’s rankings are a bit of a 2 for 1. They contain an outlook of how we thought/expected the teams were going to perform, as well as a look at how they have fared so far with some minor adjustments for early results.
At this point no teams have been dispelled from the rankings. With early events such as the popular Cajun Collision, East/West Challenge and Southeast Rumble coming to a close, teams will no longer have an immediate lifetime to make-up for a loss. So far this season pretty much every time a school suffered a devastating defeat they could quickly negate it with a remarkable win to offset it.
Anyhow, the release of the initial rankings have been late enough already. Enough of this preliminary talk and get to some predictions on how the 2023 NAIA season will unfold!
Top 25 Team Breakdowns
1. SOUTHEASTERN FIRE (59-4)
In Adrian Dinkel’s first season as head coach at Southeastern in 2017 the team broke the school season record with 50 wins. In just his second season at the helm they increased their win total to a towering 59 and won the first NAIA national title in school history. It’s been pretty much more of the same since. The only time the Fire failed to reach the fifty-win plateau was in the COVID shortened 2020 season when their record was 26-1. The Fire won their second national title last season as they finished with a 59-4 record which included going 13-1 in the postseason where they scored no less than eight runs in every game. In just five seasons under Dinkel SEU’s has won an astonishing 298 games with only 44 losses.
Dinkel’s team has had several sensational players leave over the years. Fire alumni include multiple conference players of the year and a seemingly exponential number of NAIA All-Americans. The roster has become some sort of baseball version of the Lernean Hydra – whenever one All-American player leaves, two more arrive to take their palace. Yet even if new players weren’t being recruited to Lakeland to fill spots, this year’s team still likely would be the favorite to take home the title once again based on returning players alone.
Gary Lora batted .388 last season with 20 home runs. He had a team leading 94 hits and scored 74 times. He will be rejoined on the roster with Isaac Nunez who hit .385 with a tops on the team 28 stolen bases. Stephen Cullen, who finished with a .316 average and .608 slugging percentage is also back in action. Newcomers to the everyday lineup include Chase Bryant and Adonys Herrera who were All Americans at Western Oklahoma, and Pablo Lanzarote who was Purdue’s starting catcher last season.
Robb Adams, who was the 2022 NAIA Pitcher of the Year is back for another title. Last season he struck out 133 batters in 113 ⅓ innings with only 26 walks and only allowed 21 extra-base hits. The rest of the rotation is scheduled to be transfers. Darien Smith struck out 103 batters in 70 innings at Eastern Florida State College in 2021. JJ Sanchez struck out 44 batters in 28 innings at Texas A&M International in 2020 and pitched in the MLB Draft League last summer and Danny Batcher appeared in 20 games last season, which included three starts at Florida Gulf Coast. The closer role belongs to Reee Wissinger who was phenomenal at Southeastern Community College. In 2021 his ERA was 0.43 as he struck out 38 batters in 21 innings.
— So far this season: The Fire (12-0) are undefeated with half their wins coming against ranked teams including Lewis-Clark State, Vanguard, Central Methodist and Oklahoma Wesleyan. Their winning ways are likely to continue as they face little stiff competition until the middle of March when they host Webber International. They do have a game against Bellevue before facing WIU, but it is the last game of the Bruins’ lengthy Florida tour.
2. LSU SHREVEPORT PILOTS (50-8)
The Pilots tore through the Red River Athletic Conference regular season like John Wick in a Russian nightclub with a 31-2 record (although oddly getting bounced in two games in the RRAC tournament) and hosted NAIA opening round action. Despite losing their first game, they advanced to the NAIA World Series for the fifth time in program history and second year in a row. In Lewiston the Pilots won twice but were eliminated in losses to the two teams that advanced to the finals. Alas, the Pilots’ 53 wins last season were the second most in program history. With five everyday players, their top starting pitcher and an influx of highly regarded transfers, LSU Shreveport is a strong candidate to make the trip to Idaho once again.
Ryan Major and Carlos Pineyro supply excellent defense in the outfield while also being impact players at the plate. Major led the team with a .431 average which included 13 doubles and six triples. Pineyro hit .351 and topped the team with 37 stolen bases. Zyon Avery was a First Team All-Conference selection who hit .343 and played near flawless first base. The versatile Trevor Burkhart, who can seemingly play nearly anywhere on the diamond, batted .321 last season and will be the team’s leadoff hitter. Vantrel Reed, a transfer from Hinds Community College where he hit .402, is anticipated to be an impact player from day one.
Ace pitcher Bobby Vath won’t have Kevin Miranda, who struck out 156 batters last season, back with him in the rotation, but the overall rotation should be just as good, if not better than last spring. Vath retains his number one spot in the rotation after earning a 2.40 ERA while limiting opposition to a .210 batting average with 126 strikeouts in 97 ⅔ innings. Draven Zeigler, who pitched at North Arkansas JC, is poised to be an under-the-radar superstar. Cameron Prayer made 36 appearances for the University of Houston over the past two seasons with four starts, and should be a regular member of the rotation as well. Sayer Diederich fanned 26 batters in 15 ⅓ innings at the College of Southern Nevada and should get a number of innings as well. Gage Bigm, who also played at Hinds CC, should prevent any late innings rallies by opposition.
— So far this season: LSUS (9-3) dropped their first two games of the season, but responded with quality wins over Benedictine Mesa, Arizona Christian, Vanguard, Central Methodist and McPherson. The Pilots won two of three over LSU-Alexandria last week.
3. GEORGIA GWINNETT GRIZZLIES (46-16)
Jeremy Sheetinger took over the formidable Grizzlies’ program in 2020 and continued the club’s unprecedented instant success. The team was cruising to a lopsided 23-2 when COVID abruptly canceled the season. Nonetheless, in 2021 GGC continued where they had left off, advanced to Lewiston and won the program’s inaugural national championship. Gwinnett returned to the NAIA World Series last season to make their fifth trip in nine opportunities. Sheetinger believes this year’s edition of the team is the most athletic and balanced offense they’ve had and their pitching depth and caliber and depth of pitching is special as well. Look for Gwinnett to once again make the long cross country trip from the land of peanuts to the land of potatoes for another shot at greatness.
Second baseman Braxton Meguiar led the team with a .391 batting average and earned conference honors for both his offense and defense. HIs 20 doubles led the team and he also added 23 stolen bases. Outfielder Blaze O’Saben’s .378 average was second on the team, as he also added 21 stolen bases of his own. Another top bat back belongs to Chase Evans. He had a .318 career average headed into the season and has good power as well. Impact additions to the everyday lineup include Ajay Sczepkowski and Caden Smith. Sczepkowski excelled at Charleston Southern where he batted .310 and led the team with nine home runs. Smith earned honors for his offense at Georgia Highlands College where he batted .370 with 17 home runs.
