By Jim Dixon
|Ryan Gaines was named a 2017 D3baseball.com Preseason First-Team All-American, one of two Southern Athletic Association athletes to be recognized.
Birmingham-Southern athletics photo
Appleton has seen the crowning of a National Champion from every region except the South and this could be the year the South rises again. The power in the South Region is in the deep south with Emory and Birmingham-Southern holding the best chances to contend for a National Championship. They will be challenged by ODAC title contenders Randolph-Macon and Shenandoah. Both finished second in their regional last season, losing twice to the eventual regional champion.
The Sea Gulls of Salisbury will also have their sights set on another run at the title. Salisbury is one of four teams to advance to the NCAA playoffs every year for the last ten and 2017 should make it eleven. La Grange turned their program around in 2016 with a 30-win season. The Panthers are again expected to be at the top of the USA South and a dark horse pick to come out of the South Region for a chance at the walnut and bronze trophy handed out at the end of the year.
|Lew Jenkins retired after 22 years at St Mary's (Md) and will be replaced by Bernie Stratchko in 2017.
St. Mary's (Md) athletics photo
Drew Briese, Centre: After a nationwide search, Centre welcomed back Drew Briese, class of 2000, as its new head coach. One of 230 applicants, the choice was easy to hire Briese as the hiring committee could not find a better fit with the school's philosophy or the success that Briese has had as a part of Birmingham Southern's program over the past decade. Briese returns to Danville after serving as an assistant coach at perennial NCAA Division III and SAA power Birmingham Southern since 2006. With the Panthers, his duties included working as the Panthers' hitting coach, catching coach and third base coach, while also formulating defensive alignment and positioning.
Justin Scali, Piedmont: After having spent the last 12 seasons on staff as an sssistant coach, Justin Scali succeeded Jim Peeples as the head coach at Piedmont. Scali is just the fourth different head coach in the last 30 years of the program's history. "It is an honor to be named the head coach of Piedmont College baseball," said Scali of the move. "I have been so fortunate to have spent the past 12 seasons coaching here as an assistant alongside two great coaches and great men in Coach Peeples and Coach Dombrowsky, and have learned so much from them that I will use going forward. I appreciate the faith shown in me by the administration and am thrilled to accept this opportunity to lead our baseball program into the future."
Bernie Stratchko, St. Mary's (Md): 'Bernie' Stratchko replaced St. Mary's long time coach Lew Jenkins this summer. Stratchko comes in with a sustained, successful track record of recruiting high-quality D-III baseball players in the state of Maryland and in the mid-Atlantic region as well as part of a successful baseball program at Frostburg State. "It truly is an honor to follow such a well-respected coach as Lew Jenkins. I look forward to the challenge of competing with the Seahawks in the CAC," expressed Stratchko.
Key Contests in 2017
March 12: Salisbury at Shenandoah: Two ranked teams play a key regional contest after the start of the conference schedule for each.
March 15: Emory at Birmingham-Southern: An early look at the two teams that are expected to battle for the South Regional title.
April 1: Salisbury at Frostburg State: The conference series should determine who will win the conference and who will have the upperhand in the CAC tournament.
April 22: Shenandoah at Randolph-Macon: A late conference doubleheader will give the winner a leg up in the seeding of the ODAC tournament.
Capital Athletic Conference: The CAC has been dominated by Frostburg State and Salisbury as both teams represented the conference in the NCAA playoffs in the last two years. The current season could see a new face emerge as Marymount will make a bid to make this a three team race in 2017.
|Salisbury's Pete Grasso is one of the best two-way players in D-III baseball.
Salisbury athletics photo
No. 24 Salisbury (26-12) needed a Tournament title to keep their string of playoff appearances intact for 2016 and are expected to repeat in 2017. The positives start with the senior duo of Pete Grasso (.409, 7 HR, 46 RBI) and Tom LaBriola (.413, 4 HR, 55 RBI) who are preseason favorites for the CAC Player of the Year. Grasso (7-2, 4.14 ERA, 55K) will also star on the mound as part of a three man rotation that went 14-5 last year. Seven new faces to the Salisbury program are coming out of junior colleges or D-I programs and will make an immediate impact.
Frostburg State (30-14) has had a lot of success lately as they are 73-23 in the last two seasons, including a 2015 CAC and NCAA Mideast Regional Championship. In 2016 they won the regular season title but had to settle for an at-large bid and a trip to the New York Regional. Back for 2017 is Greg Schneider (6-2, 3.49 ERA) who led the CAC in strikeouts with 91, a mark that was 14th in the nation. They will need him on the mound as four of the top six batters graduated last year. Leading the offense will be Devin Bell (.357, 13 HR, 44 RBI).
