Next up in our Regional rankings and coverage is the Southeast Region. Even though we will not be releasing the National Rankings until January 23rd, we can tell you that the Southeast Region garnered more Top 30 teams than any region in NCAA II. We have heard from many coaches in the South Atlantic Conference, Peach Belt Conference and Conference Carolinas talk about how tough it is to make it out of this region. In any given year, the top 5 teams in this region could easily have competed at Cary. Teams in these three conferences spend the entire year beating each other up, and slogging it out in some of the best baseball you will see in the country…only to have just one team move on.
To use an example on how this region (and in this example, the South Region) turn out teams that are at the top of D2 baseball every year…in 2012, during the Southeast Region tournament and the South Region tournament, the #1 (Tampa – South Region) and #2 (Tusculum – Southeast Region) teams in the country were eliminated the same weekend from their regional tournaments by teams they had beaten during the year.
So, as we said, the Southeast Region has some of the best play you will find in D2 baseball, on any given weekend. Even the sub-.500 teams will rise up and bite a nationally ranked team, if they don’t bring their “A” game every week. This year is no exception. While we highlight the Top 5 teams in the region, there are teams lurking just off the radar that we have no doubt, will make their presence known during the season. And may enter our regional and nationally rankings. There are “sleepers” everywhere.
And with that, we give you the Top 5 2015 Southeast Region Pre-Season picks….
Coming in at #5 is the Catawba College Indians. The Indians are coming off a good year in 2014, winning the South Atlantic Conference tournament, but got caught in the grinder we talked about above, and was eliminated in the Southeast Region tournament. Since 2004, Catawba has 5 SAC tournament championships and has won the regular season or shared in the regular season title 7 of those ten years. As a matter of fact, only one year in the last ten years have Catawba (7 titles) and Tusculum College (5 titles) not taken the regular season or shared the regular season title. But those numbers dont tell the whole story of the SAC, with 11 teams that can play with anyone and have knocked out of contention, many hopefuls. In 2014, the Indians were led by their pitching staff, and we believe that will be their strength again in 2015. Catawba lost one of its bullpen pitchers to the MLB draft in 2014 (although he played a minor role with the team), but most of the horses have returned for this season. Heading one of the best bullpens in the region are senior Craig Brooks (2.32 ERA, 89.1 IP, 104 SO, .184 BAA), sophomore Shaefer Shepard (1.46 ERA, 67.2 IP, 57 SO, .206 BAA) and senior closer Ryan McClintock (2.20 ERA, 41 IP, 32 SO, .289 BAA, 8 saves). The Indians hitting was another strong point for them in 2014, hitting a team average of .305. Their top hitters graduated, but they do return a few excellent bats. Those include Brooks (.336 average, 46 hits), senior Blake Houston (.336 average, 19 extra base hits, 4 homeruns, 19 stolen bases) and senior T.J. Wharton (.298 average, 20 extra base hits, 10 homeruns). If there is anything that will hold the Indians back this season, it will be hitting. Coach Jim Gantt is no stranger to having to reload a team…and it is a good bet that he has already found them.
The Peach Belt Conference garnered three top picks in the Southeast Region for 2015. At #4, the University of South Carolina – Aiken Pacers finished the 2014 season in the Top 20 teams in the country, being knocked out of the Southeast Region Tournament by eventual Region champion, Lander University. Headlining the Pacers in 2014 was the fact that they hit at a blistering team average of .322. Many of those hitters return for the 2015 season. Leading this Murderers Row is senior TJ Costen (.297 average, 22 extra base hits, 9 homeruns, 58 RBIs, 18 stolen bases), senior Ty Barkell (.343 average, 28 extra base hits, 10 homeruns, 58 RBIs), junior Sean Miller (.379 average, 11 extra base hits, 37 RBIs, 13 stolen bases), senior Kody Belcher (.299 average, 11 extra base hits, 3 homeruns, 27 RBIs, 24 stolen bases) and senior Matt Bosse (.306 average, 25 extra base hits, 10 homeruns, 54 RBIs). The Pacers’ bullpen is solid, but will again press the offense to provide enough runs to get the wins. In 2014, the USC Aiken pitching staff recorded a 4.29 team ERA, where walks were a key concern. It was fortunate that the team had the offense they did…and in 2015, Head Coach Kenny Thomas will need new arms and a loaded offense to keep pace in arguably the most competitive conference in the country. The Pacers do return a few solid arms in sophomore LHP Matt Hissong (3.81 ERA, 59 IP, 35 SO) and senior Ben Black (2.91 ERA, 52.2 IP, 49 SO). It will be a good year for the Pacers if the pitching staff can hold on and let the explosive Pacers offense do its damage.
