Along with the updated rankings is a look at a team in each of the three divisions which is a strong dark horse candidate to take home the national title. For the purposes of what defines a dark horse; each of the trio were unranked to start the year, but with a strong finish they could surprisingly, but not shockingly, earn their division’s crown at the end of the month.
Metro State Roadrunners
If you exclude their road losses to top-ranked Colorado Mesa, the Metro State Roadrunners have only lost four times this season by a total of 10 runs (and six of those were in one contest). Their overall record is 32-8, which has secured them second place in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. When they reached the 30-win mark last week it was their first time topping that plateau since 2008 despite playing a schedule with 10 fewer opportunities to earn a win. The surge in production has much to do with an influx of talented transfers and freshmen who’ve propelled the team to earn its best single-season winning percentage in program history.
The offense outscored opposition 113-24 in their last seven wins and has reached double-digit run totals 20 times this season. As a club they are batting .340 with 75 home runs to fuel a .599 team slugging percentage. They also show patience and savvy at the plate which has netted them an additional 168 free passes to first via a walk or HBP to elevate their on-base percentage to .441.
Bill Ralston, who started his college career with the D-I St. Mary’s Gaels and spent two seasons playing for California-based community college programs, is leading the team with a .416 batting average from the third base position. He and leadoff hitter Chase Anderson, who is batting .393, have combined to score 105 runs between them thanks to the slugging of Jake Williams and Niko Piazza. Williams, like Ralston, is new to the team this year after previously playing two seasons of community college ball on the West Coast. Piazza transferred from fellow D-II school Southeastern Oklahoma State. Williams tops the team with 15 home runs and is slashing an incredible .370/.521/.907. Piazza primarily bats cleanup and has a team-leading 27 extra-base hits. Another newcomer to the team, shortstop Caleb Albaugh, is batting .377 as a freshman. His defense is also a big part of the reason the team can claim a robust .971 team fielding percentage.
The Roadrunner’s pitching is solid as well. Seniors Cade Crader and Logan Soole lead a staff whose team 4.54 ERA is almost a run and a half lower than any team in the conference aside from Colorado Mesa. Crader blossomed in last year’s abbreviated season and has continued to dominate this season. In 56 1/3 innings he has struck out 81 batters with only 15 walks while only allowing 47 hits. Soole not only holds the school record for strikeouts by a pitcher, he also shares the MSU Denver record for RBI in a game with eight. His 2.63 ERA is tops among team starters and he has only allowed 28 hits over 41 innings for a .190 b/avg. While playing the field he is hitting .378 in 37 at-bats. Austin Stone had 6.04 and 7.20 ERAs in his two previous seasons on the mound, but has been a steady performer this year with a much more manageable 3.80 mark. Jimmy Dobrash failed to take to the hill in two seasons with the D-I Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, but has earned 63 strikeouts in 53 innings for the Runrunners.
Despite their abundance of wins and 18th position in the national rankings, there is a possibility that MSU Denver could actually not make the national postseason at all. The NCAA D-II postseason puts teams in brackets based on their conference. The RMAC and Lone Star Conference exclusively feed into the South Central Region which is only allotted four spots. There used to be six in the region, but two were taken away when the Heartland Conference was cannibalized by the LSC. Angelo State and Colorado Mesa will be invited regardless of how they finish the season. The Rams have already been named a host and the Mavs are currently the top-ranked team. West Texas and MSU Denver would be the next most likely picks to complete the quartet. However, if someone other than one of those four teams wins their conference tournament, it would seem likely that the Roadrunners would be the first out to make way for the unlikely auto-bid team. That could change if WT plays terribly to close the year, the Roadrunners are the RMAC tournament runner-up and Mesa is ousted early, but that sequence of events seems unlikely. The only way for them to guarantee themselves a position is to earn the automatic qualifier themselves. Unless that happens, they’ll have to root for the rival Mesa and become temporary Angelo State and West Texas fans.