Marymount (23-17) is a program on the rise. In their fourth year of existence, they are primed to take the next step as conference champions. The Saints have their deepest team as the nine members of the inaugural recruiting class enter their senior year. Seniors Brandon Savage (.358, 5 SB, 31 RBI) and Brandon Orbe (.320, 11 2B, 24 RBI) occupy the corners of the infield with a junior led pitching rotation and seniors backing them up in the bull pen. With his focus on the team, head coach Frank Leoni could see Marymount earn their first NCAA playoff bid.
|CNU's Michael Thomas was twice named to the D3baseball.com Team of the Week in 2006.
Christopher Newport athletics photo
Christopher Newport (25-14), Penn State-Harrisburg (19-23), and Wesley (20-17) finished in the middle of the pack in the CAC in 2016. The Captains will look to improve on their fifth place finish in 2016 as they have a solid core with Keith Roberts (.357, 5 HR, 28 RBI) holding the bat, Michael Thomas (4-1, 3.29 ERA, 38K) and two pitching prospects from D-1 Old Dominion University on the mound.
Mary Washington (24-15), St. Mary's (Md.) (10-23), Southern Virginia (9-23), and York (Pa.) (10-26-1) finished 2016 in the conference cellar. Both Mary Washington and York have assembled NCAA playoffs teams in the past but are six years removed and will need to arrest their declining number of victories to earn a trip to the conference tournament and the automatic bid that awaits the winner.
Old Dominion Athletic Conference: No. 16 Shenandoah (35-12) is expected to stay at the top of the ODAC with competition from the Yellow Jackets of Randolph-Macon. The Hornet offense will feature five .300 hitters returning in 2017. This group will be led by Preseason All-American selection Jake Loew (.373, 6 HR, 55 RBI). Nineteen wins came from last years seniors and the combo of Colin Morse (5-1, 2.80, 55K) and Zach Teeple (4-1, 6.64, 29K) will need to step up if Shenandoah will gain another NCAA playoff appearance. With 15 wins, head coach Kevin Anderson will reach the 400 win mark with the Hornets.
No. 10 Randolph Macon (35-8-1) had a breakout season and narrowly missed a spot in the D-III College World Series when they lost two games to La Roche in the Regional Championship. Third baseman Travis Lodge and starting pitcher James Walsh were a big part of their success and both first team All-Americans graduated as have other key cogs in the Yellow Jacket's 2016 success. Rick Spiers (.421, 38R, 18 RBI) is the top returner on offense and will be part of a 1-2 punch on the mound with Christian Cok (7-1, 4.34, 28K).
Third place in the conference will be up for grabs from the quartet of Washington and Lee (26-14), Virginia Wesleyan, Bridgewater, and Roanoke (23-17). Virginia Wesleyan (18-15) is poised to break out of the pack with an lineup that lost one player to graduation last year. The rotation is equally experienced with the strength in the bull pen. Seniors Austin Gammon, Riley Koonce, and Nick Ott combined for four saves and a 6-6 record in 2016 and should be on hand to close out Marlin wins. Strong senior leadership from outfielder Kenner Berry (.414, 5 HR, 45 RBI) and catcher Chris King (.321, 3 HR, 26 RBI) will be key for Bridgewater (22-19). Elsewehere on the diamond for the Eagles there will be three underclassmen in the infield and an equally young pitching staff.
Hampden-Sydney (28-15) and Eastern Mennonite (16-21) will be fighting for a playoff spot in the ODAC tournament. Guilford (17-23), Lynchburg (9-28), and Emory and Henry (10-30) round out the bottom of the conference. The Wasps of Emory and Henry had their first double digit win season in four years.
Southern Athletic Association: The SAA title race has gone through Birmingham-Southern for the last three years and 2017 will be no differnt as Jan Weisberg has the team to beat in the SAA.
No. 6 Birmingham-Southern (39-13) has four 30+ win seasons in the last five years and we expect this to be another. D3baseball.com Preseason All-American Ryan Gaines (11-2, 2.31 ERA, 72K) and Stephen Himic (8-4, 2.55 ERA, 74 K) should contribute to another stellar season but it is center fielder Sam Roberts (.380, 13 SB, 41 RBI) that Coach Weisberg considers his top performer.
|Rhodes shortstop Bill Munson led the SAA in batting average (.422), runs scored (41), and stolen bases (27) in 2016.
Rhodes athletic photo
Rhodes (26-20) should improve on their third place finish in 2016. They feature three pro prospects but the top prospect is speedster Bill Munson (.422, 17 SB, 27 RBI). Munson, a 2017 D3baseball.com Preseason All-American, who will be the catalyst for the Lynx. Back from injury is Blake Glauben (4-0, 1.62 ERA, 41K), a big part of a Rhodes team that a year ago lead D-III baseball in ERA. The third prospect is little used Jackson Lourie who's fastball tops out at 92 mph. Add in three freshmen who broke into the starting line up last year, Rhodes has a team that can go all the way.
