Being selected as the No. 1 team in the preseason rarely bides well for teams. It actually is almost more of a kiss of death than a blessing. If you go back and read the preseason prognostications for pretty much every sport at any highly-competitive level, you’ll find that more often than not, a team other than the one selected No. 1 will win the title.
In January of this year, three schools were selected as the preseason favorites for the three small school college divisions: the Angelo State Rams in NCAA D-II, Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs of the NAIA and the Webster Gorloks in the NCAA D-III level. So far each of these three schools remain in strong consideration for national title contention. They are a combined 104-16 and each are firmly entrenched in their division’s top-five.
Before the conference and national postseasons begin, here is the current status of each of the three preseason favorites as they look to finish the season where they started – as the top team in the nation.
Angelo State Rams
Weeks at No. 1: 9 (of 13)
Lowest overall position: 5
Current ranking: 4
With two wins over UT Permian Basin on Sunday, the Rams increased their current win streak to seven games and outscored opposition 79-12 over that period. The victories increased their overall record to 31-6 and 25-5 in the Lone Star Conference, a game behind West Texas A&M. They also moved up one one position to the fourth slot nationally in the Perfect Game rankings – once again just behind the WT Buffs.
While they aren’t currently in the No. 1 position, Angelo State has unequivocally proven themselves worthy of the preseason status that was bestowed on them back in January. Of their six losses, three were to teams nationally ranked (West Texas and UT Tyler) and only once in 21 tries were they defeated at home. Their affinity to playing at home in San Angelo should be a tremendous advantage as they compete for a trip to Cary, N.C. as they were recently selected to host the four-team South Central Regional Tournament – a bracket which will be stocked with some of the best teams in college baseball.
Hosting the regional will require both Colorado Mesa and West Texas to have to travel to San Angelo to play in the extremely competitive South Central region, which has tragically only been allocated four slots. This is because the NCAA D-II regionals group teams by conference with only the The Lone Star Conference and Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference feeding into the region. With the Heartland Conference, a previous feeder conference, being dissolved in 2019, two spots were removed from the bracket. Thus three of the top four teams in the national rankings are being forced to compete for one single opportunity to advance to the final eight.
ASU certainly has the talent to finish as the top team. They have six regulars batting no less than .325. The team’s power production is down from anticipated, but they make up for it as they get on base at an exhausting rate (.483 team OB%) and are extremely aggressive on the base paths with 107 stolen bases so far this season. They can also claim reigning D-II Player of the Year Josh Elvir in the middle of the lineup. This season the senior outfielder is batting .396 with 11 home runs.
The staff ERA is a more-than-respectable 3.08 and has been strong since their series loss to West Texas. In their last 11 games, ASU pitchers have thrown four shutouts and twice only allowed a single run to score. Starter Trent Baker hasn’t allowed a single earned run over his last three outings while striking out 27 batters over his last 22 innings.
Additionally, while fielding percentage is a flawed indicator of overall ability, it’s hard to deny that a team posting a .980 mark isn’t holding things down well on defense.
Overall, while the Rams aren’t the current team atop the national rankings, they still may be the favorite to win the title. Whoever emerges victorious from the region will be the certain favorite to bring home the trophy from Cary and home field advantage could make the difference for ASU.
|1||1||Colorado Mesa Mavericks||CO||30-2||2-0|
|2||2||Central Missouri Mules||MO||31-6||2-1|
|3||3||West Texas A&M Buffs||TX||31-5||2-1|
|4||5||Angelo State Rams||TX||31-6||4-0|
|5||9||North Greenville Crusaders||SC||33-11||4-1|
|7||11||Illinois Springfield Prairie Stars||IL||32-4||4-0|
|8||15||West Florida Argos||FL||29-8||4-1|
|11||7||Mount Olive Trojans||NC||35-10||3-2|
|13||13||Azusa Pacific Cougars||CA||25-8||0-0|
|14||8||Minnesota State Mavericks||MN||28-6||3-2|
|15||14||UNC Pembroke Braves||NC||29-11||2-1|
|17||18||Seton Hill Griffins||PA||25-4||6-2|
|18||24||North Georgia Nighthawks||GA||28-12||4-0|
|19||20||Metro State Roadrunners||CO||28-8||3-1|
|20||16||Columbus St. Cougars||GA||25-14||3-3|
|21||19||Southern Arkansas Muleriders||AR||25-12||1-2|
|22||21||Charleston Golden Eagles||WV||30-6||2-2|
|23||NR||Southern New Hampshire Penmen||NH||17-3||3-1|
Drop: No. 22 Lindenwood
Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs
Weeks at No. 1: 13 (of 13)
Lowest overall position: 1
Current ranking: 1
With apologies to the Cumberlands Patriots, Southeastern Fire and Faulkner Eagles, if any team other than Tennessee Wesleyan wins the NAIA national title it will be a huge upset. As incredible as those other teams have been this season, the Bulldogs have been a level above. Their record is a remarkable 47-4 with wins over eight teams which have been ranked at some point this season. That includes two wins over second-ranked Cumberlands, another pair of victories over fifth-ranked Georgia Gwinnett and three against 10th-ranked Indiana Southeast. In those seven match-ups against some of the crème de la crème of the NAIA, TWU outscored their opposition 74-17, with the last two wins being shutouts. In the Bulldogs’ four losses, each were by two runs or less.
