The 54th NAIA baseball season starts on Saturday, with Wayland Baptist at Texas-Brownsville, and the Sun Conference All-Star Game in Daytona Beach, FL. Next, Ave Maria (a brand-new school located in Naples, FL, not just a new program) hosts Warner on Jan. 26. On the 27th, Cal Baptist hosts Simpson, and last year’s runners-up Point Loma Nazarene hosts a good Cal State San Marcos team.
Here is my fearless top 10 prediction for 2010:
#1 – Lubbock Christian: The defending champion Chaparrals sent three players to pro ball, but they’ve added 1B Doug Kroll, who batted .309 with ten home runs at Oklahoma State last year, C Joe Staley, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin, and JUCO transfer OF Reid Chenworth, who started his career at Maryland. They still have LHP R.L. Eisenbach, who led the team with 12 wins and 118 strikeouts last year. So, the Chaparrals should be about as good as last year, and they’ll be ranked #1 as long as they keep winning games.
How long will they keep winning games, you ask? They don’t have any Division I teams on their schedule this year (D-I teams afraid to play the NAIA defending champion? Say is isn’t so), and their usual conference rival, Oklahoma City, had huge graduation losses. They will probably be hosting a sectional tournament. So, the Chaparrals will be holding the #1 spot for quite a while. Games to watch: at Angelo State Feb. 9, Angelo State March 9, Wayland Baptist May 4, 7, at Wayland Baptist May 6.
#2 – Lewis-Clark State: The Warriors had an off year last year, mostly because of some early-season injuries and late-season academic casualties. They will be back in contention this year with strong pitching from returning RHP Colby Hawk (6-0, 2.40 ERA), LHP Jeff Lease (transfer from Long Beach State), and RHP Tyrell Poggemeyer (JUCO transfer). For hitting, IF Josh Ashenbrenner (.435) and IF Todd Muecklisch (.438) are returning, and they’ve added IF Brian Burke, who was an second team NAIA All-American and batted .435 at Kansas Wesleyan last year.
It’s worth noting that when the Baseball National Championship comes around, the Warriors now play a different game in their own ballpark. Prior to last season, the tournament field always included a couple of teams that didn’t belong there. So, the top-seeded teams could count on a couple of easy games, and rest their best starters. With the new qualification scheme that was put in place last season, all the teams in the tournament are very good, and it’s unlikely that L-C State or anyone else will be able to put together a long string of national championships. Games to watch: British Columbia March 27-28, Azusa Pacific March 31-April 2, at British Columbia April 16-18, At Seattle U. May 7-8, at Gonzaga May 18. They were unable to schedule Washington this year. (The Warriors defeated the Huskies 5-2 last year.)
#3 – British Columbia: The Thunderbirds were pretty good last year, with excellent pitching and the best defense in the NAIA. Their pitching is even better this season, with the addition of LHP Sheldon McDonald, who was 9-2, 2.86 ERA at Northeastern in 2008, and JUCO transfer RHP Brandon Kaye, who was drafted in the 45th round. Hitting has been a problem for the Thunderbirds the past couple of seasons, but they are returning SS Sammie Starr, who had an on-base percentage of .468 last season, and adding CF Blake Carruthers. Games to watch: at Fresno Pacific Feb. 18 (that’s right, the Thunderbirds are playing baseball in California while the Winter Olympics are happening in Vancouver), at Lewis-Clark State March 27-28, at Washington State March 29, at Seattle U. April 6, Lewis-Clark State April 16-18.
#4 Azusa Pacific: The top three Golden State Athletic Conference teams, Point Loma Nazarene, Fresno Pacific, and Azusa Pacific all had major graduation losses, but the Cougars get the Golden State Athletic Conference nod and a spot in the top five because they have the strongest recruiting class. Their new guys include CF Devon Zenn, who was drafted in the 27th round, IF Jason Plowman, a high schoool all-everything, and 1B Danny Gonzalez. Games to watch: at Point Loma Nazarene March 18, Point Loma Nazarene March 20, at Lewis-Clark State March 31-April 2, at Fresno Pacific April 7-8, Fresno Pacific April 10.