Berry (27-17), Hendrix, and Millsaps along with Rhodes will be looking to dethrone Birmingham-Southern. The future is bright for the Berry offense as just one of eight players with significant playing time and a batting average of .300 or better graduated last year. Unfortunately seniors accounted for more than half of the Viking's wins so pitching will be a need from the 16 new recruits in 2017. Hendrix (23-19) has their most successful player, Collin Radack, back but this time as a new assistant coach but it will be the bat of Drew Judson (.2390, 40R, 20 RBI) that will lead to wins for the Arkansas school. Millsaps (20-21) will need to build around their pitching staff. Chris Guerin (3-1, 2.35 ERA, 25K), Daniel Adams (3-2, 2.93 ERA, 31K) and Kenny Wright (4-2, 3.92 ERA, 25) will for a potent rotation.
Oglethorpe (20-23) has the best catcher in D-III baseball in Adrian Celata but will need more than the hot hitting catcher to overcome the 5.62 ERA posted in 2016. Centre (17-25) is looking to turn their program around with their new head coach, Drew Briese. Coach Briese has a hot hitting outfield with Andrew Schacht (.353, 17 RBI), Wes Jorette (.304, 13 RBI), and Alex Richardson (.333, 24 RBI) to build around. Sewanee (5-35) will need to improve if they want to avoid another last place finish in the SAA.
USA South Athletic Conference: The only National Champions from the South Region have come out of the the USA South and the hopes that the conference champion will rise to the top of the heap will be on the shoulders of La Grange, the preseason favorite to win the conference. Ferrum and Covenant also got support in the preseason poll but it is the the Panther's race to win.
|Josh Smith was 2-1 in April last year with wins over Millsaps and N.C. Wesleyan.
La Grange athletics photo
Head coach David Kelton has La Grange (30-13) coming off their first 30-win season since 2005 and a preseason nod to win the conference crown with seven of eleven first place votes in the annual USA South preseason poll. The Panthers return seven all conference performers led by senior third baseman Blake Butcher (.399, 7 HR, 44 RBI), the 2016 conference player of the year. Junior pitcher Ryan Broaderick (8-2, 1.51 ERA, 47K) heads the pitching staff that will need to replace the contributions of Eric Morell who is playing this year with the Tucson Saquaros of the Independent Pecos League.
Ferrum (29-14) is the presumed challenger to La Grange and with two conference titles in the last three years knows what it takes. It takes pitching like Dillon Weaver (8-2, 2.54 ERA, 15K) and hitting like Lane Deaver (.345, 17 2B, 37 RBI) and Lucas Stevers (.474, 3 HR, 16 RBI). It also takes a good bull pen and Ferrum has the potential to be the best in the nation.
Huntingdon (27-19), Maryville (29-15), and Methodist will all be jocking for position in the USA South standings. Each team will be looking to duplicate the success that Huntingdon had last year in winning the conference tournament and the automatic playoff invite that comes with the achievement. Methodist (20-18) has the biggest hill to climb and will rely on two of its three All-USA South selections from last season, Lucas Scott (.341, 21 RBI) and Davis Cass (.321, 11 SB), to finish higher then their prediced fifth place finish.
Covenant (23-17) and N.C. Wesleyan (25-19) are expected to make the USA South tournament as low seeds. Although N.C Wesleyan was picked to finish ahead of the Scots, one head coach picked Covenant to top the conference at the end of the season. Luke Harvey (.413, 14 2B, 28 RBI) and Z Arima (.392, 2 SB, 14 RBI) are the best Scots hitters returning but the pickings are slim on the mound with Matt Reitz (3-6, 5.51 ERA, 33K) as the top pitcher returning in 2017.
Kyle Monk enters his senior season ranked first on the Emory all-time list in saves (29), and games finished (58).
Piedmont (21-19) brings a young team to the field in 2017 and are a long shot for the conference tournament. Key to the Lions' chances will be sophomore center fielder Brady Ballstadt (.200, 4 SB, 23 RBI). Ballstadt has the skills to progress to the next level and will be a force for Piedmont for the next three years. Averett (19-22), Greensboro (10-29), and William Peace (10-25) are expected to miss the conference tournament. Only Averett as the final and 8th seed played in the 2016 tournament, making a splash when they upset top seeded Ferrum.
Independent: No. 4 Emory (34-12) and Rust are the lone independents in the South region but there is a world of difference in the two programs. Emory has become a fixture on the national stage with three consecutive trips to the D-III World Series and Rust struggles for wins. Six players return on offense for Emory but the strength is in the pitching staff with two 2017 Preseason All-Americans in starter Jackson Weeg (7-1, 2.28 ERA, 78 K) and reliever Kyle Monk (4-3, 11 SV, 1.36 ERA, 42 K) taking the mound. Brian Hernandez (.376, 10 2B, 50 RBI) and Bubby Terp (.317, 3 HR, 23 RBI) are the top returners on offense.