|1||1||Colorado Mesa Mavericks||CO||33-3||3-1|
|2||2||Central Missouri Mules||MO||34-6||3-0|
|3||3||West Texas A&M Buffs||TX||31-5||1-0|
|4||4||Angelo State Rams||TX||34-6||3-0|
|5||5||North Greenville Crusaders||SC||33-11||0-0|
|7||8||West Florida Argos||FL||32-8||3-0|
|8||7||Illinois Springfield Prairie Stars||IL||34-5||2-1|
|11||11||Mount Olive Trojans||NC||35-10||0-0|
|12||13||Azusa Pacific Cougars||CA||29-8||4-0|
|13||14||Minnesota State Mavericks||MN||32-7||3-1|
|15||17||Seton Hill Griffins||PA||31-4||6-0|
|17||20||Columbus St. Cougars||GA||27-14||2-0|
|18||19||Metro State Roadrunners||CO||32-8||4-0|
|19||18||North Georgia Nighthawks||GA||30-13||2-1|
|21||15||UNC Pembroke Braves||NC||29-13||0-2|
|22||21||Southern Arkansas Muleriders||AR||27-13||2-1|
|23||22||Charleston Golden Eagles||WV||30-6||0-0|
|24||23||Southern New Hampshire Penmen||NH||19-5||2-2|
The dark horse pick in the NAIA are the Concordia Bulldogs. While playing last week in the shadow of South Dakota’s most magnificent historical monument (obviously the Corn Palace in Mitchell), Head Coach Ryan Dupic’s team tied a school record for wins in a single season with a lopsided 15-4 defeat of Dakota Wesleyan. Their total was increased by four following their sweep through the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament. The team’s overall record currently stands at 38-9 and they are likely to receive a low seed in the relatively nearby Bellevue-based opening round bracket.
The explosive offense ranks among the top in the nation as they are in the top-20 nationally in batting average, slugging percentage and runs scored. Eight everyday hitters have averages no less than .325 and are led by COVID-freshman Jayden Adams’ .415 mark. Adams, who played high school ball less than an hour from campus, earned a hit or walk in all but seven of 47 games played this season. He has successfully crossed the plate 60 times this year thanks to the slugging quartet of Joey Grabanski, Keaton Candor, Beau Dorman and Jesse Garcia. Each of the four have accumulated a double-digit home run total. The group is led by the strong and stocky Grananski, a true freshman outfielder, who is also an accomplished bowler. While Adams and Grananski are new to the team, Candor, Dorman and Garcia also provide experience with power and each are in at least their third season as a starter on the team. The team also has one of NAIA’s unique regular courtesy runners in Peyton Scott. In four seasons as a Bulldog, Scott has appeared primarily as a replacement on the basepaths and stolen 45 bases despite limited action.
Concordia’s pitching staff also rates among the top teams in the NAIA level. Their hurlers are in the top-20 in ERA, opponent batting average and strikeouts. The most accomplished individual performer is unequivocally California native Jake Fosgett. He currently is second in the nation in ERA with a 1.31 mark. In 48 innings this year he astonishingly has struck out 89 batters. That number is thanks in part to him somehow fanning 17 in only six innings against Dordt in late March. Trenton Wood, who graduated from fellow NAIA school Mount Vernon Nazarene, has given the team a boost as well. He has struck out 74 batters in 61 2/3 innings. It is scary to think of how dominating the staff would have been this season had Jason Munsch, who struck out 165 batters total in only 92 1/3 innings in 2019 and 2020 with a 1.75 ERA, stayed around for another year instead of signing a professional contract last summer. What makes the staff special and gives them an advantage is its overall depth. There are several arms that can come in to keep an opponent at bay, including Shane Whittaker and Nathan Buckallew. Whittaker has struck out 42 batters in 22 1/3 innings while Whittaker leads the team with 15 appearances, has a 2.11 ERA and has held opposition to a .184 batting average.
