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2012 CBD Season Preview: Missouri Valley Conference

In June of 2011, perennial baseball power Dallas Baptist University was granted a provisional season with the Missouri Valley Conference. In essence a year-long test run, the MVC was then planning to vote on DBU’s membership after the duration of the season in May of 2012. While the movement to bring DBU—who made it all the way to the Super-Regionals last season before falling to Cal—was seen as an effort to boost the MVC’s power ranking, it was also met by skepticism from some MVC teams citing travel time and costs as concerns. As a result, the Patriots were offered the provisional membership rather than acceptance in to the conference.

Yet whatever apprehensions the MVC had about Dallas Baptist joining them are now moot: in September, Dallas Baptist (whose only D-I team is their baseball program) decided to join the WAC for the 2013 season—joining fellow schools from the longhorn state Texas-Arlington, Texas State, and Texas-San Antonio. While the WAC may make more sense for the Patriots, if only from a geographical standpoint, as DBU athletic director Ryan Erwin put it, “”If we were a member of the Missouri Valley, I’m not sure we would have ever had the discussions with the WAC.”

Thus what remains for the Missouri Valley Conference is the elephant in the room: Dallas Baptist will still play its provisional season schedule with the MVC in 2012. The Patriots will play nearly every team in the Missouri Valley Conference (with the exception of Illinois State), but will not be eligible for the end-of-season MVC tournament, as was originally agreed upon in their provisional mandate. While the addition of Dallas Baptist would certainly have given the MVC a shot in the arm in terms of competition, talent-wise the Patriots entrance into the league would have also offset the departure of several All-Americans from the conference (Trever Adams and Jonas Dufek from Creighton, Evansville’s Cody Fick, as well as Wichita State’s Chris O’Brien and Charlie Lowell). That being said the MVC does return some top-flight talent in 2012, most notably on the mound in the form of pre-season All-American Ty Blach (Creighton), and freshmen All-Americans Nick Petree (Missouri State) and Cale Elam (Wichita State).

Overall, Missouri State returns the most talent to their squad and seems best positioned to make a run to the State Farm MVC Conference Championship in 2012 (which coincidentally they will be hosting). While Creighton loses two of its best players, it also returns the bulk of a roster which propelled them to the NCAA tournament in 2011. On the other side, Wichita State loses a trio of pitchers who dominated conference opponents during their tenures as Shockers, as well as 2011 Joe Carter Player of the Year Chris O’Brien. Although the Shockers are always a threat in the MVC, they do appear more mortal in 2012 than they have in the past—much to the agreement of Missouri State and Creighton.

Throughout the rest of the league, Indiana State and Southern Illinois each return a pair of all-conference sluggers (with the Saluki’s also returning all-MVC lefty Cody Forsythe) while at Illinois State 2010 Joe Carter Player of the Year Kevin Tokarski will play out his final season for the Redbirds. Elsewhere in the league, Evansville loses their best hitter in Cody Fick, but returns a corps of young pitchers with a year of experience under their belts, and Bradley will look for all-conference outfielder Mike Tuachman and lefty Joe Bircher to help them improve on their 4-17 conference record from a season ago.

Bradley (22-32, 4-17)
Key Returning Players: LHP Joe Bircher, OF Mike Tauchman, SS Jason Leblebijan
Key Losses: OF Brad Kimball, OF Brian Martin

The Good News: The Bradley Braves come into 2012 an almost complete team having lost only 3 letter winners from last year’s team. The Bad News: That team went 4-17 in conference play. For the Braves to make an impact this year in what is sure to be another tough Missouri Valley Conference, they will need to rally around All-MVC starter Joe Bircher (6-6, 3.00 ERA) and All-MVC outfielder Mike Tauchman (.343, .463 OBP, 32 RBI). With all three weekend starters returning, expect the Braves to improve upon their 4.68 team ERA from a year ago.

Creighton (45-16, 15-6)
Key Returning Players: LHP Ty Blach, RHP Reese McGraw, OF Mike Gerber, 2B Alex Staehely, RHP Kurt Spomer
Key Losses: OF Trever Adams, RHP Jonas Dufek

The lone Missouri Valley team to make it to the tournament last year, the Jays still have a bad taste in their mouth after being bounced from the Corvallis Regional last year in heartbreaking fashion. After beating the Georgia Bulldogs 2-1 in the tournament opener, Creighton eventually fell to the same team in an 11-inning thriller. Yet Ed Servais’ team returns many of the players that guided CU to the tournament in 2011—most notably All-American lefty Ty Blach (10-3, 2.65 ERA, 100 K). Offensively, the Jays say goodbye to hitting prodigy Trever Adams, but bring back outfielder Mike Gerber and second baseman Alex Staehely. Undoubtedly the Jays’ strong suite (again) will be their pitching. While they lose senior Jonas Dufek, Creighton returns all-conference closer Kurt Spomer, lefty Mark Winkleman (1-1, 2.95 ERA) and senior Reese McGraw (6-1, 3.00 ERA, 5 SV), in addition to Blach. As well, Servais picked up junior college transfer Andrew Urban who notched 11 saves and 1.13 ERA in 32 innings for Hutchison Community College in 2011. In all, Creighton returns a stellar team that will make serious bid for its second straight Missouri Valley Conference championship.