Tyler Clayton had a 2.24 ERA last season and struck out 73 batters in 72 ⅓ innings while only allowing 60 hits. He is the top starter back from last season who’ll likely be joined by three new additions to complete the rotation. Ben Harris previously pitched at Brewton-Parker where he struck out 200 batters in 134 innings. Kyle Petri excelled at the University of Chicago as a freshman in 2019 as he had a 1.12 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 40 innings. His results earned him roster spots at Virginia and San Diego State, but didn’t see game action for the Cavaliers and had limited opportunities with the Aztecs. He should thrive at GGC. As should Cameron Repetti who was drafted out of high school by the San Francisco Giants and spent two seasons at Cal State Fullerton where he appeared in 19 games with solid stats. Jonathan Haab, who had a 0.71 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 12 ⅔ innings, should be the team’s closer once again.
— So far this season: Gwinnett (8-2) took two of three from Indiana Wesleyan to start the season, swept a young, but talented Taylor team and won three of four against Thomas and West Virginia Tech last weekend.
4. UNIVERSITY OF THE CUMBERLANDS PATRIOTS (46-16)
The Patriots were in the top ten of pretty much every offensive category last season, and were first in several categories including batting average, hits, run, extra base hits and total bases. The offensive juggernaut finished first in both the Mid-South regular season and conference tournament, and advanced deep into the NAIA postseason, but fell a game shy of advancing to the World Series for the first time in school history. With several key returners and multiple high-caliber DI and JC transfers on the roster, Cumberlands will once again be a favorite to reach Lewiston – and potentially earn Head Coach’s Brad Shelton’s 1,000 career win at the World Series.
Charlie Muniz was named a First Team All American as a freshman as he batted a team high .418 batting with a conference leading 19 home runs. Another newcomer, Clay Shelton split catching duties with Muniz and batted .394 in limited action after transferring from Eastern Kentucky. Shortstop Raphy Almanzar started all 62 games and batted .354 with 25 extra base hits. Sujel Arias and Luis Alvarez are additional key returners. Arias batted .374 and slugged .626 and Alvarez hit .293 as a freshman. Max Harper, a slugger who played previously at BYU, and Evan St. Claire, who spent three seasons at Siena where he batted .360 in 2021, are key additions to the lineup.
The Patriots’ experienced and deep pitching staff is one of the best in Head Coach’s Brad Shelton’s long and successful career. Each of the three pitchers penciled in to be in the rotation earned significant innings last season. Hunter Rigsby threw 61 innings and led the team with 87 strikeouts. He earned a svelte 2.51 ERA and held opposition to a .204 batting average. Garrett DeClue, a graduate student, made 13 appearances last season, seven of which were starts. He struck out 51 batters in 45 innings and had a 4.00 ERA. Jake Kmiecik impressed as a freshman with a 2.89 ERA in 14 appearances. Merced College transfer Cesar Avila and Tyler Shafer from Modesto JC are transfers who add depth to the staff.
— So far this season: The Patriots (6-1) have almost had more games canceled so far this season than games played. Cumberlands edged IU Southeast and earned a pair of midweek lopsided wins to start the season. Last week the Patriots dropped the opening game of their four-game series with Lawrence Tech, but controlled the remaining three.
5 TENNESSEE WESLEYAN BULLDOGS (56-8)
The Bulldogs advanced to Lewiston for the sixth time in 2022 and finished their schedule with a 56-8 record which tied the school record for most wins in a season. The team earned both Appalachian Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles – the 20th consecutive season they have won at least one of the distinctions. Additionally, it was the third full season in a row in which TWC eclipsed the impressive 50 win plateau. With a hoard of returners on offense, and an enviable influx of pitching talent, a fourth appears to be on the horizon.
The Bulldogs will be without two of their top hitters from last spring, but almost the entire remainder of the everyday roster remains. Braxton Turner is an invaluable member of the team both at and behind the plate. In addition to handling the pitching staff as the club’s catcher, he batted .390 with eigh home runs. Parker Stinnett is the most exciting batter back in the lineup. He hit .356 in his first season after transferring from UNC Charlotte. He also had 29 extra base hits and 22 stolen bases. Carson Ford’s output dipped from 2021 when he batted .342 with 22 home runs, and should return to that level of play this spring. Cayle Webster, Evan Magill and Dan Sayre are another trio of returning everyday players who hit no less than .322 on the season with double-digit home run capability. Transfer Chaz Salter should also contribute on offense.
The Wesleyan pitching staff has been rebuilt with a rotation of transfers likely to start most games. Jake Sergent struck out 78 batters in 77 ⅓ innings while issuing only 10 walks at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California. Blake Peyton was highly regarded coming out of high school and pitched at the University of Arizona for two seasons. Gage Vailes also started out playing at the DI level and made 13 appearances totaling 30 innings at Kennesaw State in which he struck out 35 batters. Thomas Wilhite pitched in the MLB Summer Draft League last summer after showing promise at Tyler JC. Kyle Bloor, who appeared in a dual role last season with 23 appearances and eight starts, may be the team’s regular closer.
— So far this season: TWC (9-0) is undefeated, but games have been close with St. Xavier, Northwestern Ohio and Truett McConnell. The Bulldogs have upcoming contests with Georgia Gwinnett and Louisiana State Shreveport in the next couple of weeks.
6. HOPE INTERNATIONAL ROYALS (43-15)
In addition to aiming to win their third Golden State Athletic Conference championship in a row, the HIU Royals will also have their eyes on returning to Lewiston for the first time since 2017. Last year was Larry Mahoney’s first full season as head coach after receiving the reins from Erich Pfohl, and the Royals responded by shattering the school record with 43 wins (ten more than their previous total), and were named the top seed in their NAIA Opening Round bracket for the postseason. They were however, forced to play their games across the county in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where they were eliminated by hosts Georgia Gwinnett in the regional finals. Key returning components at the plate and on the mound make HIU a favorite for another opportunity to play in Lewiston.
In addition to being solid defensively, Robert Mattei was one of the key contributors on offense. Over three seasons with the Royals he has a .333 batting average with sneaky power and speed. Catcher Omar Veloz previously played across the street at Cal State Fullerton. He batted .291 for the Titans in 2021 and .368 last season as a Royal. He also had a team leading nine home runs. David Rivera and Chase Hanson return at the important defensive positions of shortstop and catcher. Rivera, who is extremely keen with the glove, batted .369 which is the highest among returning players. Hanson hit .355 with seven home runs and a team leading 15 stolen bases. Max Jung-Goldberg spent four seasons playing at the University of San Diego where he appeared in nearly 100 games. He is a graduate student at HIU and enjoying another season on the diamond where he should contribute immensely in the middle of the batting order. JJ Cruz, another CSF transfer, could wield an impact bat as well.