So far this season Concordia hasn’t played a team which has spent any time in the national rankings; their most advantageous opponent has been GPAC runner-up Doane. Therefore it isn’t recommended to bet the farm that the Bulldogs will continue to trounce through the next round of postseason, but they are nonetheless a team to watch which could easily upset a team or two and advance to Lewiston.
|1||1||Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs||TN||51-4||4-0|
|4||5||Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies||GA||42-9||5-0|
|5||6||Central Methodist Eagles||MO||42-5||2-0|
|8||10||Indiana Southeast Grenadiers||IN||45-14||3-1|
|9||9||Lewis-Clark State Warriors||ID||41-4||3-0|
|10||11||LSU Shreveport Pilots||LA||38-13||5-1|
|11||8||Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles||OK||46-8||2-2|
|12||13||William Carey Crusaders||MS||34-10||4-0|
|14||14||Antelope Valley Pioneers||CA||17-3||0-0|
|16||15||Oklahoma City Stars||OK||33-16||4-1|
|18||18||Benedictine Mesa Redhawks||AZ||28-13||0-0|
|20||20||Hope International Royals||CA||27-13||0-0|
|21||24||Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats||IN||41-12||2-0|
|24||22||Middle Georgia State Knights||GA||34-19||3-2|
|25||21||St. Thomas Bobcats||FL||33-19||0-2|
The Coe Kohawks have gone an impressive 69-15 the last three years to entrench themselves firmly in the national picture. In 2019 they defeated Aurora and Washington University twice in St. Louis to advance to the Super Regional round where they were finally dispatched by Birmingham Southern. This year the Kohawks have a remarkable 29-4 record and are battling rival Luther for the top spot in the American Rivers Conference. While Coe has a slight edge in the standings, Luther could potentially usurp the title this weekend in a four-game series. Regardless of the outcome, Coe, who moved up to the No. 17 position in this week’s rankings, will remain a team to watch in the postseason.
The Kohawks’ success in the postseason will weigh heavily on the arms and shoulders of the pitching staff – which is fortunate for Coe because they have some terrific arms. The team has a 2.94 ERA, which is far lower than any of their conference-mates (second is Dubuque at 4.25) and in the top-20 overall. They’ve thrown four shutouts this season and six times only allowed a single run to score. Opposition has only managed to hit .238 against them, thanks in large part to senior TJ Deardorff, who has only allowed 32 hits in 53 2/3 innings. Deardorff recently earned his second conference pitcher of the week honor after earning two wins against Wartburg. He is also one of the team’s top hitters. TJ Johnson has thrown six complete games in nine starts to give the team a pair of aces. In 60 innings, Johnson has only allowed 49 hits while striking out 43. Freshman Austin Divello has been invaluable out of the bullpen. He leads the team with 13 appearances and four saves despite his inexperience on the mound and has a 2.53 ERA.
The Kohawk offense is built for base-to-base run production. The team is batting a solid .319, but has little pop with only 12 home runs. What they lack in power, they more than make up for in speed. The team is in the top-20 nationally with 86 stolen bases. Three players primarily fuel the run production: the previously mentioned Johnson, Riley LeGrand, and Isaac Evans. LeGrand is batting .458, which is only bested by six other players in D-III with at least 100 at bats. Johnson is hitting .397 and has half of the team’s home runs with six. Evans is batting .385 and pacing the club with 23 stolen bases.
As demonstrated in 2019, Coe can compete with the best in D-III baseball. Should the scrappy Kohawks win their region they’ll return home to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the final series will be played. Playing in front of a what would be an extremely biased crowd could give them an extra advantage in winning the title.
|5||6||North Central Cardinals||IL||30-6||4-0|
|9||10||Cortland State Red Dragons||NY||23-5||3-1|
|10||13||North Carolina Wesleyan Battling Bishops||NC||31-6||2-0|
|11||15||Texas Lutheran Bulldogs||TX||28-12||3-1|
|13||17||Southern Maine Huskies||ME||27-8||8-0|
|16||18||Washington & Jefferson Presidents||PA||33-1||2-0|
|19||19||Johns Hopkins Blue Jays||MD||3-Nov||0-0|
|20||NR||St. Thomas Tommies||MN||23-5||5-0|
|21||9||Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets||VA||23-11||1-2|
|22||NR||Eastern Connecticut State||CT||29-4||3-0|
|25*||NR||Oswego State Lakers||NY||21-3||4-2|
Dropped: No. 20 Centenary, No. 22 Tufts, No. 25 Christopher Newport