The Southeast Region is one of our favorites. Why? Because they make it rain. Seriously folks, if you are a high school pitcher and considering a D2 program, you might want to think about a school in a different conference than the Conference Carolinas, Peach Belt Conference and the South Atlantic Conference. This region is filled with some of the most potent offenses in the country. Now, with that said, if you do succeed in this region as a pitcher…some professional team should take notice and give you a contract.
Our Top 5 in this region by no means separates them from the pack. This whole region is filled with teams at the same level of these five. The key to making it out of the insanely difficult crucible of the Southeast Region is to be able to hit, pitch to your strengths and have a little luck. All of those things were true of the Catawba Indians in 2015, when they made it to the final game of the College World Series. If we were betting men, we would put money on the 2016 Southeast Region winner making a similar run.
Four of the top 5 below are pretty much on everyone’s list. But we include one team that we have been watching for the last year…who flashed promise in 2015. And we believe they are just about ready to make another run.
Our #5 Southeast Region Pre-Season pick is our sleeper this year. The Tusculum College Pioneers, rising to #2 in the country in 2012 season, has had a couple off years where the Pioneers tried to find the right guys to lock in and create yet another 40-50 win season. Just when you thought they were rolling again, there would be a collapse in the hitting or the pitching staff started struggling. So why do we like the Pioneers this year? Last year, they got off to a rough start, but as the season progressed, the parts began to come together. There are a bunch of reasons why we have Tusculum ranked so high to start the season, but let’s give you just three: 1. The Pioneers have an aggressive start to this season with five teams that were nationally ranked in 2015…three of them in the first month; 2. Pioneer Park, which is one of the finest baseball parks in the country at any level, is an inhospitable place for visiting teams. Tusculum has 27 of their 49 games at home, a place where they went 25-4 in 2015 and have an incredible 273-79 home record since the park opened in 2004; and 3. Their resurgent pitching staff has shown the ability to compete in the offense-laden South Atlantic Conference (SAC) and Southeast Region. While the rough February last year didnt show it, by April, this staff was competing as well as anyone. The Pioneers will count on senior Placido Torres (2.43 ERA, 85.1 IP, 110 SO, .227 BAA) and junior Devan Watts (1.79 ERA, 50.1 IP, 59 SO, .237 BAA, 8 saves) to anchor what should be a very good squad. If Coach Doug Jones, who earned his 600th win in 2015, can continue the improvement of the offense along with the solid pitching staff, we will find out quickly if Tusculum and the Catawba Indians will battle for SAC dominance in 2016.
The Flagler College Saints (Peach Belt Conference) are our #4 pick. The Saints were in and out of our national rankings in 2015, but was quickly eliminated in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament. Coach David Barnett will look to harness a club that has matured and should be seasoned enough to capitalize on their successes last year and make their run towards Cary. The Peach Belt Conference is one of the top three best offensive conferences in the country, and Flagler showed they can hit, completing their 2015 campaign with a team .311 average. Returning at the plate in 2016 for the Saints are seniors Lorenzo Butler (.379 average, 72 hits, 35 runs, 15 extra base hits, 50 RBIs, 21 stolen bases) and Kolin McMillen (.358 average, 68 hits, 46 runs, 15 extra base hits, 33 RBIs, 12 stolen bases). The Flagler bullpen and a respectable 3.95 ERA in 2015, and will count on senior Mike O’Reilly (2.89 ERA, 93.1 IP, 94 SO, .289 BAA) to lead a largely untested bullpen. The strength of the Saints will continue to be their hitting…but if they can find a rotation in their bullpen that can compete, then we expect to see Flagler still playing late in the season.
With our #3 Southeast Region pick, we expect to see a Mount Olive College Trojans team (Conference Carolinas) back in the hunt after a 2015 season that saw the Trojans miss several opportunities to move on. Mount Olive finished the 2015 season with a 39-16 record (19-7 Conference Carolinas), but was knocked out of the Southeast Region tournament by the Catawba Indians and North Georgia Nighthawks. Also, in 2015, Head Coach Carl Lancaster reached the 1,000 win mark in his collegiate coaching career. When anyone tries to handicap the D2 teams nationally, Mount Olive seems to always be in the conversation. Returning for Coach Lancaster in 2016 will be an club that finished the 2015 with a .330 team batting average, in the hit-happy Southeast Region. Look for the Trojans to continue being a force at the plate, with returners such as seniors Joe Koehler (.373 average, 63 hits, 48 runs, 28 extra base hits, 11 homeruns, 56 RBIs, 7 stolen bases) and Zak Orrison (.358 average, 78 hits, 59 runs, 19 extra base hits, 41 RBIs, 33 stolen bases). As we have stated before, the Southeast Region is brutal on pitching staffs, with so many great hitters. In 2015, the Trojans managed a team ERA of 5.19, which is about average for this Region. Mount Olive lost several key pitchers, but returns junior Kodi Whitley (4.41 ERA, 87.2 IP, 8 wins, 4 losses, averaged 9 strikeouts a game). We know that Mount Olive will return to its offensive ways in 2016. The question will be if this pitching staff can improve or can the offense make up for it. Time will tell.
The North Georgia Nighthawks, our #2 pick, were one game away from Cary last season, with the Catawba Indians ending their season in the finals of the Southeast Region Tournament. The 2016 may end up being deja vu all over again, as we expect the Nighthawks to again be in the Southeast Region tournament, and they have as good as a chance as anyone to come out of this region to play in the College World Series. The Nighthawks will again count on being a balanced squad in 2016, and will try to improve at the plate and on the mound. Solid hitters return for the Nighthawks, to include senior Sam Tidaback (.321 average, 61 hits, 37 runs, 21 extra base hits, 9 homeruns, 36 RBIs) and sophomore Steven Tomlinson (.313 average, 67 hits, 41 runs, 11 extra base hits, 39 RBIs). On the mound, pitcher Chris Cobb (3.31 ERA, 49 IP, 42 SO, .262 BAA) should be in the center of what should be a good bullpen. Coach Tom Cantrell will need to improve upon the 2015 season by integrating the new faces with the veterans who came so very close to Cary last year.
And…..our #1 2016 Southeast Region Pre-Season pick is:
The Catawba College Indians had an absolutely dominant year in 2015, ending up the runner-up in the College World Series. When we finished our preseason predictions in 2015, we stated that Coach Jim Gantt has been noted to, year in and year out, to find the talent to compete for the South Atlantic Conference championship every year, and threaten to make a run at a national level. Even though Coach Gantt has lost Brett Tomko Award winner Craig Brooks to graduation, as well as a few other key players that led them to be one of the top two teams in the country last year, it again appears that the Indians have reloaded and are poised to make 2016 another great year. Pitching in the shadows of Brooks last year, junior Shaeffer Shepard (3.94 ERA, 98.1 IP, 80 SO, .270 BAA) will be chosen to anchor what will again be one of the top pitching staffs in the country. The Indians had a great year at the plate in 2015, finishing with a team average of .310. They will need to continue this in 2016, and will count on returners Will Albertson (.467 average, 114 hits, 75 runs, 44 extra base hits, 26 homeruns, 91 RBIs) and Dylan Richardson (.340 average, 72 hits, 51 runs, 30 extra base hits, 49 RBIs) to be the center of the action. The Catawba Indians have seen what the National Championship Trophy looks like…and that hunger and the experience of 2015 will propel them back towards Cary again this year. Not to sound like a broken record, but just like we have said about Coach Gantt every year…if he has reloaded yet again…Catawba will be one of the favorites to win it all this year.