Hector Garcia, who struck out 111 batters in only 74 innings while issuing a paltry 41 hits returns as the staff ace. In one game last season he struck out 19 batters in only seven innings. Connor Martin and Ryan Lachemann also accumulate massive strikeout totals on the mound. Martin fanned 45 in only 26 ⅔ and Lachemann K’d 40 in 34 innings. Rounding out the rotation is another returner, Seth Hoetker who made 12 solid starts last spring with 4.58 ERA. Transfer Matt Pinal from Long Beach City will give the team some additional depth.
— So far this season: HIU (11-2) lost to La Sierra University to start the season, but won their next nine which included four over Embry-Riddle and an avenging win over LSU. Last weekend the Royals won three of four over Westmont in a battle of top GSAC teams.
7. BELLEVUE BRUINS (49-13)
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s Bellevue was one of the beasts of the NAIA with 12 appearances at the World Series in 14 seasons and one national title. The Bruins appear to be in the midst of another successful streak as they’ve advanced to Lewiston three of the last six occasions while regularly capturing both the North Star Athletic Association regular season and tournament titles. The Bruins will once again have one of the most complete teams in the nation with a high octane offense, tenacious defense and a strong pitching staff.
Alec Ackerman, who transferred from San Jose State, played in all 62 games last season as the Bruins’ shortstop. He hit .378 with a team leading 19 home runs. Kanta Hobayashi, also started his college career playing DI baseball in California, but transferred to Bellevue to play more regular innings. He topped the team in batting a .439 with a 1.152 OPS and stole 22 bases as the team’s gold glove winning center fielder Conner Barnett and Mathieu Sirois are another pair of important players returning. Barnett, who played high school locally, led the country with 11 outfield assists and only made one error. He batted .388 with 27 extra base hits. Sirois batted .292 as a freshman with 11 home runs. Bismarck State College transfer Logan Grant may take over the starting catcher role. He batted .444 in two seasons at BSC.
Bellevue lost one of the top pitchers in the nation, but still has plenty of arms to remain competitive. Alexandro Celiceo is anticipated to be the team’s top pitcher. He had a 3.63 ERA in a mixed role last spring with 76 strikeouts in 84 ⅓ innings. Blake Crippen and Easton Brinton also put up sound numbers list spring. Crippen made 13 starts and amassed 81 ⅔ innings with three complete games. Brinton returned from injury to make eight appearances last year where he struck out 18 batters in 15 ⅔ innings. Kenji MIller, a transfer from Everett Community College is expected to join the rotation. He had a 2.03 ERA in 128 ⅓ innings at Everett. Another incoming transfer, Parker McMan from Umpqua CC, is likely to be the team’s closer.
— So far this season: The Bruins (4-2) had strong wins over Concordia and Oklahoma City to start the season, but dropped two against Science & Arts over the weekend. The Bruins are scheduled to face Briar Cliff next weekend before making a week-long trip to Florida where they’ll play St. Thomas and Southeastern.
8. WEBBER INTERNATIONAL (43-22)
Webber finished last season with a program record 42 wins and advanced to the NAIA World Series for the first time in school history. The Warriors’ memorable run was forged by a young roster which largely returns this spring. Aside from their leading hitter from last season, most of the cogs are back on offense, and the pitching staff retained two invaluable arms who each amassed over 100 innings of invaluable experience last season.
Second baseman Luis Acevedo blossomed at the plate while continuing to provide excellent defense in the middle of the infield. He raised his batting average to .316 and accumulated 20 extra base hits. Senior switch hitting center fielder Drake Dobyanski batted a respectful .286 but upped his overall on base percentage to .419 by being patient at the plate. His numbers should continue to climb this spring as he continues to get everyday game experience, an asset he didn’t get at South Alabama. Ty Milliner is perhaps the most dangerous hitter on the team. He hit .335 last season and had five triples and six home runs. Additions to the lineup include Bryan Morales, Kris Allen and Jakob Jackson. Morales received a high grade from scouts coming out of high school who gave him high marks for his arm strength that made him an asset both behind the plate and in the outfield. Allen is playing his fifth season of college baseball after being a four-year starter at St. Andrews. His speed and defense give him tremendous upside in the outfield. Jackson is expected to immediately contribute at the plate,
The duo of Dylan Martin and Xavier Rodriguez, along with closer Dawson Young, is what makes the Warriors a threat to go deep into the postseason once again. Despite being a Florida native, Dylan Martin pitched in Dawson CC in Glendive, Montana, before returning to his home state. He had since proven to be a top NAIA pitching commodity. Last season he had a 3.96 ERA in 111 ⅓ innings with 110 strikeouts. Rodriguez was responsible for 102 ⅓ himself, and had 109 strikeouts with a 3.69 ERA. Dawson Young excelled as the team’s closer and struck out 78 batters in only 54 innings. Blayne Huter and Mark Link have been brought in to share the load this season. Huter impressed at South Florida State College and Link pitched well over three seasons at Palm Beach State.
— So far this season: Aside from Southeastern, Webber (12-1) has had the most impressive start to the season. They took two from a quality Warner team, defeated Ave Maria and won four games over USC Beaufort before convincingly sweeping Faulkner. Last weekend they lost a close game to Reinhardt, but did earn wins over IU Southeast and Campbellsville.
9. WESTMONT WARRIORS (45-13)
Westmont earned their first trip to Lewiston last spring after earning a share of the GSAC regular season title and overpowering Antelope Valley both offensively and on the mound with a 12-0 victory in the NAIA Opening Round finals. Their trip was limited however as they had an early exit at the World Series with two quick losses. Nevertheless, the season was an unprecedented unequivocal success as Westmont won a share of the Golden State Athletic Conference title for the first time since 2016 and concluded the year with a program best 45-13 record. The Warriors have a solid core of offensive players back, along with several prime pitchers and additions which will have them looking to make another historic run.
Shortstop Robbie Haw is a fine fielder who also performs at the plate. He batted .335 with a team leading .488 on base percentage. Brady Renck topped the team with 14 home runs while hitting .324 and also stole 25 bases. Ryan DeSaegher hit .339 in his first full season on the team and plays third base. Coaches have high hopes for a breakout season by Bryce McFeely who was limited in action last year. He should not only hit in the middle of the order, but pitch as well.
Eric Oseguera and Bryan Peck, Westmont’s top two starting pitchers from 2022, are back in action this year. Oseguera was credited with 10 wins in 14 appearances with a 2.59 ERA. Peck held opposition to a .215 batting average and threw 87 innings with a 3.62 ERA. Chase Goddard missed last season, but was a dependable in a relief role as a freshman in 2021. Chris Ceballos has the potential of being the best of the bunch. He has impressed with his delivery and documented with his ability to, “challenge hitters with the fastball while mixing in a quality power breaking ball with great depth and downward bite”. Carlos Moreno has substantially improved each season out of the bullpen and will be the team’s closer. He had a 2.60 ERA and held opposition to a .219 batting average last year.
