Central Regional Preview

Ben Browdy, a first team D3baseball.com Preseason All-American selection, is looking to lead Washington to the D-III College World Series.
Washington (Mo.) athletics photo

by Jim Dixon

Call this the "W" regional. Wartburg, Washington, and Webster are the odds on favorites to take the Central crown. Last year it was another W that advanced out of the Central Regional, Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Coach Bill Kurich has used the Central Regional as Webster's stepping stone to the finals, making the trip three of the last five years. As host in 2017, the Gorloks will have the home field advantage if they win the SLIAC crown. Wartburg and Luther will battle it out in the IIAC and both are looking for a repeat trip to the NCAA playoffs.

Our top choice to represent the Central is Washington U. Head coach Pat Bloom has had a full year of recruiting for the Bears. With plenty of key pieces from his predecessor and the new recruits for depth, he has his team ready to take the next step.

North Central (Ill.) will have something to say about who will advance out of the Central regional.  The Cards have enough back along with new faces to make some noise coming out of an always competetive CCIW.

New Faces

Nathan Roling, Simpson: Nathan Roling becomes the 26th baseball coach in Simpson history. He replaces Ben Blake, who resigned this spring following 10 seasons at the helm. Roling comes in with eight years of coaching experience at the collegiate level with six of those years in the Iowa Conference. "Through this hiring process, I was impressed by the passion and vision that Brian Niemuth and the staff has for this baseball program and athletic department. I am very excited to get on campus and start working with this tradition-rich baseball program, athletic department, and the college," Roling said.

Games to Watch in 2017

March 17: Webster finishes a four game stretch against top ranked teams with a game with UW-Whitewater.

March 31-April 2: Washingon (Mo.) welcomes Emory in a UAA series that could be a preview of two teams that could see each other in Appleton in May.

April 7-8: Luther hosts Wartburg for a key IIAC series. This three game could decide the IIAC regular season champion.

April 23, 25: Augustana and Illinois Wesleyan have a home-home series that could be the determining factor in where they finish in the CCIW standings.

May 5-6: Beloit and Ripon meet for a four game set.

Conference Previews

Coach Greg Wallace's Augustana Vikings were voted to finish second in the 2017 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin season according to a poll of the league's coaches.
Augustana athletics photo by Steve Wortman

College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin: North Central (31-12) is the the favorite to repeat as the regular season champion in the CCIW. Just four wins off their program wins record, the Cardinals played well enough for an at-large bid after finishing third in the conference tournament. Key to their success will be seniors Nick Sotiros (.389, 22 2B, 44 RBI) and Chris Hill (.335, 19 2B, 38 RBI). On the bump will be Russell Hoh (4-1, 1.80 ERA, 38K) and Evan Blunk (5-0, 4.91 ERA, 30K) to keep the opposing team off the scoresheet.

Illinois Wesleyan (24-19), Augustana (30-14), and Carthage (19-22) are expected to join the Cardinals in the end of the season tournament. Last years title holder, Augustana is tied with Illinois Wesleyan in the CCIW preseason poll for a predicted second place finish.  A quick start is not a requirement to holding the National Championship trophy - just ask Illinois Wesleyan.  In their title year, they were the bottom seed in the CCIW tournament, the Regionals, and the World Series, ending champs at every stage.

Wheaton (Ill.) (23-17), North Park (15-25), Millikin (16-23) will try to grab one of the conference postseason spots. The team most likely to do just that is Wheaton as they will put on the field their deepest and most experience team in years. With just two seniors in the starting nine, the Thunder are set for the next couple years. Seeing action at the dish will be Jacob Zeller (.377, 10 SB, 19 RBI) and Nick Mailman (.341, 10 2B, 25 RBI). The top pitcher will not be a starter but Wheaton's closer, Nick Johnson (6-2, 2 SV, 1.07 ERA, 24K).

Elmhurst (21-19) and Carroll (17-19) are expected to finish at the bottom of the standings.  The Carroll Pioneers are back in the CCIW for the first time since the 1992 season and bring experience at the plate and question marks on the mound. Hunter Frey (.292, 54 HR, 30 RBI) and Alex Morland (1-2, 5.06 ERA, 23K) and the best hitter and pitcher on the Pioneer's roster.

Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Wartburg (34-13) took the regional crown but lost to Luther in the IIAC title game and had to settle for an at-large bid to the NCAA playoffs, finishing 1-2 in the regional. Another shot is what is expected as the Knights top the 2017 IIAC preseason poll. Wartburg had a league-high .322 team batting average and .411 on base percentage in 2016 and this was in part to Jake Thumann, the 2016 IIAC Position Player of the Year. Thumann (.355, 12 HR, 34 RBI) returns for the Knights in 2017. Joining Thumann is speedster Blake Mahoney (.82, 41R, 29 SB, 22 RBI) who will be on the base path again this season. Tops on the bump will be All-IIAC selection Tanner Eckart (4-0, 1.30 ERA, 54K).

Teddy Klingsporn led Luther in games started with three of the team's 14 complete games in 2016.
Luther athletics photo

Luther (34-14) advanced to the 2016 regional round with the IIAC tournament title and a solid nucleus of that team will be back. Head coach Bryan Nikkel earned plenty of honors for the job that he has done last season, taking a team that won 16 games before he took over to a 30-win team in two years. Key to the success for the Norse is the 2016 IIAC Pitcher of the Year, Nate Beckman (10-2, 3.12 ERA, 45 K). Top batters coming back for another season are Jon Opdahl (.341, 41 R, 36 RBI) and Joe Silversmith (.325, 14 2B, 30 RBI).

Buena Vista (33-11) out slugged everyone in the IIAC in 2016 but that is no longer the strength of the Beaver program. In 2017 it will be defense and pitching that will keep Buena Vista in contention until the offense catches up. Taking the mound will be pro prospect Jacob Hadaway (5-2, 3.18 ERA, 46K) at the front end and Dalton Mason (4-1, 3 SV, 4.58 ERA, 14K) on the back. The infield will be senior dominated with freshman Bryce Rheault expected to take over as the starting shortstop. Leading the offense will be the senior corner infielders, Michael Zellar (.299, 14 RBI), and Cam Johnson (.333, 3 HR, 25 RBI).

Coe (18-22), Dubuque (19-23) and Loras (14-24) are all expected to do well enough to earn a spot in the end of the season six-team tournament. One of this group to not take lightly is Dubuque. The Spartans will return all but two starters in both the offensive line up and from the pitching staff. Head coach Paul Wyczawski will have the kind of experience on the diamond that could knocking off one of the top three teams in the conference.

Nebraska Wesleyan (12-28) and Central (10-30) were tied for seventh on the IIAC preseason poll. New to the IIAC is Nebraska Wesleyan who will get their first taste of the IIAC competition when they travel to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to face Coe College on March 24. Central will bring a solid defense but it will be how the pitching and hitting performances improve that will determine how close to the top of the standings the Dutch can get. Simpson (14-29) received the fewest votes in this season's poll.

Midwest Conference: Beloit (27-14) is favored to repeat as the MWC champions. Jalen Davis (.361, 12 RBI), Kam Sallee (.344, 8 2B, 36 RBI), and Mike Gulve (.315, 7 SB, 25 RBI) form the nucleus of an outstanding offensive team. The Bucs will miss having record setting pitcher Ryan Kaveney on the mound but will have his experience as an assistant coach in the dugout working with the infielders and pitchers.

The Green Knghts saw their season end against Grinnell last year but St. Norbert (20-17) will be in position to challenge Beloit this spring. All-Central performers pitcher Jake McMahon (5-5, 2.26 ERA, 63K) and third baseman Tyler Banovich (.436, 9 2B, 41 RBI) are expected back.

Grinnell (30-8) finished second to Beloit in the 2016 MWC championship but the Pioneers had already found success in a program record 30 win season. With three of the best hitters graduated, Grinnell will need to find some gems in this years recruiting class. Back to help keep the offensive rolling is Niko Takayesu (.328, 13 2B, 21 RBI) and Matt Hammond (.312, 6 HR, 31, 31 RBI). Grinnell will also need to replace three of their four regular day starters. The lone starter with more than three starts returning in 2017 is Charles Carr (3-1, 8.13 ERA, 13K).

Drew Slade led the Ripon Red Hawks in wins and ERA last season.
Ripon athletics photo

It was a down for Ripon (11-24) in 2016 but with just three seniors on the team last year, nearly every player today has a years experience to bring to this season. With a tremendous sophomore season, Drew Slade (3-3, 2.39 ERA, 30K) is Ripon's ace. Keep an eye on Ryan Maier (1-0, 3 SV, 4.89 ERA, 15K) who is three saves and 13 appearances off the Ripon career records. Cornell (22-16) is also looking to improve on their 2016 season with an offense led by Walter Beard (.367, 10 HR, 52 RBI) and Andy Dodson (.424, 8 R, 8 RBI). Tyrus Hartman (3-3, 3.71 ERA, 41K) joined Dodson (3-0, 3.07 ERA, 26K) as pitchers in the summer Northwoods League.