The team is slashing .335/.454/.648 on the season and has somehow managed to steal 121 bases despite hitting 244 extra-base hits. The offense is led by shortstop Gary Mattis Jr., who is leading the team in batting average at .418 and home runs with 22. While his overall numbers aren’t quite as prolific as Wayland Baptist’s Luis Vargas, it could certainly be argued that Mattis is the best overall player in the NAIA – certainly when you factor in his plate discipline and defense. In addition to Mattis, TWU has three other sluggers who are batting at least .340 with no fewer than 15 home runs. The Bulldog starting lineup simply has no easy outs.
The pitching in Athens has been just as dominant. The staff has a 2.45 ERA which leads the nation, as does their .184 opponent batting average. They are also solidly in the top-10 nationally in strikeouts with 445 in 408 innings. All four pitchers who made 10 starts have an ERA well below 2.00. TWU’s top reliever, Jared Meggs, has only allowed 13 hits in 24 1/3 innings over 17 appearances. Only four times this season has a team scored more than five runs against them in a game.
Defensively, the Bulldogs have only been charged with 32 errors on the season and only 21 times has an opponent successfully stolen a base. The team’s fielding percentage is .981 which is also No. 1 in the NAIA.
While TWU won’t be playing the national opening round on campus, they will be hosting it up the road in Kingsport, Tenn. Regardless of the four teams which are subjected to being in their bracket, the Bulldogs will be overwhelming favorites to advance to Lewiston for the fifth time since 2010 and reclaim the national championship title they earned in the past trip in 2019.
|1||1||Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs||TN||47-4||4-0|
|5||5||Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies||GA||37-9||5-0|
|6||6||Central Methodist Eagles||MO||40-5||2-0|
|8||8||Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles||OK||44-6||5-1|
|9||9||Lewis-Clark State Warriors||ID||38-4||3-1|
|10||10||Indiana Southeast Grenadiers||IN||40-13||4-0|
|11||11||LSU Shreveport Pilots||LA||34-12||5-0|
|13||14||William Carey Crusaders||MS||30-10||0-0|
|14||16||Antelope Valley Pioneers||CA||17-3||0-0|
|15||15||Oklahoma City Stars||OK||29-15||1-2|
|18||17||Benedictine Mesa Redhawks||AZ||28-12||3-2|
|20||20||Hope International Royals||CA||27-13||1-1|
|21||21||St. Thomas Bobcats||FL||32-17||0-0|
|22||22||Middle Georgia State Knights||GA||31-17||1-2|
|24||24||Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats||IN||39-12||0-0|
Dropped: No. 23 McPherson
Weeks at No. 1: 7 (of 13)
Lowest overall position: 3
Current ranking: 3
While the Gorloks aren’t currently the No. 1 team in the Perfect Game D-III rankings, the distance between them and the two clubs above is razor thin. The Gorloks have an outstanding 26-6 record, in which four of their losses were by two runs or less, and two of which were to the team currently first in the rankings, city rival Washington University.
Webster’s pitching has been absolutely stunning this season as their hurlers have combined to toss seven shutouts. The team ERA is 2.18, which is fourth in the nation, and they’ve struck out 300 batters, which also places them in the top-10. Matt Mulhearn’s statistics this season rival those amassed by current Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Josh Fleming when he threw for the Gorloks. Mulhearn has made nine appearances and thrown a complete game in three of them. In 67 innings on the mound he has only allowed 37 hits and issued five walks while striking out 94 batters. Against Eureka College on April 2 he threw a seven-inning no-hitter in which he struck out 17-of-23 total batters. Jordan Smevoll and JT Miller, the team’s other two primary starting pitchers, both have sub-2.00 ERAs as well. The staff’s statistics should get even more insane after they close their regular season as they have four games against 8-15 Iowa Wesleyan.
Offensively the Gorloks aren’t mashers, but they hit and run very well. They are batting .291 as a team – nearly .100 points higher than their opposition. Senior outfielder A.J. Smith, who is playing his sixth season for Webster due to injury and COVID, leads the offense. He is batting .346 with five home runs, two triples and a team-leading six home runs in 104 at-bats.
COVID has limited D-III action overall this season with many teams only being able to play a fraction of their usual schedule; therefore getting a solid read on Webster’s potential to start and finish the season as the top team isn’t quite as solid as the other two levels. Nonetheless, Webster remains a strong candidate to advance to the Division-III World Series for the fifth time overall in school history and challenge for the national title.
|6||5||North Central Cardinals||IL||26-6||3-1|
|9||8||Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets||VA||22-9||2-1|
|10||9||Cortland State Red Dragons||NY||21-5||3-1|
|13||13||North Carolina Wesleyan Battling Bishops||NC||29-6||3-0|
|15||20||Texas Lutheran Bulldogs||TX||25-11||3-1|
|17||17||Southern Maine Huskies||ME||21-8||3-0|
|18||18||Washington & Jefferson Presidents||PA||31-1||4-0|
|19||19||Johns Hopkins Blue Jays||MD||11-3||2-0|
|25||25||Christopher Newport Captains||VA||18-8||2-1|
Dropped: No. 23 Cal Lutheran