— So far this season: Westmont (10-5) has won a series over St. Katherine, Embry-Riddle and Oregon Tech, but struggled on offense against Hope International on the road last weekend and only won one of four against the Royals.
10. CENTRAL METHODIST EAGLES (42-15)
The Eagles have consistently been ranked in the Top 25 under Head Coach Nate Breland, however the team has been especially successful the past two years. In 2021, CMU advanced to Lewiston for the first time in school history and finished as the national runner-up. Central Methodist’s winning ways continued last season as they captured their second consecutive Heart of America Tournament title and finished the year with an overall record of 42-15. The Eagles’ offense, which is among the most elite in the NAIA, will be a force to be reckoned with once again. The prognosis for the pitching isn’t quite as optimistic, but unquestionably has top level talent that will make another run at Lewiston a definite possibility.
Shortstop Robbie Merced, who played previously at Missouri State and Lipscomb, was the Heart Baseball Player of the Year as he batted .444 with 23 home runs. He returns to the diamond along with four other regular starters. Bobby Nicholas hit .347 as the team’s center fielder, and will typically lead off games. Last year he stole 57 bases and was only caught twice. Tanner Sears hit .344 and will likely be the team’s designated hitter who can also pitch if needed. Tommaso Giarola started 54 games primarily at second base and batted .287. An impact addition is Jeremy Conforti, a big first baseman who hit .443 with nine home runs at the College of DuPage.
The Eagles had two incredible aces last season who combined for 244 strikeouts – nearly half the team’s total. Sebastian Escobar rounded out last year’s rotation and will be back this season. In 2022 he had 94 strikeouts in only 73 innings with a 4.19 ERA. The acquisition of Alan West was a major boon for the team. West was both the American Midwest Conference Pitcher of the Year and Dual Position Player of the Year last year while playing at Lyon. He led the Scots with a .330 batting average at the plate and struck out 134 batters in 109 innings on the mound. He threw complete games in eight of 15 starts. Clayton Burke also migrated from Lyon to CMU. He had a 4.57 ERA and amassed 86 ⅔ innings on the mound with 68 strikeouts.
— So far this season: CMU (5-5) started the season with a four game series sweep over Our Lady of the Lake. They went 1-3 at the Cajun Collision; however two of their losses were to LSU Shreveport and Southeastern. The Eagles suffered two more setbacks last weekend against Hastings and Concordia (NE). They have another tough weekend coming up with games against two unranked but high quality opponents, Missouri Baptist and Jamestown.
11. ST THOMAS BOBCATS (41-19)
St. Thomas finished second in the competitive Sun Conference regular season standings in 2022 and hosted an NAIA Opening Round region. The Bobcats jumped out to a quick lead in the title game which would send the victor to Lewiston, but conference rival Weber was unwilling to submit and advanced to end STU’s season. St. Thomas has earned invites to the NAIA World Series three times since 2015, and twice finished as the national runner-up. They will once again field one of the top teams in the NAIA with another mix of experienced performers and talented transfers.
Third baseman Robin Fernandez emerged to become one of the NAIA’s top talents last season. He raised his average to .370 with 42 walks to finish with a .485 on base percentage. He also had 27 extra base hits to amass a .616 slugging percentage. Joey Thompson is looking to end a five-year career as an STU starter with a title. His average dropped to .281 last season, but he’s hit as high as .378 in years prior. Second baseman Christopher Schoeller is another experienced upperclassman. He played two seasons at Embry-Riddle before transferring to St. Thomas. Last season he batted .339 with 11 home runs. Kevin Moreno spent time in the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals’ organizations but retained his college eligibility. His addition to the team should give them a formidable threat at the clean-up spot.
Richard Sanchez split time as a reliever and starter last season and excelled at both. In 29 ⅔ innings he only allowed 18 hits while striking out 44 with a 1.21 ERA. He and Crosby Bringhurst, who made 13 starts and struck out 69 batters in 67 innings are the team’s returning starting pitchers. Juan Marulanda and Chase Chatman are incoming pitchers who will see significant innings. Marulanda made 21 appearances which included 12 starts at Jackson State last season. He pitched 82 ⅔ innings and struck out 85 batters. Chatman started his college career at Florida Gulf Coast before excelling at Florida Southwestern. Look for Luis Berrios, a transfer from Cisco College, to be the team’s closer.
— So far this season: The Bobcats’ (8-6) early record isn’t remarkable, however it has come against quality competition. They’ve been defeated by Vanguard, earned a win over Lewis-Clark State, won three of four over Reinhardt and lost a home series to Loyola. STU only has one game this week before hosting two top teams from Nebraska in Bellevue and Concordia.
12. LEWIS-CLARK STATE WARRIORS (58-7)
During the 2022 season Lewis-Clark State set records for the best start in program history by going 20-1 and also for their longest winning streak as they won 28 games in a row. In the postseason LC was down 3-0 early in the winner-take-all final of the NAIA Opening Round final, but responded to double-up British Columbia and earned their first trip to the World Series after receiving an automatic bid in previous seasons. The Warriors nearly claimed their 20th national title in school history, but fell to Southeastern to finish as the runner-up. For the Warriors to make the march once again they will have to do so with almost a completely new lineup as only two position players who started at least 20 games will be back in uniform. The pitching staff does have a number of returners, but lost three of four established starters.
Nick Seamons and Pu’ukani De Sa are the only two regulars from last year’s roster returning. Seamons Seamons hit .276, homered 12 times and stole 11 bases as the team’s center fielder. De Sa hit .300 after transferring from Cypress CC and played second base. They should get help on offense from a stable of able transfers. Isaiah Thomas played three years at Vanderbilt and had been projected to be a top 100 MLB prospect. He had a falling out with the Commodores and was initially headed to Oregon to complete his college career but transferred to LC instead. Sam Olsson, who did play two seasons at the University of Oregon as catcher, has also joined the Warriors. Jacob Marquez, a transfer from Washington State, is yet another former DI player who has made the move to Lewiston.
Trevin Hope made five strong appearances out of the bullpen last year after pitching at Bellevue CC, and will be a starter this season. He struck out 17 in 12 innings. Drake George, who made 10 starts last year with 56 strikeouts in 50 ⅔ innings, will be a regular starter on the mound as well. Cole Wilkinson spent a season at the University of Portland is likely to earn a fair share of initial innings as well. Cameron Smith is a veteran of the LC bullpen. Last spring he held opposing batters to a .221 average in 18 relief appearances and will be counted on to get the team out of late innings jams.
— So far this season: The Warriors (7-3) started their season in Florida with a shutout over LSU Shreveport and victories over excellent Keiser and Warner squads. While in Florida they also were also dealt losses to St. Thomas and Southeastern. Last weekend they won three of four over British Columbia.
