As an evaluator it always gives a sense of satisfaction (and more accurately, relief) to see the teams that you’ve projected to succeed do well. However, it’s relatively easy to pick which teams are going to be the favorites; simply find clubs that are stacked with potential All-Americans and draft picks or a history of recent success and write their name in as a team to potentially take home the title. When they win it is expected and doesn’t provide for much drama. However, as a fan, it’s much more compelling to watch the teams that didn’t make the initial cut work their way into and up the national rankings and challenge for conference and national titles.
Along with the rankings this week, a team is featured in each of the small school divisions which is performing better than anticipated. None of the trio were in the Preseason Top 25, but each has made a convincing showing on the diamond to leave little doubt that they should be considered one of the best of the best at this point in the season. While one of the three isn’t much of a surprise, the other two are making their Perfect Game rankings debut, and with the way they are playing, it could be the beginning of a long run of national recognition.
Aside from Catawba, who is the perennial favorite, the South Atlantic Conference has annually been a battle royale for supremacy in the competitive conference standings. Each team has its ebbs and flows and earns a national postseason berth for a season or two before a conference-mate usurps them and takes their spot. Three teams have already spent the entirety of the 2021 campaign in the national rankings and three more were on the precipice last week. With Ashland getting removed after a subpar showing, one of the three outliers has made their way into the Perfect Game Top 25 for the first time. Entering the rankings this week at No. 21 are the Carson Newman Eagles.
The Eagles have historically been a tough team to beat with some exceptional individual performers. Most notably is Steve Cishek, who was drafted in the fifth round in 2007 and has spent the past 11 years pitching in the major leagues. Nevertheless, they haven’t quite been able to earn an elite invite to the NCAA postseason since 2008. If they keep playing the way they have the start of this season, that will most certainly change. C-N has an 11-4 record and can claim fours wins over ranked opposition, as they’ve earned victories over Lee, Newberry and Catawba. Last weekend they completed a sweep versus Virginia-Wise with a pair of mercy-rule wins. With their success they enter the Top 25 this week at the No. 21 position.
The offense is led by Tyler Thompson, who wields one of the top bats in the nation. In 2019 he had 25 multi-hit games to contribute to an incredible .438 batting average, which was nearly 20 points higher than anyone else in the SAC and fourth in the nation. He also added 29 extra-base hits and 15 stolen bases. This season he is leading the Eagles once again with a .431 average. Nevertheless, the Carson-Newman offense is not a one-man band. Every position player who has started at least 10 games this spring is swinging to the tune of a batting average over .300. Their offense doesn’t have a lot of power, but they make up for it in pop and are batting a collective .350. Other notable performers include Henry Jackson, who led the team with a .386 batting average as a freshman last season and Charlie Brown, a senior outfielder who is batting .333 over the past two years.
On the mound the staff’s ERA is admittedly a bit bloated at 5.54, but they are also striking out a batter per inning (123 over 112 IP). Matt Bradley started his career in the bullpen, but has been solid as a starter. Over four years he had struck out 154 batters in 137 2/3 innings. He and Brayden Coe, who has been the team’s top performer this spring with a 2.95 ERA and .197 b/AVG, will be relied upon heavily until some of the other arms step up to support the club.
The Eagles’ series against Newberry last week was unfortunately postponed and would have been an excellent measuring stick of their potential success for the rest of the season. After hosting Queens this week, C-N finishes the month with four games on the road against ranked opposition, when they face Lee and Wingate.
|1||1||Angelo State Rams||TX||11-2||0-0|
|2||2||Colorado Mesa Mavericks||CO||9-1||4-0|
|3||3||North Greenville Crusaders||SC||15-3||3-0|
|5||6||Central Missouri Mules||MO||12-4||3-0|
|6||5||Mount Olive Trojans||NC||12-4||2-3|
|7||9||Columbus St. Cougars||GA||9-3||3-1|
|10||10||Minnesota State Mavericks||MN||3-1||1-0|
|11||12||West Texas A&M Buffs||TX||15-3||3-0|
|12||13||North Georgia Nighthawks||GA||13-5||3-0|
|14||15||Azusa Pacific Cougars||CA||6-2||4-1|
|15||21||UNC Pembroke Braves||NC||11-5||3-1|
|16||16||Texas Tyler Patriots||TX||10-5||2-1|
|17||7||Georgia College Bobcats||GA||8-5||0-3|
|19||14||Southern Arkansas Muleriders||AR||8-5||3-1|
|21||NR||Carson Newman Eagles||TN||11-4||0-0|
|24||20||East Stroudsburg Warriors||PA||4-3||4-3|
|25||19||Nova Southeastern Sharks||FL||0-3||0-3|
Dropped Out: No. 23 Ashland Eagles
Oklahoma Wesleyan has been one of the winningest programs in the NAIA over the past decade and averaged nearly 50 wins from 2014 to 2019. They had a coaching change following the 2018 season when Matt Parker left to lead Eastern Oklahoma State College, but former OKWU skipper Kirk Kelley, who led the team to the National Christian College Athletic Association title in 2011, was seen as a worthy and welcome return. Nevertheless, the Eagles suffered a series of irregular outcomes last spring when they had an unassuming 14-14 mark before the season was canceled.