Representing the Conference Carolinas is the #3 top pre-season pick for the Southeast Region in 2015. The University of Mount Olive Trojans are no stranger to the top ranks of NCAA II baseball, having won their own National Championship just a few years ago. Head Coach Carl Lancaster had a great year in 2014, finishing with a 40-13 record and being knocked out of the Southeast Region Tournament by Catawba. The Trojans in 2014 relied on a powerful offense to propel themselves to the top of the Conference Carolinas, and move into the NCAA Tournament. The offense will again be relied on in 2015 to set the pace for Mount Olive. The leading bats in 2015 should be seniors Rob Shipman (.388 average, 18 extra base hits, 10 homeruns, 54 RBIs), Justin Manning (.363 average, 22 extra base hits, 4 homeruns, 39 RBIs), DeAndre Allen (.304 average, 14 extra base hits, 2 homeruns, 13 stolen bases) and Cody Britt (.292 average, 13 extra base hits, 31 RBIs, 14 stolen bases). While the Trojan offense should be solid, it will be the pitching that will decide if they will be able to compete in the offensive powerhouse that is the Southeast Region. Leading the Trojans’ bullpen is senior LHP Gunnar Kines, who finished the 2014 season with a 3.59 ERA in 62.2 innings pitched and struck out 51 hitters. The Trojans should finish the season on top of the Conference Carolinas, but what is unknown is how far they will be able to go in the Southeast Region Tournament. Their first weekend will be a series against Lander University…this should give us all an idea on where the Trojans may be this year.
As we said before, trying to pick the top five teams in this region is difficult. Trying to discern the top two is next to impossible. Our #2 Southeast Region pick also is coming off a great season, finishing second in the Peach Belt Conference in and ending the year with a 40-17 record. The Columbus State Cougars also moved deep into the Southeast Region Tournament, being knocked out by the Tournament Champions, Lander. The Cougars are another team that if they played in a different conference and region, they would probably have been in Cary last year. And we believe they will have an equally successful season in 2015. Like their conference foes USC Aiken, the Cougars had a powerful offense, hitting a team average .321. Returning bats for the Cougars should provide another offense-rich year. Most of the hitting squad returns for the Cougars in 2015, including senior Brendan Collins (.340 average, 16 extra base hits, 5 homeruns, 42 RBIs, 26 stolen bases), junior Blake Edwards (.346 average, 16 extra base hits, 3 homeruns, 36 RBIs), junior Jackson Oliver (.386 average, 24 extra base hits, 4 homeruns, 56 RBIs, 23 stolen bases), senior Dustin Averett (.319 average, 25 extra base hits, 10 homeruns, 62 RBIs), senior Carson Bowers (.344 average, 15 extra base hits, 5 homeruns) and junior Mike McClellan (.373 average, 23 extra base hits, 13 homeruns, 43 RBIs). Just like the Pacers, the Cougars found that their pitching staff gave way at times to the offense-laden conference, giving up on average one hit an inning. in order to have a successful year in the PBC in 2015, the Cougars will need to make sure their bullpen can limit the damage of these offensive powerhouses, keeping them in the game. Returning to the Cougar bullpen in 2015 are seniors Mike McGinnity (4.98 ERA, 94 IP, 52 SO), Caden Ferguson (4.20 ERA, 79.1 IP, 74 SO) and Bryan Headley (5.13 ERA, 66.2 IP, 38 SO). Senior Trey Watson (2.48 ERA, 32.2 IP, 32 SO, 11 saves) will return as the team’s closer and should be effective in stopping the fire if games get close. With the Cougars in 2015, though, offense will propel them into the NCAA Tournament.
Coming in as our #1 2015 Southeast Region Pre-Season pick is:
The Peach Belt Conference is going to be a slug fest in 2015, as it was in 2014. The Lander University Bearcats was a dominant D2 team in 2014, finishing with a 52-9 record and making it all the way to the College World Series and the final 4 teams. Many of the components that produced one of the top teams in the country in 2014, still remain in 2015. The Bearcats hit .313 for the season, with seven players hitting .319 or better. As can be seen with the analysis on USC Aiken and Columbus State above, if you don’t hit, you will not move far in the PBC. Returning from the 2014 squad will be junior Thomas Berry (.348 average, 25 extra base hits, 6 homeruns, 54 RBIs), senior Colby Painter (.332 average, 31 extra base hits, 11 homeruns, 67 RBIs), and senior Weston Lawing (.319 average, 30 extra base hits, 6 homeruns, 58 RBIs). Several workhorses for the Bearcat pitching staff that produced a 3.95 team ERA in 2014 return, including junior Taylor Alvarez (4.50 ERA, 96 IP, 51 SO, .293 BAA). While several teams retained the core of their teams from 2014, key parts of the Bearcats line-up and bullpen have graduated, which means that Coach Kermit Smith will have his work cut out for him in 2015 if he wants to return to Cary, especially in this conference and this region. By what we have seen with the guys stepping up for 2015, it is a good bet that Lander will be at the top of the Southeast Region when the dust settles in May.