13. VANGUARD LIONS (44-15)
Vanguard has been one of the top NAIA teams in the nation the last two seasons. In 2021 the team won 40 games, finished first in both the GSAC standings and tournament championship, and came within a win of advancing to the NAIA College World Series. The 2022 edition of the team won 16 games in a row and set a school record with 44 wins. The expectations for this year’s team are, and deservingly should be, extremely high with a legitimate goal of advancing to Lewiston for the first time since 2015.
Oscar Diaz and Dane Nakatsuka are the top two batters returning this season. Diaz batted .377 in his first season as a starter and outfielder Nakatsuka hit .340, and stole 15 bases. Catcher Luke Arias, struggled a bit at plate last season, but finished with a .308 average in 2021. Center fielder Tommy Rodriguez batted .318 and stole 28 bases. Incoming reinforcements include middle infielders Fred Buckson and Tyler Gordon. Buckson batted .275 at Northwestern Oklahoma (DII). Gordon is a speedy freshman who played high school locally.
Justin Graves and Dylan McDonald return as starting pitchers. Graves is the school leader in career victories. Last season he had a 3.28 ERA and stuck out 108 batters in 82 ⅓ innings while only allowing 64 hits. McDonald made nine starts and tallied 43 strikeouts in 45 ⅓ innings. Jacob Dahlstrom, a two-year starter at Bellevue CC, is slated to be in the rotation as well. Last year’s closer Caden Byers only allowed a pair of earned runs in 16 appearances and finished the season with a 1.06 ERA. He will man the mound in the ninth inning again this spring.
— So far this season: The Lions (13-3) pitching held Westcliff to two runs in three innings before traveling to Florida against some of the top NAIA clubs in the nation. They earned wins over St. Thomas and Keiser, but lost to Southeastern and LSU Shreveport. Over the past weekend they won a series over Arizona Christian in three very close games.
14. REINHARDT EAGLES (37-23)
The Eagles had a strong half half of the season in 2022 and finished second in the Appalachian Athletic Conference standings. Their body of work throughout the season earned them an invite to the NAIA Opening Round where they earned wins over Keiser and top seeded Ottawa before being eliminated. The Eagles won 37 games last year which was the first time the school had back-to-back seasons with at least 35 wins. Few teams suffered as little significant turnover as Reinhardt after the season. Almost the entire everyday is back along as well as four of five pitchers who started five games. Look for Reinhardt to continue to make strides as they look to reach Lewiston for the first time in school history.
The team’s top four hitters all return, led by Tucker Zdunich. The Canadian import topped the team in several offensive categories as he slashed .379/.512/.744. Jarrett Burney and Jacob Profit hit for a high average and were dangerous on the basepaths. Burney batted .352 with 23 stolen bases, and Profit stole a team leading 31 bases while batting .340. Alex Coulter, who batted .302 is another returning regular. Center fielder Lance Dockery only managed a .220 average last season, but is much improved. Richard Castro, who batted .298 with 12 home runs at Concordia University Irvine, will take over regular shortstop duties and hit in the middle of the order. Outfielder Dylan Lewis from Fresno CC should compete for All ACC honors.
The primary starting pitchers are Andrew Herbert, Jordan Hampton and Ethan Foley. The trio combined to start 33 last spring. Foley amassed the strongest season last with a 2.34 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 111 ⅔ innings. He impressively went the distance in seven of his 13 starts. Herbert had a 4.50 ERA as a freshman and struck out 60 batters in 56 innings. Hampton was having an exceptional season in 2020 with a 1.59 ERA in six appearances. His numbers faded a bit last spring, but coaches anticipate a rebound. The closer duty belongs to Parker Miller who has been solid the start two seasons both out of the bullpen and in occasional starts.
— So far this season: The Eagles (6-5) early record isn’t pretty, but it includes wins over St. Thomas, Webber International, Indiana Southeast, Faulkner and William Carey. Aside from three understandable losses to St. Thomas on their tuff, Reinhardt also lost their opening series to Georgetown.
15. FAULKNER EAGLES (39-17)
The Eagles are one of the elite teams in the NAIA and perennial performers at the division’s World Series in Lewiston. Faulkner has amazingly made appearances at the NAIA World Series ten of the last eleven years, won the national title in 2013, and were the runner-ups in 2016 and 2017. Even without one of their best teams last season, the Eagles rolled through the opening round and earned a pair of wins in Lewiston. Earning yet another trip to Idaho this May will require the Eagles to do so with an almost nearly new lineup as only five players who stepped to the plate at any point last year are back this season – and two of them only combined for just a single official plate appearance (a strikeout) and two walks. The club also needs to find a replacement for July Sosa who was one of the NAIA top pitchers last season.
Juan Trinidad, Jack Brinkley and Evan Gilliam are the only offensive players back this spring. Trinidad was second on the team with a .324 average, but only had a total of six extra base hits which were all doubles. He also added 15 stolen bases. Brinkley hit .276 and Gilliam batted .288 with five triples, six home runs and 20 stolen bases. Significant offensive output is anticipated to come from Drew Mackie, an outfielder who played his first two seasons at the University of Nebraska and Northwest Missouri State, Cristian Martin who batted .376 at Webber International, and Jose Vargas, a transfer from Western Oklahoma State.
JC Toro and Alexis Saldana combined to make 31 starts last season and will lead the rotation. Toro will be making his third season as a starting pitcher for the Eagles. He had a 3.47 ERA and struck out 90 batters in 90 ⅔ innings last season. Saldana fanned 89 batters in 72 ⅔ innings and had a 4.58 ERA. Jaxen Forrester and Ty Correa should also see significant innings on the mound. Forrester spent two seasons at Mississippi State and another at Lipscomb. Correra made spot starts and relief appearances for the Eagles the past three seasons. Chance Denson, who pitched primarily in relief last season, has the ability to make batters miss, but can also be susceptible to giving up runs.
— So far this season: The Eagles (5-6) are currently under .500, but four of those losses came against teams higher than them in the rankings. The other two setbacks were to Missouri Baptist and Point Park, two teams on the cusp of the Top 25. Faulker will be tested again this weekend with a series against Indiana Wesleyan. The Wildcats will be a tough opponent, but the Eagles should handle them at home.
16. FREED-HARDEMAN LIONS (39-17)
The Lions have been one of the winningest teams in the NAIA over the past decade with multiple seasons on the cusp of compiling 50 victories. Last year the Lions finished first in the Mid-South Conference regular season and were runner-ups in the MSC tournament. The Lions played well in the opening round, but were eliminated by the host and top seed Oklahoma City. The team only lost one regular from the everyday lineup and retained ¾ of their starting rotation for what should be a memorable season under new Head Coach Jess Trask.
