Midwest Regional Preview

By Austin Walther
for D3baseball.com

St. Scholastica is one of four teams that have made the NCAA playoffs in each of the previous ten years.
St. Scholastica athletics photo

Two teams from the Midwest made a trip to Appleton in 2016 after UW-La Crosse won the regional on their home turf and UW-Whitewater won the Central Regional. The Eagles made the Championship game in 2015, but were knocked out a last May by finishing 1-2 in the 2016 D-III World Series. The Warhawks were gone as well as they lost their first two games, resulting in an early departure. A few teams in the region were able to get to UWL in 2016 as Benedictine, St. Scholastica and St. Thomas all handed the Eagles losses in non-conference regular season play. All three teams believe to be near the top of the Midwest this season.

The Eagles of Benedictine have faith that they will challenge the four consecutive conference winner Concordia-Chicago for the NACC title as they return most of their experience. The Cougars though were able to win both games against Whitewater a year ago along with Concordia (Wisc.), knocking off UWW twice.

The Saints made their 12th straight playoff appearance in 2016 and they are once again the favorites to win the UMAC, but they will need to pick up a few wins in the region before conference play starts if they will have to rely on an at-large bid to keep their streak intact.

St. John’s finished with their best record in over five seasons last year, but with two losses to UW-La Crosse in regional play, they just missed a chance at the D-III World Series. The Johnnies finished ranked 21st in the country and will begin this season reciving votes in the Top 25. St. Thomas, however, finished as the MIAC regular season champions and picked up a key victory over UW-La Crosse in non-conference play, but they were quickly eliminated in the playoffs, finishing just outside of the top 25.

New Faces

Jason Baitinger earned an advancement in 2017 moving from the assistant ranks to head coach.
Marian athletice photo

Jordan Baitinger, Marian: After finishing second in the NACC in 2015, Marian finished last a year ago and decided it was time for a change at head coach. Baitinger is only the fourth head coach for the Sabres’ since the program began in 1988. Baitinger played college ball at Ripon where he capped off his senior season by being named First Team All-Midwest Conference North Division Pitcher of the Year and was named ABCA and Rawlings First Team All-Region. He has been on staff at Marian for the past four seasons, mainly tutoring the Sabres’ pitching staff.

Justin Brown, North Central (Minn.): North Central (Minn.) will begin a new era during the 2016-17 season under head coach Justin Brown, who brings years of high-level playing and coaching experience to the Rams squad. Brown comes to NCU following an eight-year career at Mount Vernon Nazarene. During his time as a player, he was a two-time team captain and two-time recipient of the NAIA Champions of Character Award – an accolade that is given to just 45 athletes each year around the United States. As a two-year starter at MVNU, Brown was a first team all-conference (Crossroads League) and all-region selection during his senior season.  After completing a strong playing career, Brown was hired as an assistant with the Cougars baseball staff, specializing in coaching pitchers and handling recruiting operations. He also served as the strength and conditioning coordinator and assisted with all other day-to-day aspects of the program.

Andy Schwall, Wisconsin Lutheran: After spending the past nine years at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, serving as an assistant coach, Schwall returns to his alma mater as the seventh head coach in in the program’s 30-year history. Schwall played outfield for the Warriors from 1998-2001 where he earned All-Lake Michigan Conference honors as a senior and Honorable Mention as a sophomore. As a senior, he hit .435 ranked second in the LMC in hits. He has also spent 17 seasons with the West Allis Nighthawks of the Land O’ Lakes Baseball League where he has served as a player, division representative on the board of directors, manager and general manager. As a player, Schwall said they set extremely high goals and nothing has changed now that he is the head coach.

Games to Watch in 2017

February 26: UW-La Crosse at St. John’s (Minn.): The Johnnies open up with a home doubleheader against UW-La Crosse. This matchup was the final game of the Midwest Regional which sent the Eagles to Appleton.

March 7: St. John Fisher at Concordia-Chicago: It’s a non-regional game, but the Cougars will get tested early against a team that made it to Appleton last year. If CCU wants to make a statement in the polls this year, beating St. John Fisher would be big.

March 9: UW-Whitewater at St. Thomas (Minn.): The second intriguing WIAC-MIAC matchup comes when the Warhawks open up in Minnesota to play the Tommies in a doubleheader. St. Thomas needs a strong start to the season and even splitting with UWW would be a positive.

April 2: UW-La Crosse at St. Scholastica: UW-La Crosse has another road doubleheader against a Midwest team who will be hungry to pick up a few key non-conference wins.

April 8-9: UW-La Crosse at UW-Whitewater: This year the four game series between the Eagles and Warhawks are in Whitewater and UWW will be thinking about a sweep to gain a big advantage over UWL in the WIAC. Last year, UW_La Crosse won three out of four at home.

April 29: Benedictine at Concordia-Chicago: The doubleheader between the Cougars and Eagles is the second to the last conference matchup for both teams and it could mean the conference title is on the line.

April 29: St. Scholastica at Northwestern (Minn.): The MIAC might be determined the same day as the NACC as the Saints play Eagles on the road. St. Scholastica’s only conference loss in 2016 came to Northwestern and this time it could affect the outcome of the regular season conference title.

Conference Previews

Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: St. Thomas (Minn.) squeaked out the MIAC title last season losing six of their last 10 regular season games and were quickly eliminated in the conference tournament to miss the playoffs for the second straight year. St. John’s (Minn.) on the other hand won their last nine out of 12 conference games to finish tied with Hamline and St. Mary’s for second place. The Johnnies only two loses in the Regional were to the eventual winners of UW-La Crosse. No other MIAC teams have made the playoffs since 2007, but the other two second place teams feel like they have the potential to do so in 2017.