Evansville (28-25, 7-13)
Key Returning Players: RHP Zach Taylor, RHP Sam Johns, 2B Trentt Copeland, SS Eric Stamets
Key Losses: UT Cody Fick, OF Greg Wallace, INF Ryan Oesterle

Going into last season with so much expectation, Evansville was dealt two early blows from which it could not recover: losing top two starters Zach Taylor and Sam Johns in the first two games of the season. Despite these losses, Coach Wes Caroll received some stellar play from underclassmen starters Cole Isom and Kyle Lloyd which enabled them to go 28-24, albeit only 7-13 in conference play. It was this forced investment in the future of the Aces’ pitching staff which will pay dividends for UE in 2012. With the losses of All-American Cody Fick, as well as seniors Greg Wallace and Ryan Oesterle, the Aces lose the core of their lineup and will thus have to turn to their pitching staff to lead them through the season. But the return of Taylor and Johns, as well as Isom, Lloyd and relievers Josh Biggs (5-2, 2.25 ERA) and Ryan Billo (3-1, 3.05 ERA) could make this year’s Evansville team even better than last year’s, and, more importantly, a contender in the MVC.

Illinois State (36-18, 13-8)
Key Returning Players: LHP Kenny Long, RHP Justin Hauer, 2B Kevin Tokarski, C/DH Mike Hollenbeck
Key Losses: RHP Corey Maines, 3B Ryan Court, OF Tyler McNeely

Mark Kingston and the Illinois State coaching staff have their work cut out for them in 2012. With the loss of all-conference third baseman Ryan Court and all-conference outfielder Tyler McNeely to graduation, the Redbirds lose the bulk of their offensive production from a season ago. The reigns therefore fall to second baseman Kevin Tokarski, who will hope to shake off a down 2011 season and regain the spark at the top of the Redbirds batting order that made him the Joe Carter Player of the Year in 2010. On the mound, not only do the Redbirds lose all-MVC starter Corey Maines, but they will also have to rebuild their entire weekend rotation after losing starters Dan Savas and JD Learnard to season ending injuries. The lone bright spot for the Redbirds is in their bullpen: The return of all-MVC closer Kenny Long (who was recently named to the NCWBA Stopper of the Year watchlist) and senior Justin Hauer (3-0, 1.41 ERA, 41 K) should make for one of the best end-of-game tandems in the Valley.

Indiana State (29-28, 8-13)
Key Returning Players: C Jeremy Lucas, OF Robby Ort, 3B Koby Kraemer, SS Tyler Wampler, LHP Sean Manaea
Key Losses: RHP Blake Drake, RHP Jason Van Skike, RHP Colin Rea

Indiana State is hoping to build off of their 2011 campaign as they return all nine starters from a year ago. Headlining the Sycamore’s offense are all-MVC outfielder Robby Ort (.320, 10 HR, 53 RBI), all-MVC catcher Jeremy Lucas (.333, 3 HR. 28 RBI) and junior third baseman Koby Kraemer (.318, 4 HR, 39 RBI), in addition to 2011 CBD all-freshman team shortstop Tyler Wampler. On the mound, the Sycamores lose 1-2 starters Colin Rea and Jason Van Skike, but return sophomore lefty Sean Manaea (5-5, 4.32 ERA) who was arguably ISU’s most reliable starter down the stretch last season. In the bullpen the Syc’s have lost closer Blake Drake, but senior lefty Reggie Hochstedler (4-1, 3.38 ERA, 53 K) will most likely be tapped to fill this role. All in all Indiana State will be dangerous offensive threat in 2012 and, if their pitching can hold up, a potential contender in the MVC.

Missouri State (33-23, 11-9)
Key Returning Players: DH Brock Chaffin, 3B Brent Seifert, 2B Kevin Medrano, RHP Nick Petree
Key Losses: OF Aaron Conway, RHP Blake Barber

Missouri State comes into this season returning the bulk of a roster that got the team to the semi-finals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, and as such overwhelming favorites to take the top spot in the MVC this year. At the plate, the Bears should be considered the most dangerous offensive team in the conference. Despite losing lead-off man Aaron Conway, MSU returns seven starters including three-time all-conference second baseman Kevin Medrano (.325, 4 3B, 34 RBI) and all-MVC sluggers Brock Chaffin (.344, 6 HR, 37 RBI) and Brent Seifert (.289, 9 HR, 43 RBI). On the mound, the Bears return the MVC Freshman Pitcher of the Year, right hander Nick Petree (9-2, 2.81 ERA, 81 K) who is poised to have a dominating sophomore campaign in 2012. The Bears also return junior right handers Grant Gordon (3-6, 4.26 ERA) and Pierce Johnson (6-5, 4.76 ERA) to round out the weekend rotation.