Third baseman Will McCall will be playing his fifth season at FHU and he has been an important part of the offense every year. Last season he generated a .399/.522/.727 slash line and even added 12 stolen bases. Like McCall, Sean Rooney is a graduate student looking to end his college career on a high note. Rooney batted .351 last spring with 11 home runs. Shortstop Zach Sanders is yet another experienced player back. He had been a starter since 2019 and hit for a career best .359 last spring. Catcher Mason Libla also returns.
The starting pitching trio of Luis Torres-Lopez, Colton Huntt and Alex Huey should give the team an edge as they jockey for an invite to Lewiston. Torres-Lopez pitched primarily out of the bullpen last year, but will have an opportunity to start this season. In 18 appearances last year he totaled 47 ⅔ innings with 38 strikeouts and a 4.34 ERA. Huntt had the best numbers of any member of the FHU starting staff with a 3.33 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 83 ⅔ innings. Huey is another long time Lion who will end his career as the school’s all time strikeout leader. If comes close to matching his freshman numbers when he went 12-2 with 94 strikeouts and a 2.88 ERA, it will unquestionably give them an edge to play in Lewiston.
— So far this season: The Lions (9-5) started the season with a quality series win over Loyola on the road, but dropped two of three to Bryan the following weekend. Last week FHU split a four game series with Mobile.
17. OKLAHOMA CITY STARS (49-6)
The Oklahoma Stars only lost one game by more than a single run last season headed into the NAIA postseason. Alas they were stymied twice by MidAmerica Nazarene who usurped the Stars’ Lewiston invite to Lewiston and had their season come to a surprising end. OCU will be without Cross Factor who broke the school record with a .525 batting average while launching 30 home runs, as well as a number of other offensive threats. The pitching staff needs to be revamped as well with only one pitcher who started at least five games back in action. For most other programs this would be a rebuilding season, but for OCU they’ll be able to reload and quickly be competitive once again.
The Stars do have a number of position players returning this spring, but only three of them started a minimum of 30 games. Outfielder Jesse Fonteboa transferred from UTRGV and made an immediate impact. He batted .346 with 10 home runs. Felix Chenier-Rondeau and Chad Pike are two starters returning from last season. Chenier-Rondeau hit .342 with 18 stolen bases and Pike hit .299 while holding down the infield defense at shortstop. Freshman Reeese Ratchford and Noah Kang should see instant action in the Stars’ lineup. Both were among the top rated high school players in the state. Ratchford was deemed the top catcher and Kang was listed as the fourth best shortstop. Either could have played at the DI level but chose OCU. Trent Kiraly from Pima CC is another valuable addition.
Eli Davis was a two-year starter at the University of Kansas before transferring to OCU. Last season he was one of the top hurlers in the nation with a 1.45 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 74 ⅓ innings. He also only allowed 46 hits to hold opposition to a .178 batting average. Grant Harrison and Rylan Roberson will be moved from the bullpen to starting roles this spring. Harrison had a 2.25 ERA out of the bullpen and held opposition to a .219 batting average. Robertson had a 4.94 ERA in 16 relief appearances. Andrew Limbaugh from Redlands CC will also be called upon to start games.
— So far this season: The Stars (6-8) are reloading this season and weren’t expected to fire on all cylinders right out of the gate, but they should be better than their current record. They started the year by being swept at LSU Alexandria and have since exchanged wins and losses with ranked teams Clarke and Doane. OCU did win two games over Concordia (NE), but also lost two to Bellevue. Look for them to get back over .500 this week with games against Sterling and Bethany.
18. CONCORDIA (NE) BULLDOGS (40-17)
In 2021 Concordia broke the single season record for wins, took home both the Great Plains Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships and made their first trip to the NAIA World Series. The question if the wins were merely an aberration or new standard was answered last spring when the team once again reached the 40 win plateau, finished second in the GPAC regular season, won the conference tournament and nearly advanced to Lewiston in back-to-back years as the Bulldogs forced Bellevue to a winner-take-all final game with a World Series berth on the line. This season Concordia returns its top five hitters from last season and each of its starting pitchers for what is sure to be another memorable season.
Joey Grabanski batted a team best .396 with 18 home runs last season as he slugged .733. He will be rejoined Jayden Adams and Jaidan Quinn to form one of the most prolific power trios in the NAIA. Adams broke the school’s single-season hit and run record last spring. He batted ..371 and slugged 15 home runs with 15 stolen bases as the team’s second baseman. Quinn broke the program record for home runs in a season with 19 and batted .341. Also back in action will be center fielder Alec Blakestad who hit .383, and Jesse Garcia who will be making his fifth season as a regular starter. Garcia has accumulated a .324 in four seasons on the team with 38 home runs in 181 games.
Alex Johnson and Caden Johnson combined to earn a 15-3 record last season. Alex topped the team with a 2.77 ERA and held opposition to a .228 batting average. Camden struck out 79 batters in 75 ⅔ innings, earned a 3.45 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .221 batting average. Joining Johnson and Johnson in the rotation will be senior Blake Benson. Benson previously pitched at the University of the Ozarks (DIII) where he earned all conference honors. Caden Bugarske who struck out 73 batters in 69 ⅓ innings and Christian Gutierrez who fanned 72 in 63 ⅔ innings while only issuing 12 walks, provide invaluable pitching depth. Jacob Lycan, who made a team high 20 appearances in relief, will also return to the mound. He struck out 36 batters in 28 ⅓ innings.
— So far this season: The Bulldogs (3-4) started their season 0-4 with losses to Oklahoma City, Bellevue and Columbia, but won their next three which included a win over Central Methodist.
19. UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND ARTS OF OKLAHOMA DROVERS (36-15)
Under new head coach Tyle Hankins, USAO had another excellent season overall last year, but will be looking for more in 2023. The Drovers were second in the Sooner Athletic Conference regular season standings, the runner-up in the SAC tournament and earned an invite to the NAIA Opening Round, but were quickly dispatched in lopsided losses to Lyon and LSU Shreveport. Several players from last year’s everyday lineup need to be replaced, but the pitching staff, which has often been the strength of Drover rosters, is largely intact.
Peyton McDowall, who batted a team leading .412 with 12 home runs returns to lead the offense. He will be joined by two other established sluggers. Gage Gaunt hit .317 and led the team with 16 home runs, and Will Hoch, who started slow, but is anticipated to be one of the top run producers in the conference. Nick Fleckenstein and Chris Martinez are transfers who should find themselves into the starting lineup immediately. Fleckenstein batted .291 at Lassen College and Martinez is a physical presence with gap to gap power from JUCO ranks who was injured last year. Ben Lawson, who initially signed on at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, will also get at bats.
Drew Shaver and Josh Harrel both return and made a combined 30 starts last season. Shaver struck out 97 batters, earned a 3.05 ERA and threw four complete games. Harrel struck out 96 batters in only 82 ⅔ innings. He had a 4.57 ERA in his first season after transferring from Redlands CC. The difference maker for the Drover will be the addition of fireballer Megumi Fukuda from the New Mexico Military Institute. The Japan native was initially headed to LSU Shreveport, but found his way onto the Drover’s staff instead.