The ills that failed them last spring are far in the rearview this season. OKWU has reemerged as a national title contender to start the season with a 16-3 record with highlights that include a combined 66-9 three-game stomping of Champion Christian to start the season, a double-header sweep of a strong Lyon club and midweek wins over a pair of ranked teams, Friends and Oklahoma City. With the victories, the Eagles have soared from the outskirts of the Perfect Game Top 25 and have moved up to the No. 14 this week.
The Eagles are consistently one of the top slugging clubs in the land. They were fifth in the NAIA in home runs per game in 2019 and second in 2017, thanks in small part to playing home games with some batter-friendly dimensions. This season they are at it once again and are currently pacing the division with a devilish .666 slugging percentage. They average a pair of home runs per game, have crossed the plate no less than nine times in a game 11 times (all wins) and are hitting .367 as a team. Isaac Wersland, who transferred from fellow NAIA power Lewis-Clark State prior to the 2020 season, is tied for the team lead with seven home runs. Hulking Danny Perez, one of the few standouts remaining from the 2019 edition of the team, shares the home run lead with Wersland. Cody Muncy, who led the team with 12 blasts last spring, is a potential powder-keg for Coach Kelley. While he is hitting a lofty .424, he only has contributed three home runs this spring.
The Eagles are off this week for spring break, but will be tested mightily when they return to action. OKWU has a rematch with No. 20 Friends on March 23 and ends the month with a road trip against rival Oklahoma City. Sandwiched in between those contests they’ll host McPerson, the unofficial last team out of the rankings, who are currently 18-2.
|1||1||Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs||TN||21-0||4-0|
|6||9||Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies||GA||15-6||3-0|
|8||10||Central Methodist Eagles||MO||16-2||3-0|
|10||12||Middle Georgia State Knights||GA||17-6||4-0|
|12||7||LSU Shreveport Pilots||LA||7-5||2-2|
|13||14||Benedictine Mesa Redhawks||AZ||14-6||4-1|
|14||16||Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles||OK||16-3||4-1|
|15||13||St. Thomas Bobcats||FL||15-9||3-2|
|16||15||Oklahoma City Stars||OK||12-9||2-3|
|17||17||Lewis-Clark State Warriors||ID||14-2||0-0|
|18||20||William Carey Crusaders||MS||15-2||6-0|
|25||25||Indiana Southeast Grenadiers||IN||13-11||4-1|
Dropped Out: No. 21 Bellevue Bruins
It would be hard to argue that any team has had a better start to the season than the Battling Bishops of North Carolina Wesleyan. The Bishops have opened with a 11-2 record, which includes notable wins over Randolph-Macon who finished last season as the top-ranked team in the Perfect Game D-III rankings and is currently positioned third, Methodist, a team that went 44-15 over the past two years, Ferrum, a school that hasn’t been great as of late but can always proudly claim Billy Wagner as an alum, and Christopher Newport, a team which won 70 games from 2018 to 2019, last week. The results are a bit surprising, as while the NC Wesleyan was once one of the top D-III teams in the nation – they brought home the national title in 1989 and 1999 – their results have been very good, but not overly great over the past five years as they’ve posted a 102-84 record.
Undeniably one of the main reasons for the Bishops’ splendid start is transfer Davie Morgan. Morgan was an extremely promising athlete coming out of high school and earned high marks for his quick first step, lateral range and quickness in the infield as well as his timing and consistency at the plate. He started his college career at Barton, but struggled to find his stroke with the Bulldogs and only managed a single hit in 14 at-bats with seven strikeouts. With Wesleyan, Morgan has been the team’s top hitter and is leading the club in most offensive categories. He is batting .400 on in 55 at-bats with five doubles, a pair of triples and four home runs for a .782 slugging percentage.
“Davie has been a great find for us on and off the field and we are happy for him,” NCWC Head Coach Greg Clifton remarked when asked about his slugging second baseman.
Also leading the charge is freshman Tyson Bass, who played high school a couple of country miles from campus. As the team’s leadoff hitter, Bass is hitting .366 and his discipline at the plate has already led to 16 walks to amass a .534 on-base percentage.
Bass isn’t the only freshman making big contributions this spring. The slender CJ DiBenedetto was noted for more of his shortstop prowess when scouted, but his strong, smooth throwing mechanics have made him a monster on the mound. In five starts this season he is limiting opposition to a .189 batting average. He held the William Peace Pacers to four scattered hits last weekend in a complete game win. Daniel Thompson, yet another freshman, has been tyrannical out of the bullpen. In 12 innings he has only allowed seven hits while striking out 23 batters over five appearances.
NC Wesleyan has a good chance to continue their winning ways as eight of their final nine games this month are to be played at home.
|2||2||Southern Maine Huskies||ME||0-1||0-0|
|3||3||Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets||VA||4-2||3-0|
|5||5||Cal Lutheran Kingsmen||CA||0-0||0-0|
|6||6||North Central Cardinals||IL||4-1||2-1|
|8||8||Cortland State Red Dragons||NY||0-0||0-0|
|13||13||Johns Hopkins Blue Jays||MD||0-0||0-0|
|18||11||Texas Lutheran Bulldogs||TX||6-4||1-2|
|20||NR||North Carolina Wesleyan Battling Bishops||NC||11-2||3-0|
|22||22||Heidelberg Student Princes||OH||3-1||0-0|
|25||25||Christopher Newport Captains||VA||5-3||2-2|
Dropped Out: No. 23 Concordia University Chicago Cougars