Monmouth (18-17) will be looking for their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2007. The Scots have a senior laden squad with fresh talent in the freshmen ranks. Tops on the team are a couple of dual threats in second baseman/closer Ryan Sparks (.330, 14 SB, 30 RBI, 0-1, 3 SV, 4.35 ERA, 8K) and third baseman/starter Austin Hardy (.384, 13 2B, 32 RBI, 3-3, 1.48 ERA, 27K). Carroll (17-19), Lawrence (11-25), Knox (12-22) and Illinois College (15-21) have not had success in the last five years with the last championship from this group coming in 2008 when Knox surprised the field with a championship run. Illinois College has the best returnee in All-American shortstop candidate Cain Brady (.444, 7 HR, 47 RBI).

St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: The SLIAC has been Webster's (28-15) ticket to the NCAA Playoffs for years as Webster has won the SLIAC regular season title 10 straight years and has won the SLIAC tournament championship eight of the last 11 years. They are the favorite again in the West division and the top choice overall. The top reason is that the pitching staff returns intact. Professional prospect Josh Fleming (4-1, 2.88 ERA 6 BB, 50K) is the ace of a staff that could see time in Appleton in May. Seven spots in the Gorlock's lineup will be filled with upper classmen. Tops at the plate will be Kyle Uhrich (.329, 11 HR, 47 RBI) and Mike Wick (.377, 14 SB, 19 RBI).

Greenville (24-21) is the favorite in the SLIAC-East with half the available first place votes in the SLIAC preseason poll. The Panthers are a solid defensive team, returning the middle infielders that set a program record for double plays. Add catcher Travis Ralls (.353, 3 HR, 13 2B, 35 RBI) and you have a team that will be competitive in every contest. Ralls will another responsibility in helping guide a young pitching staff.

Tanner Branneky led the Blue Jays in extra-base hits with 25 (14 doubles, a triple and 10 home runs).
Westminster athletics photo

Westminster (28-15) is predicted to finish behind the Gorloks in 2017. Westminster is coming off of an historic 2016 season where the Blue Jays won the SLIAC Tournament and the automatic NCAA Tournament bid. The biggest loss to graduation was Deion Hughes, the Blue Jay's best hitter and pitcher. The returning pitchers had a combined 4-4 record and will have to see contributions from last years underclassmen to challenge Webster for conference supremacy. Westminster's top batter is Tanner Branneky (.343, 10 HR, 43 RBI).

MacMurray (22-20) and Spalding (22-17) also received first place nods in the SLIAC-East, splitting the five remaining first place votes. Spalding's Kam Bruner (.423, 5 HR, 39 RBI) was the conference's top hitter and one of three All-SLIAC players returning to the Golden Eagles. The other two will be the core of the Golden Eagle pitching staff, Jimi Keating (5-4, 2.41 ERA, 75K) and Kyle Olliges (4-3, 3.95 ERA, 85K).

Blackburn (14-16), Fontbonne (15-25), Iowa Wesleyan (14-25), Principia (9-28), and Eureka (9-26) fill out the bottom of the SLIAC and to reach the tournament and ticket to the NCAA playoffs they will need to break above the .500 mark.

Independents: Last year their were three independent teams, Illinois Tech, Nebraska Wesleyan and Washington U (33-18) in the central region. Illinois Tech is off to the WIAC and Nebraska Wesleyan joined the IIAC. In Pat Bloom's second year, a lot is expected of the No. 17 Bears. Washington said goodbye to a gold glove catcher (Kyle Kozak) and will find leadership from Ben Browdy (.352, 18 2B, 79 RBI), a 2017 first team selection on the D3baseball.com Preseason All-America Team. Pitching depth will come with new recruits but the front line is senior dominated with Brad Margolin (8-1, 2.74 ERA, 73K) and Matt Clohisy (1-0, 3 SV, 3.33 ERA, 17K). Washington, a long standing member of the UAA will see a change in the conference schedule. Last year the title was presented after a mid-season tournament but this year, it will be a more traditional schedule with a series against conference mates.