#5 – Embry-Riddle: The Eagles were a surprise two-and-out at last year’s Baseball National Championship partially because of an injury to C Austin Goolsby. Goolsby, who batted .344 with 12 home runs and 55 RBI, was drafted in the 49th round, but returned to E-R for his senior year. The Eagles are also returning their top two starters, LHP Dustin Zinkovich and RHP Austin Quinn. They’ve added RHP Barrett Bruce, a transfer from Houston, and IF Steve Sabins, a transfer from Oklahoma State. Games to watch: at Tampa Feb. 2, Bellevue (at Lake Wales, FL) Feb. 28, Trevecca Nazarene March 11-13, at Cumberland March 15-16, Daytona Cubs April 7, Savannah College of Art and Design April 9-10.
#6 – Lee: Lee sent six players to pro ball last year. While it would be reasonable to expect this to be a rebuilding year, Mark Brew‘s record in three seasons as Head Coach at Lee is 167-39, so it says here that the Flames will keep on winning. They’ve loaded their pitching stall with D-I transfers RHP Aaron Everett (Tennessee), Tyler Henry (Kentucky), and Scott Swinson (Maryland; he threw a no-hitter for the Terps in 2008). Their ERA leader last year, LHP Matt Gilson (11-4, 3.26 ERA) is returning. Gold Glove 3B Tanner Moore (.352) and IF Junior Rodriguez (.340, 11 home runs) are also returning. Games to watch: Union Feb. 17, at Tennessee Wesleyan Feb. 24, at U. of the Cumberlands March 2, Trevecca Nazarene March 23, at Berry March 26-27, U. of the Cumberlands March 30, Southern Polytechnic April 2-3, at Cumberland April 6, Tennessee Wesleyan April 13, Auburn-Montgomery April 23-24.
#7 Southern Polytechnic: The Hornets sent three players to the pros, but they still have a decent list of returnees: IF Jake Barrow (.430), IF Jono Waugh (.408, 16 HR, 64 RBI), RHP David Harden (11-2, 3.15 ERA), and RHP Hunter Dinsmore (6-1, 3.72 ERA, 7 saves). Games to watch: Trevecca Nazarene Feb. 12-13, at Auburn-Montgomery March 5-6, Berry March 12-13, at Lee April 2-3.
#8 Point Loma Nazarene: The Sea Lions have an excellent coach in Joe Schaefer. That and a good recruiting class should keep them competitive. The noteworthy transfers are UT Matt Suiter (redshirted at San Diego), OF Rashad Taylor (Lee), and OF Marshall Kennebrew (JUCO). The incoming Freshmen include IF/OF J.J. Reading, RHP Justin Weststeyn, and C Sam Ofield. Their principal returnees are 3B Wes Kartch (.352) and RHP Kenny Houser (3-1, 2.50 ERA) . Games to watch: Savannah College of Art and Design Jan. 29-30, at UC San Diego Feb. 2, Madonna Feb. 20, Azusa Pacific March 18, at Azusa Pacific March 20, Fresno Pacific March 24, at Fresno Pacific March 27.
#9 Wayland Baptist: The Pioneers were 43-15 last year, and they have most of that team back, including starters Todd Weldon (11-4, 6.30 ERA, 120 strikeouts), Marcus Limon (5-2, 3.58 ERA, 107 strikeouts, and .429 at the plate), and Trevor Stringer (9-1, 5.74 ERA). For hitting (besides Limon) they have SS Eddie Allen (.337). Games to watch: Bellevue Feb. 19-20, at Houston-Victoria April 16-17, at Lubbock Christian May 4, 7, Lubbock Christian May 6.
#10 Fresno Pacific: The big news here was the transfer of 1B-C Wes Dorrell from Cal Poly. Dorrell hit .313 for the Mustangs, made second team all-Big West twice, and was on the Wallace Watch list. The returnees for the Sunbirds include their top two hitters, OF Dwight Nixon (.368) and UT Case Rigby (.363). Also returning is RHP Kelyn Schellenberg (8-3, 3.56). Games to watch: British Columbia Feb. 18, at Point Loma Nazarene March 24, Point Loma Nazarene March 27, at Sonoma State March 31, Azusa Pacific April 7-8, at Azusa Pacific April 10.
The NAIA’s National Championship Opening Round will take place at nine locations (to be announced in late April) May 18-21. The Baseball National Championship will, as usual, be in Lewiston, ID May 28-June 4.