Southern Illinois (23-34, 11-10)
Key Returning Players: LHP Cody Forsythe, 1B Chris Serritella, OF Jordan Sivertsen, LHP Tyler Dray
Key Losses: OF Chris Murphy, RHP Andrew Bever

Interim head coach Ken Henderson had a monumental task ahead of him in 2011. After the passing of long time head coach Dan Callahan, Henderson was asked to step in and take the helm of a young team without its star player, first baseman Chris Serritella. After getting off to a horribly slow start, the Salukis rallied around lefthander Cody Forsythe (8-5, 2.35 ERA) and mounted an impressive in-conference run, finishing the year 11-10 against Missouri Valley opponents. Henderson, who was CBD’s 2011 MVC Head Coach of the Year, was officially named head coach at the end of the season by SIU. In 2012, he returns nearly his entire roster, with a year of experience under their belt, and with first baseman Chris Serritella back in the lineup. If Serritella (who hit .374 with 13 HR and 64 RBI in 2010) and all-MVC outfielder Jordan Sivertsen (.297, 9 HR, 48 RBI) can produce as they have in seasons past, the Salukis can expect to improve upon their .270 team batting average from a season ago. On the mound, apart from Forysthe, the Salukis will need better productivity from right hander Cameron Maldonado, who posted a 6.19 ERA despite being named the team’s Friday starter. If Henderson can get good innings from his starters, he returns talented left-handed closer Tyler Dray (3.41 ERA, 8 SV) for the later innings.

Wichita State (39-26, 14-7)
Key Returning Players: 1B Johnny Coy, LHP Josh Smith, RHP Cale Elam, LHP Aaron LeBrie, RHP Mitch Mormann, RHP TJ McGreevy
Key Losses: C Chris O’Brien, SS Tyler Grimes, DH Preston Springer, LHP Charlie Lowell, RHP Tim Kelley, LHP Brian Flynn

Considering the level of talent Wichita State had going into 2011, the Shockers had to be disappointed to finish last season without a berth in the NCAA tournament—even after making it to the finals of the MVC tournament. Unfortunately for Coach Stephenson, the bulk of talent that made last year’s WSU squad so dangerous has departed either via the draft or graduation. The team’s top three hitters (2011 Joe Carter Player of the Year Chris O’Brien, SS Tyler Grimes and DH Preston Springer) have departed leaving all-MVC first baseman Johnny Coy the lone power-threat in an otherwise speed-oriented lineup. Furthermore, with the exception of Coy, the Shockers do not return a hitter who had better than a .259 average from a season ago. On the mound (the Shockers strength last season), the plethora of lefties Gene Stephenson had at his disposal has diminished to one: Senior Josh Smith (7-4, 3.00 ERA). Despite this, the Shockers are never a team to be underestimated, and Stephenson will be able to select from a talented pool of young arms in 2012. Headlining this year’s staff is freshman All-American closer Cale Elam (4-1, 1.23 ERA, 5 SV) who will most likely be called upon at to close things out at the end of games for the Shockers. Other pitchers who should make an impact for the Shockers this season are junior TJ McGreevy (0-1, 2.13 ERA, 50.2 IP), lefty Aaron LeBrie (2-1, 3.21 ERA, 28 IP) and LSU-transfer and all-around gigantic human being Mitch Mormann (6’6”, 255 lbs.).

Projected Finish:

1. Missouri State
2. Creighton
3. Wichita State
4. Southern Illinois
5. Illinois State
6. Indiana State
7. Evansville
8. Bradley

College Baseball Daily Preseason All-MVC Team:

C: Jeremy Lucas, Indiana State
1B: Johnny Coy, Wichita State
2B: Kevin Medrano, Missouri State
SS: Eric Stamets, Evansville
3B: Brent Seifert, Missouri State
OF: Robby Ort, Indiana State
OF: Jordan Sivertsen, Southern Illinois
OF: Mike Tauchman, Bradley
UT: Mike Hollenbeck, Illinois State
DH: Brock Chaffin, Missouri State
SP: Ty Blach, Creighton
SP: Cody Forsythe, Southern Illinois
SP: Nick Petree, Missouri State
RP: Kenny Long, Illinois State
RP: Kurt Spomer, Creighton
RP: Cale Elam, Wichita State