The 53rd NAIA baseball season starts on Friday, with Belhaven at Spring Hill (Mobile, AL), La Sierra at Concordia-Irvine, LSU-Shreveport at U. of Mobile, Bethany (CA) at San Diego Christian, Wayland Baptist at Texas-Brownsville, and Patten at The Master’s (Santa Clarita, CA). The LSU-Shreveport-U. Of Mobile matchup should be a good one; they were #9 and #8 in the ISR ranking at the end of last season.
Here is my top 10 prediction for 2009, which will be more accurate than the one released by the NAIA in November:
#1 – Lewis-Clark State: The defending champions have a good crop of returnees, led by LHP Michael Guerrero, IF Josh Ashenbrenner, and OF Paul Martin. They’ve added D-I transfers OF Curtis Dupart (Georgia Tech), C Kawika Emsley-Pai (Texas), Rene Escobar (LSU), IF Mark Samuelson (UC Riverside), and JUCO transfer OF Bryan Abrey (Merced College). Games to watch: British Columbia March 6-8, at C. of Idaho March 13-14, at Washington April 28. They were unable to schedule nearby Washington State and Gonzaga this year.
#2 – Lee: The Flames came within one out of dethroning L-C State last year. I don’t expect them to come quite as close this year, but Mark Brew’s record in two seasons as Head Coach at Lee is 114-25, so it’s unwise to bet against them. Their top returnee is RHP Pablo Lopez, who delivered ten wins last year. Their transfers include OF Julian Alvarez, who led the NAIA with 26 home runs at Bacone last year, RHP Aaron Everett (Tennessee), IF Tanner Moore (Tennessee), JUCO transfers OF Jeff Ramirez and OF Rashad Taylor (both from Skyline College), 3B-C Junior Rodriguez (Palm Beach CC), and LHP Matthew Gilson (Broward CC). They also have a prize recruit in Jamie Harper, who could either pitch or play infield. Games to watch: at Tennessee Wesleyan Feb. 10, Trevecca Nazarene March 10, at Faulkner March 13-14, at Trevecca Nazarene March 17.
#3 – Oklahoma City: The Stars are returning three NAIA pre-season All-Americans, LHP David Odquist, 3B Brent Weaver, and OF Garrett Regan. IF Landon Camp, who hit 23 home runs last year, seems to have been at OCU forever. Their principal D-I transfer is Trevor Petersen, who was a DH at Washington. Games to watch: at Wayland Baptist March 13-14, Lubbock Christian March 20-21.
#4 – Biola: The Eagles are the favorites in the always hotly contested Golden State Athletic Conference. Most of the starters from last year’s team, which went 35-18, are back, including SS Hawkins Gebbers, who led the GSAC in hitting last year, with an average of .426. Games to watch: Fresno Pacific March 7, at Azusa Pacific March 14.
#5 – Embry-Riddle: Coach Randy Stegall was able to take the Eagles back to Lewiston in his first year in Daytona Beach. They should be even better this year, with returnees RHP Aaron Varnum, OF Branden Roper-Hubbert, and OF A.J. Tea, and D-I transfers RHP Barrett Bruce (Houston), C Austin Goolsby (Houston), and IF Pat McCrory (Texas). They’ve also added RHP Austin Quinn from Brevard CC. Games to watch: Trevecca Nazarene (at Montgomery, AB) Feb. 6-7, at Auburn-Montgomery Feb. 7-8, at Savannah College of Art and Design Feb. 20-21, Cumberland March 2-3, 5.
#6 – Spring Arbor: They were the NAIA runner-up in 2007, and finished fourth in 2008. Their coach, Sam Riggleman, was just inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame. Most of that team is returning, including Jesse Bachman (8-2, 2.43 ERA on the mound, and .336 at the plate last year) and LHP Colin O’Connell. Games to watch: at Campbellsville Feb. 27-28, Saint Francis March 24, at Madonna April 14.
#7 – U. of the Cumberlands (KY): The Patriots should win the Mid South Conference championship. Their returnees include RHP Adam Blakey, RHP Adam Blanton, and OF Dylan Holt. Their D-I transfer is Cameron Ohl (Appalachian State), and they have freshmen LHP Billy Grant and RHP Jordan Hinson. Games to Watch: Union College Feb. 10 and March 18, at Union College March 10, Campbellsville March 13-14.
#8 – Lubbock Christian: The Chaparrals went 53-4 last year, and were ranked #1 during the second half of the season. Much of that team has graduated. They still have RHP Jakob Cunningham and RHP Tanner Vickers. They’ve added freshman 2B Richard Bohlken, and D-I transfer LHP Charlie Aceto (Prairie View A&M). Games to watch: at Houston Baptist March 5-7, at Oklahoma City March 20-21, at Texas Tech March 24.
#9 – Union College (KY): The Bulldogs should win the Appalachian Athletic Conference pennant. They’re expecting JUCO transfer Chris Daniels to play a big role in this; he hit 12 home runs for Northern Oklahoma College, and he’s also expected to be a starting pitcher. Their top returnees are LHP Lance Dougherty and IF Joe Grinstead (.433 and 10 home runs last year). Their D-I transfer is SS Ryan Satterlee (Toledo). Games to watch: at U. of the Cumberlands Feb. 10 and March 18, U. of the Cumberlands March 10, Tennessee Wesleyan March 21-22, Campbellsville April 14.
#10 – LSU-Shreveport: The Pilots are favored to win the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference championship, and could make their first trip to Lewiston since 2003. Their returnees include C Andrew Brouillette (.410 last year), 1B Craig Barnes, and OF Quinton Shamsabady. Their hot prospects are RHP Turner Brasher (NE Texas CC) and RHP Cason Landrem. They have 1 D-I transfer from McNeese State, SS Kyle Lawrence. Games to watch: at U. of Mobile Jan. 23-24, at Belhaven Feb. 6-7, Bellevue March 1, U. of Mobile March 13-14.
The NAIA will be using a new qualification scheme for the National Championship in Lewiston, ID May 22-29. (See NAIA announces new playoff format.) 45 teams (including all conference champions) will compete in nine sectional tournaments, and the winners of these sectional tournaments plus host Lewis-Clark State will be the field for the National Championship tournament. The sectional tournaments will take place May 12-15, and it’s likely that some of the schools on this list will be hosting sectional tournaments.
Bob Broughton covers NAIA Baseball for The College Baseball Blog and is the founder of the UBC Thunderbird Baseball Fan Page.