— So far this season: The Drovers (8-5) were one of the participants at the Cajun Collision and performed poorly. They lost to Missouri Baptist, Clarke, Texas A&M Texarkana and LSU Alexandria. They rebounded soon after however with a pair of wins over Friends and Bellevue. Their upcoming series with McPherson will be a better indicator of how good the team will be this season.
20. MCPHERSON BULLDOGS (40-14)
The Bulldogs finished 2022 with a 40-14 record which was the most wins in program history and advanced to the NAIA Opening Round for the second consecutive year. In January, Kyle MacKinnon, who was the head coach of the budding team, accepted a job with the Arizona Diamondbacks and two assistants were tabbed co-head coaches for 2023 (in an odd and unfortunate twist, MacKinnon’s position with Arizona didn’t pan out due to work visa issues). No matter who is in the dugout leading the team, the Bulldogs look poised to have another successful season on the diamond. The offense will definitely score some runs, but the pitching staff’s overall depth could be problematic.
Three of the team’s top four hitters return, led by Caleb Feuerstake who hit .398 with six triples, seven home runs and 24 stolen bases. Also back are Gage Ninness and James Canar. Ninness is a verstitle fielder who can play in the infield and outfield. Expect to see him at the top of the batting order. Last season he hit .368 with only 18 strikeouts. Jamas Canar was second on the team with 15 home runs while batting .345. Hunter Robinson, a fifth year senior who batted .300 last season in limited action and .336 in 2021, should see more at bats this spring in the heart of the order. Kevinn Castillo, an outfielder who played previously at Dawson CC, gives the team some added depth.
Blake Maddock and Tyler Norris lead the pitching staff. Maddock made 16 starts last season and struck out a team-high 92 batters with a 3.49 ERA. Norris missed last season, but started 12 games in 2021 in which he had a 4.02 ERA and 82 strikeouts. Alex Escobar’s ERA was a bit robust last season, but he did make 15 starts and struck out 90 batters in 86 ⅓ innings. Drake Miller is another pitcher who has put in work with the Bulldogs, but needs to better limit the damage done by opposition if he is going to be a regular member of the rotation.
— So far this season: The Bulldogs (5-4) split their games at the Cajun Collision with wins over Benedictine and Mid-America Christian while losing to LSU Shreveport and Louisiana Christian. Last weekend they split a series with Wayland Baptist. Upcoming games with USAO and Tabor will show if McPherson may be headed to the NAIA Opening Round for a third year in a row.
21. OKLAHOMA WESLEYAN EAGLES (38-19)
The Eagles finished fifth in a competitive and crowded Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference title race last season. OKWU didn’t do themselves any favors in securing an at-large bid to the NAIA Opening Round in the KCAC conference tournament by going 1-2. Thus, despite their impressive 38-19 record on the year, the perennial power’s season came to a premature close. OKWU should fare better this season with some past powers rejoining the roster, as well as a staff which features one of the top strikeout pitchers on the roster.
Catcher Nicholas Chavez batted .358 over the past two seasons and is the team’s top batter back for 2023. In addition to his aptitude at the plate he also is a fine defender who only made a single error and threw out 17 base stealers. Josh Logan only batted .274 last season with six home runs, but those marks should be considered aberrations. Expect his 2023 to be closer to first year on campus when he hit .394 with much more pop. Tommy Davis should see a dramatic increase in his statistical output as well. He was very well regarded coming out of Lower Columbia College. Over the summer he hit .378 for the Haysville Aviators in the Sunflower Collegiate League. The biggest offensive threats will likely be some familiar names of the recent past. Drenis Ozuna had a monster season in 2019 when he batted .437 with 22 home runs. However he didn’t play the past three years. A’Darius Council is another impact performer rejoining the club. In 2021 he batted .318 with 15 home runs. If Ozuna and Council can contribute in fashion they did previously, the Eagles are going to score a lot of runs. Another newcomer to the roster is Aaron Gerdes. The senior outfielder signed with Hawaii out of high school and hit .346 at Pittsburg State (DII) in 2021.
Kellen Brothers struck out 134 batters last season in 96 ⅔ innings. He threw five complete games, was credited with a pair of saves and finished the season with a 4.28 ERA. It is anticipated that Evan Floor will have a breakout season this spring. He made 15 appearances last season with nine starts, but got knocked around on occasion and finished with a 5.06 ERA. Michael Mendoza missed last season, but will be back to pitch again this spring. He struck out 38 batters in 37 ⅓ innings while only issuing nine walks in 2021. Erick Nova struck out 44 batters in only 26 ⅔ innings last season and only allowed 18 hits; however he had control issues and gave up quite a few walks. If he can cut down on allowing free bases, he’ll be a wonderful option to close games.
— So far this season: The Eagles (9-3) started their season with nine straight wins, but were swept by Southeastern last week. While they almost won the opening game against the Fire, the remaining games were lopsided losses.
22. WILLIAM CAREY CRUSADERS (37-17)
The Crusaders finished second in the Southern States Athletic Conference regular seasons and won the SSAC tournament for the second time in a row as they swept their way through the tournament. WCU didn’t fare as well in the NAIA Opening Round however as they went 0-2 and gave up 14 runs in each loss. With additional depth on the mound and a very strong outfield both on offense and defense, the Crusaders will challenge again for the conference title and an opportunity to advance to Lewiston.
RJ Stinson is the MVP of the offense. As the team’s leadoff hitter he slashed .404/.500/.617. In 188 at bats he only struck out 16 times and only grounded into a double play once. Patrick Lee was the team’s second most prolific hitter and plays center field. He hit .389 and walked 52 times to generate a .561 on base percentage. He also led the team with 22 stolen bases. Billy Garrity had joined the team to complete the outfield. He started his college career at Southern Miss, before moving on to refind his swing at Jones College last summer. Joining Garrity in making the move from Jones College is Preston Ratliff. Ratliff batted .357 and also appeared in five games on the mound. Jake Lycette will be playing his third season as a regular for the Crusaders. In 2022 he batted .311 with five triples and nine stolen bases.
AJ Stinson is the team’s top pitcher. He threw 87 ⅓ innings last season in which he struck out 133 batters and only allowed 53 hits. He went the distance in four of 13 starts and even earned a pair of saves. Unfortunately there is a significant drop off in pitching prowess after Hinton. Connor Adams and Dario Herrera are returns from last season who’ll be expected to up their game. Adams threw 51 innings and allowed 62 hits with a 5.29 ERA. Herrera stuck out 38 batters in 33 innings, but suffered some bad innings to allow his ERA to inflate to 5.73. Andrew Shirah, a transfer from Coastal Alabama CC, will join the rotation and hopefully ease some of the pressure on the other starters.
