ELMHURST, Ill. − After winning its record 13th straight league championship a year ago, Oral Roberts was an overwhelming choice to claim The Summit League crown in 2011 as voted on by the league’s eight head coaches.
Reigning tournament champion Oral Roberts returns three of its top four leading hitters from last season after receiving seven first-place votes and 49 points. Senior first team all-league selection Nick Baligod leads the way for the Golden Eagles after hitting .390 with a team-leading .486 on- base percentage to go along with 11 home runs and 54 RBI. Senior all-league receipients Chris Elder and Joey Winiecki also return for head coach Rob Walton. Elder batted .331 last season, while Winiecki hit .329 and stole 14 bases. On the mound, southpaw Mark Guest returns for his senior season after leading ORU with a 4.35 ERA a year ago in 23 appearances. Senior Bryce Smolen (4.41 ERA) is also welcomed back after leading the league with six complete games and a 9-3 record last season.
Coach of the Year Ritchie Price returns to the dugout for South Dakota State and returns five of his six first team all-league selections from last season who will be looking to dethrone ORU. Leading the way is senior outfielder Billy Stitz, who led the league with 111 hits and batted .392 a year ago, while Joel Blake was close behind at .391 and a league-leading 33 doubles. The league’s RBI leader, Eric Cain, also returns after recording 83 RBI, while third baseman Jesse Sawyer and his team-leading 19 homers is also welcomed back. All-America honoree and Preseason Stopper of the Year Watch List candidate Trever Vermeulen returns after leading the league with 10 saves and a 1.45 ERA in 35 appearances. Also returning to the hill is Blake Treinen who produced a 7-1 record a year ago.
Oakland and head coach John Musachio returns its top four offensive players led by second team all-league selection Tommy Jablonski. The senior led the Golden Grizzlies with a .362 batting average and had 63 hits a year ago. Junior Tim Ryan is welcomed back after leading The Summit League with 23 stolen bases and hitting .336 last season. Senior Ryan Waldhart and junior Aaron Cieslak also return after hitting .318 and .316, respectively, a year ago. OU’s top returning pitcher is senior Mark Leichtman. Leichtman led the team with four saves and had a 4.31 ERA a year ago.
The Thunderbirds welcome back first team all-leaguers Bo Cuthbertson and Taylor Shaw this season. As a freshman, Shaw was second on the Southern Utah team with a .364 average from his catcher position, while Cuthbertson hit .344 and led the league with six triples and his team with 77 hits. Also returning is junior Marcus Romero after hitting .352 a year ago with 14 doubles. Sophomore lefty Justin Neubauer returns to the starting lineup after recording a 4-4 record and 4.99 ERA last season for head coach David Eldredge.
Second year head coach Mike Villano returns three of his top offensive threats from a year ago to help Western Illinois pursue a return to The Summit League Tournament. Senior John Koszulinski is back behind the plate after hitting .354 a year ago with 49 RBI. Fellow senior Bryan Jordan is also welcomed back after batting .308 and a team-leading nine roundtrippers. Junior Tom Lilja (.319) is back after starting 51 games last season for the Leathernecks.
North Dakota State will be looking to make the league tournament for the first time this season as it welcomes back junior second team all-league player Zach Wentz. Wentz led the Bison in almost every offense category including a .389 average, seven homers, 42 RBI, 17 doubles, .585 slugging percentage and .466 on-base percentage. He also went 5-2 with a 4.21 ERA on the hill. Junior infielder Max Casper (.302), sophomore starter Mark Hermes (4.10 ERA) and junior reliever Anthony Kliniske (3 saves) also return for head coach Tod Brown.
Mike Diaz enters his first season as head coach of Centenary after spending the previous six as assistant coach. Seniors Justin Kraft and Derek Dalzell return to the mound for the Gents after recording 4-5 and 4-2 records, respectively, a year ago. Dalzell also hit .323 at the plate with a .484 slugging percentage. Junior catcher Jeff Schaffert also returns after driving-in 27 runs last season.
The Mastodons and head coach Bobby Pierce welcome back their top two offensive leaders from last season in seniors Brett Clark and A.J. Christensen. Clark batted .340 with a .431 on-base percentage, while Christensen batted .325 with a team-leading 41 RBI. Both Clark and Christensen hit a team-high 15 doubles a year ago. Returning to the mound are relievers Matt Ransbottom (3.45 ERA, 22 appearances) and Cory Bluhm (2.79 ERA).
The top four teams based on the regular season standings will compete for The Summit League Baseball Championship at Sioux Falls Stadium in Sioux Falls, S.D., May 26-28, the first off-campus venue in tournament history. The winner of the double-elimination format will claim the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.