By: Bob Broughton, tbirdbaseball.net
It’s difficult to handicap NAIA baseball before games have actually been played on the field, because the top NAIA teams rely heavily on JUCO transfers. My first prediction, however, is that this ranking will be more accurate than the one released by the NAIA in November. Here goes:
#1 – Oklahoma City: The Stars won the NAIA championship in 2005, but they haven’t been back to the National Championship Tournament in Lewiston, ID since. They were taken out by Lubbock Christian in 2006 and 2007. Coach Denney Crabaugh had an excellent recruiting season, getting Brandon Moss (transfer from Oklahoma), Brent Weaver, Tristen Bugenis (transfer from Midland JC), Mike Lee (transfer from Bellevue CC), Garrett Regan (drafted in 2005), and Kirk Walker. Their returnees include David Dennis, Landon Camp (they had 110 RBI between them) and LHP Tyler Kelsey (career 14-3). Games to watch: Lindenwood Feb. 16-17, at Lubbock Christian April 4-5.
#2 – Lubbock Christian: The Chaparrals have a well-funded program, and had an excellent recruiting year, getting Rob Learned, James Wallace (transfer from College of Southern Idaho), Jaime Armendariz (transfer from Midland JC), Tyler Johnson (also from Midland), and Will Stramp (transfer from Dallas Baptist). Buck Britton (.401 last year) is an outstanding returnee. The Chaps went to Lewiston in 2006, and had some good results and bad ones. They were taken out in 2007 by Houston Baptist, which is now in Division I. Under the current NAIA qualification scheme, it isn’t possible for both Oklahoma City and Lubbock Christian to make it to Lewiston (hopefully, this will change in 2009), so these two schools should be in a dogfight for the Region VI championship. Games to watch: Houston Baptist Feb. 15-16, Cumberland Feb. 22-23, Oklahoma City April 4-5.
#3 – Lewis-Clark State: The defending champions sent eight players to pro ball last year, including Beau Mills, who holds the NAIA record for home runs in a season (38). That will leave a hole in anyone’s lineup, but the Warriors should continue to be competitive in their own ballpark. The Warriors still have RHP Matt Fitts, RHP Brad Schwarzenbach, and OF Brent Wyatt. Like most of the teams on this list, they got some quality Division I transfers: SS Josh Ashenbrenner (Washington State) and Mickey Pingree (Illinois-Chicago). The crop of JUCO transfers includes LHP Blaine Hardy (Bellevue CC; his ERA was 0.00) and RHP Nick Masters (Walla Walla CC). Games to watch: at Washington Feb. 27, Gonzaga Mar. 2, British Columbia Mar. 21-23.
#4 – Bellevue: The Bruins were 2-2 in Lewiston last year, and have much of that team back, including RHP Shawn Lee, LHP Gary Dellano, RHP Nick Love (13-4 last year), and Josh Northrup (hit .389 last year). Games to watch: at Cal Baptist Jan. 31-Feb. 2.
#5 – Azusa Pacific: The Cougars are the defending champion of the very competitive Golden State Athletic Conference. Their returnees include Eddie Crespo, Kirk Nieuwenhuis (hit .399 last year), 1B Brice Cutspec, and LHP Jonny Bravo (12-0 last year). Their D-I transfers are C Derrick Keeton (Northern Colorado) and 3B/OF/RHP Drew Evans (Texas Tech). Games to watch: at Cal Batist Mar. 12.
#6 – Spring Arbor: They were last year’s runner-up, and their coach, Sam Riggleman, was the NAIA Coach of the Year. Most of that team is returning, including Jesse Bachman (.410 last year). However, their schedule doesn’t look at all appropriate for a team that wants to make a run at a national championship. Games to watch: at Warner Southern Invitational March 6-8, Madonna Mar. 17.
#7 – Cal Baptist: This is another NAIA team with a serious budget and some very good recruits: Levi Garett, Jr. (from UC Riverside via Riverside CC), Kevin Conlin (transfer from UCLA), and J.P. Lapointe (transfer from Bethany CA; he started his collegiate career at Bellevue). RHP Steve Goins (6-3, 3.04 ERA) is returning. Because Azusa Pacific and Cal Baptist are in the same region, there will be a cat-and-dogfight to see which one makes it to the National Championship Tournament. Games to watch: Bellevue Jan. 31-Feb. 2, Azusa Pacific Mar. 12.
#8 – Cumberland: The Bulldogs were a surprise two-and-barbecue at the National Championship Tournament last year. (This was a big disappointment for Lewiston’s hotel and restaurant owners; the Bulldogs bring a lot of fans with them.) Their returnees include Eric Mull and Rob Clayton. Their #1 starter will probably be LHP Lance McClain (transfer from Tennessee and a 2006 draft pick, 6-5, 4.64 ERA last year). Other significant recruits are OF Zack Diekmann (Tallahassee CC) and OF Nick Jiles (Washington via Sacramento State). Games to watch: at Lubbock Christian Feb. 22-23, Trevecca Nazarene Feb. 29-Mar. 1, Lee Apr. 9.
#9 – Embry-Riddle: The Eagles have become a fixture in Lewiston, but they were derailed on the way last year by St. Thomas. It’s hard to handicap them this year because they have a new coach, Randy Stegall. However, he got some good JUCO transfers, including Richie Roseli (Rio Hondo CC) and LHP Spencer Seabourne (Pierce CC). He also brought a couple of players with him from Indiana Tech. Games to watch: at Daytona Beach Cubs Apr. 2.
#10 – Lee: Another team with a good crop of transfers: Chris Dubon (Sacramento State), Luis Flores (Henderson State), Aaron Larsen (San Bernandino Valley CC), and Ross Collins (Volunteer State CC). Lee is located in Cleveland, TN, in case you were wondering. Games to watch: Trevecca Nazarene Mar. 17, Auburn-Montgomery Apr. 4-5, at Cumberland Apr. 9.