— So far this season: William Carey (7-2) won series over Campbellsville and Culver-Stockton to start the season. Last week they earned wins over West Alabama (DII), Taylor and Point Park, but lost to Reinhardt on Monday.
23. COLUMBIA COUGARS (38-14)
The Cougars finished second in both the American Midwest Conference regular season and tournament to Lyon. Their 38 wins earned them an at-large invite to the NAIA Opening Round, but were quickly bounced. With many of their players both at the plate and on the mound returning, the Cougars should be the favorite to not only earn their conference titles, but make some noise in the national postseason as well.
Catcher Indy Stanley earned All-America Second Team honors and was the AMC Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Evansville University. He batted .423 and led the team with 23 doubles, six triples and 10 home runs to amass a lofty .780 slugging percentage. Lead off hitter Braden Desonia was second on the team in total bases as he hit .317 with 10 doubles and seven triples. Shortstop Devyn Lopez hit .314 and was named the AMC’s gold glove winner for his slick play. Australian slugger Cayden Nicoletto batted .398 with 11 home runs at North Iowa Area CCwill join the team and hit in the middle of the order. Brayden McGinnis from State Fair CC could also make an impact.
Dan Fick and Bryce Taylor both put up extremely impressive numbers on the mound last season. Fick had a 2.20 ERA and only allowed 57 hits over 81 ⅔ innings for a .194 average against. He was the AMC Pitching Newcomer of the Year and earned First Team All Conference honors. Taylor struck out 65 batters in 65 ⅓ innings and had a .289 ERA. Local freshman Reece Clapp is expected to join the rotation, as is Pierce Hartmann, a transfer from Mineral Area CC. Kaleb Richards, who made 20 appearances last season in relief, will be the go-to man in the bullpen. In 2022 he pitched 45 innings and had a 2.00 ERA with 43 strikeouts.
— So far this season: The Cougars (10-1) started the season with series wins over the College of the Ozarks and IU Southeast. Last weekend they earned a quality win over Concordia (NE) as well as victories over Graceland, Dakota State and Hastings. Their upcoming Sunday game with Doane will be their next opportunity to impress.
24. DOANE TIGERS (38-14)
The Tigers fulfilled their goal of ending their season in Lewiston, Idaho, but unfortunately their end was during the NAIA Opening Round rather than the World Series. Nonetheless, the season was a success as the Doane won the GPAC regular season for the second year in a row and finished the season with 38 wins and a .731 winning percentage – both numbers were second-best marks in program history. The Tigers returned several weapons on offense and the mound which will keep them competitive in 2023. They’ve also added some intriguing transfers which could be what the team needs to take their game to the next level.
Nate Mensik played high school baseball less than 30 minutes away from campus and is an invaluable member of the team. Last year he hit .298 with 10 home runs and stole 12 bases. Justin Nevells, who couldn’t have grown up much further from Crete, NE, hails from Chugiak, Alaska. He batted .341 in his first full season as the team’s third baseman. Catcher Jack Tilman led the team in batting last year with a .381 average and will return behind the plate. The biggest bat belongs to Joe Osborn. Osborne batted .340 in 2022 and paced the team with 18 home runs and also added 19 stolen bases. Jason Pridy, a transfer from Napa Valley, may take over the lead off role.
Kyler Beekman and Julian Vargas both pitched well last season and are expected to be starters. Beekman struck out 62 batters in 57 innings and earned a 3.00 ERA. Vargas held opposition to a .215 batting average over 69 ⅔ innings while amassing 79 strikeouts. Rejoining them in the rotation will be Aaron Forrest. Forrest struck out 80 batters in 59 ⅔ innings last season. He is considering a potential professional prospect if he continues to develop. A pair of freshmen, Kaden Crawford and Jake King, have tremendous upside and could earn a lot of innings immediately.
— So far this season: Doane (3-3) lost a series against Kansas Wesleyan, but redeemed themselves with wins over Oklahoma City and MidAmerica Nazarene. The Tigers will need to win at least three next weekend against MNU, William Penn, Columbia and Baker to remain in the rankings.
25. CLARKE PRIDE (39-16)
The Pride had put together one of their best seasons in recent history last year as they finished third in both the Heart of America regular season standings and conference tournament. Alas, Clarke was one of the last teams left out of the NAIA Opening Round action. Three of the team’s top three hitters are back this season along with many of the arms who helped the team end the season nationally ranked in multiple categories including third in ERA at 3.23 and 11th in strikeouts per nine innings at 10.46.
Second baseman Victor Lara was first team all conference selection after batting .365. He will be back in the middle of the infield with shortstop Bubba Thompson, a transfer from Southern University where he made 49 starts over two seasons, led the team with seven home runs. His batting average was a disappointing .220, but expect it to make a significant jump this year. Maguire Fitzgerald hit .319 with 12 doubles and Daniel Phyle batted .371 with 14 stolen bases over 30 games. If he can keep those numbers up for an entire season and stay healthy, it will result in an influx of runs. Transfer Kainoa Torres from Upper Iowa should contribute at the plate as well.
It is the pitching which will win games for the Pride this season. Isaac Rhode had a 0.96 ERA out of the bullpen last year. He struck out 70 batters in only 47 innings and opposition could only muster a .193 batting average against him as he baffled hitters on both sides of the plate. He had moved into the regular rotation. Local talent Johnny Blake had a 3.17 ERA on the mound with 63 strikeouts in 54 innings. He also contributed at the plate with a .262 average. Tyson Tucker started 15 games in 2022 and struck out 111 batters in 76 innings. He only allowed 54 hits and threw a pair of complete games. Connor Crabill, missed last season due to injury. In 2021 he had a 2.27 ERA over 35 ⅔ innings with 38 strikeouts and will be the team’s closer.
— So far this season: The Pride (5-2) won one of three against Oklahoma City to start the season. At the Cajun Collision where they mercy-ruled Texas Wesleyan, shutout both Southwestern Christian and Wayland Baptist and defeated Science and Arts. Their upcoming series with William Carey will be one of the top NAIA matchups this week.
February 22nd Rankings Update
|Rank||School||State||2022 Record||2023 Record||Preseason|
|2||LSU Shreveport Pilots||LA||53-8||9-3||2|
|3||Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies||GA||46-16||8-2||3|
|5||Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs||TN||56-8||9-0||5|
|6||Hope International Royals||CA||43-15||11-2||6|
|7||Webber International Warriors||FL||43-22||12-1||8|
|11||St. Thomas Bobcats||FL||41-19||8-6||11|
|12||Lewis-Clark State Warriors||ID||58-7||7-3||12|
|13||Central Methodist Eagles||MO||42-15||5-5||10|
|15||William Carey Crusaders||MS||37-17||7-2||22|
|17||Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles||OK||38-19||9-3||21|
|21||Oklahoma City Stars||OK||49-6||6-8||17|