Junior third baseman Derek Schiebel led the Johnnies with seven triples in 2016.
St. John's (Minn.) athletics photo by Lehigh Photo

With two straight playoff appearances, St. John’s will enter this season ranked just inside the Top 25. The Johnnies won 32 games last year and will have a few conference stand outs returning. Starting pitcher Alex Kendall returns for his senior year after being named to the All-MIAC team, leading the Johnnies with 57 strikeouts. All-Conference third baseman Derek Schiebel returns after hitting .341 last season.

St. Thomas will return a deep squad of 12 starters and 15 total players, but they will need to begin 2017 better than how they ended last year. The Tommies were ranked as high as 9th in the country last year, but injuries plagued them in the second half of the season. They return a deep pitching staff led by junior Ryan Zimmerman who went 5-1 with a 2.11 ERA last year and a transfer from South Dakota State LHP Henry DeCaster. The offense will feature junior outfielder Jake Smith and junior first baseman Hunter Hart.

Both Hamline and St. Mary’s believe they will break the streak of only having the Tommies and Johnnies in the playoffs. The Gaels return 5 starters including senior Bob Kinne who hit eight home runs last year and junior pitcher Nathan Mathwig who posted a 2.01 ERA and converted six saves in 2016. The Pipers’ pitching staff will be led by junior Alex Bauermeister and sophomore Nolan Schoonveld while Jim Weyandt won MIAC Coach-of-the-Year last year.

Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference: With 30 or more wins in over the last six seasons, Concordia-Chicago is once again the favorite to win the NACC. The Cougars finished last season ranked 16th after being knocked out in regional play. They are returning 11 starters from a year ago and the young players are now veterans and are expected to have career years as CUC is ranked 22nd to begin the 2017 season.

Eli McMahon's 2.93 ERA and two shutouts led all starters for the Spartans.
Aurora athletics photo

There has been an array of teams to finish right behind the Cougars such as Marian who tied with CUC in 2015, but finished last in 2016. Three teams finished with a 13-7 record last season and all of them believe they will be right back up there.

Aurora finished with the best overall record out of the three second place teams. The Spartans are only returning four starters, but they have 30 of their guys coming back along with 15 new players. Senior RHP Eli McMahon leads the rotation as he went 6-2 last season with a 2.93 ERA in 70.2 innings. Aurora looks to mix their young talent with the new comers to put them back on the national scene.

Benedictine is the second team and they are the favorites to finish behind the Cougars this year. The Eagles return 12 starters from a year ago and 29 total players. They haven’t made the playoffs since their 32-win season in 2013, but the Eagles return a lot from the team who upset UW-La Crosse a year ago. Second year head coach Adam Smith will have 2016 NACC freshman of the year starting pitcher Frank Greco. Two Second Team All-NACC players return in starting pitcher Joe Palasiewicz and first baseman Tanner Kiser.

Rounding out the top four in the NACC this year will be Concordia-Wisconsin. The Falcons return four starters from their 20-win season and 25 players overall. The lineup will once again be dominated by First Team All-NACC junior catcher Kyle Hilliard who hit .398. The pitching staff will be led by First Team All-NACC pitcher Andrew Hiedeman and Seth Hougesen who was named to the 2016 NACC All-Freshman Team.

Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Last season, the WIAC sent two teams to the Division III World Series when UW-La Crosse and UW-Whitewater each won their regional. The Eagles made back-to-back appearances and the Warhawks were back after missing out in 2015. Both teams are expected to be back in the national scene.

UW-La Crosse finished 4th in the final rankings last year after failing to make the Championship game again and are 3rd to start this season. The Eagles return seven starters this season and 20 total players. After losing four key players, UWL is still returning two top pitchers in Caleb Boushley and Jameson Lavery. The offense will be led by senior outfielder Joel Zyhowski and sophomore utility man Nate Heili. Chris Schwarz is once again the head coach at La Crosse and he is 11 wins away from win number 300.

Johnny Eagan is also a defensive back for the Titan's football team.
UW-Oshkosh athletics photo

The 2016 second place WIAC team UW-Whitewater finished last season ranked 9th and will enter this season ranked 13th. Ten starting Warhawks return this season along with 25 total which is a strong part of their nucleus from a year ago. RHP Austin Jones was selected in the 26th round of the 2016 MLB draft, but he returns to Whitewater healthy and they believe he could be a top 10 round pick. Sophomore third baseman Cal Aldridge also returns along with junior outfielder Daytona Bryden. John Vodenlich also returns as head coach who picked up win number 500 last season.

Only two WIAC teams enter the season ranked in the top 25, but UW-Stevens Point and UW Oshkosh both believe they will be in the top 4 in conference. The Titans return 10 starters from a year ago and 26 total players along with two sport athlete senior outfielder Johnny Eagan. The Pointers will return First Team All-WIAC junior pitcher Cole Erickson who posted a 2.35 ERA and struck out 41 last year.  

Upper Midwest Athletic Conference: The favorite to win the UMAC again this year is St. Scholastica as they only lost one conference game a year ago. The Saints have won 30 or more games in each of the last three seasons and they come into 2017 receiving votes for the top 25 after they just missed out on a top 25 finish last year. CSS will feature its largest roster of 49 guys this season and they bring back 9 starters, 29 total players and 20 new players. The lineup features senior third baseman Brian Minks who hit .400 last year and junior shortstop Steven Neutzling who batted a .373 in 2016.

The only team to beat the Saints in NACC play was second place Northwestern (Minn.) and they believe to be back up there in the standings as they finished with a 24-18 record in 2016, recording their third straight season with 20 or more wins.