Amy Farnum, NCAA.com
Division II’s “Boys of Summer” will be the first to suit up as the season officially begins Feb. 1. Here’s a look at the season’s early contenders in Division II (rankings according to Collegiate Baseball):
No. 1 Southern Indiana (52-14)
The defending NCAA champion will look to build upon last year’s school-record 52-14 mark with eight returning pitchers, including four starters that accounted for 39 of the Screaming Eagles’ victories. USI’s roster boasts a pair of senior right-handers, Trevor Leach and Taylor Dennis, that both compiled 12-1 records last year. Offensively, senior catcher Dylan Mooney and senior infielder Brad Vance are two of four returning starters. Mooney hit a school-record 14 home runs last year, while Vance contributed a school-best 70 RBI. USI, which has won the Great Lakes Valley Conference West Division title for the past three years, has moved to the league’s East Division for 2011, but is still the preseason choice of the coaches’ to win its division.
• Opening Up: Feb. 11 at Armstrong Atlantic State
No. 2 UC San Diego (54-8)
The Tritons are coming off a school-record campaign in which they advanced to the NCAA Championship Game, and have 14 seniors back to try again for Division II’s ultimate prize. Senior right-hander Tim Shibuya, a first-team ABCA/Rawlings All-America selection, will anchor the starting rotation after posting a school-record 13-3 mark along with a 2.03 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 124 innings pitched. The Tritons also welcome back senior outfielders Aaron Baumann and Kyle Saul, both of whom batted over .400 and combined for 16 homers and 99 RBI. The program also will play host to night games for the first time at Triton Ballpark after recently installing lights at the facility. The Tritons will play their first 12 regular-season games at home.
• Opening Up: Feb. 4 vs. Western Oregon.
No. 3 Central Missouri (52-11)
The Mules are poised for another run to the national tournament with eight returning starters and nine pitchers back from the 2010 squad that tied for fifth in the nation. Junior infielder Bret Schwartz is fresh off a stint in the Alaska Summer League, where he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player after batting .433 with wood bats. Tyler Ruch and Nick DeBiasse joined Schwartz in the ABL as the Mules’ top three returning hitters fine-tuned their skills during the summer. DeBiasse is Baseball America’s Preseason All-America pick at first base. UCM will look to retool its starting rotation after losing Brooks Martin and Ryan Allen, who combined for a 20-2 record in 28 starts last year. The Mules are vying to return to the Division II World Series for the third time in the past four years under fourth-year head coach Tom Myers.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 at Ouachita Baptist
No. 4 Georgia College (42-14)
The Bobcats will have to fill the hole left by the loss of 14 seniors from last year’s Division II World Series squad, but are still the preseason favorite by the Peach Belt Conference coaches to repeat as league champions. Georgia College returns a strong core with a pair of South Atlantic Region Preseason All-Americans — senior outfielder Shawn Ward and senior catcher Richard Pirkle. Ward batted .358 with 16 homers and 87 RBI last year, while Pirkle led the Bobcats with 17 home runs and posted a .354 average and 65 RBI. The two also were first team All-PBC honorees in 2010. On the mound, the Bobcats welcome back starter Eric Pettepher, who went 7-1 to earn second team All-PBC recognition last season.
• Opening Up: Feb. 4 at No. 5 Tampa
No. 5 Tampa (46-11)
After losing nine players to the MLB Draft, the Spartans return just one starter — senior third baseman Patrick Donahue, who was an All-Sunshine State Conference pick after hitting .406 with 33 RBI and 19 doubles. Seniors Sean Bierman and Evan Stobbs will be looked to for experience on the mound. Biermen went 4-2 with a 3.60 ERA in seven starts last year, while Stobbs posted 10 saves and a 0.76 ERA in relief. The Spartans added some key transfers, including Taylor Wrenn from Southern California, who missed most of the 2010 season trying to recover from injuries suffered in an auto accident. Tampa, which has won its league title four times in the past five years, was voted the preseason favorite to win the SSC.
• Opening Up: Feb. 4 vs. Georgia College
No. 6 Abilene Christian (50-15)
After notching the first 50-win season in program history, the two-time defending Lone Star Conference champions have been picked to win the league title for the 13th consecutive year by a preseason vote of the conference coaches. ACU advanced to the Division II South Central Region championship game, but fell to Central Missouri to end its record run. Senior outfielder Aaron Oliver, the reigning South Central Region Player of the Year, returns after an outstanding 2010 campaign in which he batted .405 with 22 doubles, eight triples, 14 homers and 79 runs scored. Senior Will Calhoun is slated to pull double duty once again as a designated hitter and pitcher. He earned All-America honors last season after batting .413 with 11 homers and 53 RBI along with a 5-1 mark on the mound.
• Opening Up: Feb. 1 at St. Mary’s University (Texas)
No. 7 Mount Olive (41-11)
The Trojans return six position starters all two All-Conference Carolinas as they look to claim their fifth league title in the past six years. The group is highlighted by 2011 Baseball America Preseason Division II National Pitcher of the Year Carter Capps, a sophomore that posted a 10-0 record and 3.06 ERA last season. Designated hitter Mike Knox also garnered Preseason All-America honors from Baseball America after registering school-records with 24 homers and 94 RBI last year. For the third consecutive year, Mount Olive will serve as a co-host for the NCAA Division II World Series to be held at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.
• Opening Up: Feb. 5 at Lenior-Rhyne
No. 8 Florida Southern (41-16)
The Moccasins fell short of a trip to NCAA Division II World Series, losing to Tampa in the South Regional championship, but are set to try again with six position players and two of their top pitchers returning in 2011. Senior outfielder Kelvin Clark is a top offensive contributor, batting .322 with 12 homers and 53 RBI last season. The Spartans also have their Nos. 2 and 3 starting pitchers back with Eddie Sipple (7-4, 3.89 ERA) and Gus Schlosser (8-4, 4.20 ERA).
• Opening Up: Feb. 4 vs. St. Thomas
No. 9 Kutztown (42-15)
The Golden Bears have 18 players from last year’s Division II World Series squad returning, including junior Shayne Houck, who is a Preseason All-America selection by Baseball America after batting .449 with 77 RBI and 17 home runs in 2010. Senior right-hander Tyler Persun (6-0, 3.88 ERA) and senior southpaw Jonathan Grosse (7-1, 4.23 ERA) highlight a veteran pitching rotation. Grosse struck out a career-high nine batters against Franklin Pierce is last year’s national tournament. The Golden Bears will be vying for their 19th consecutive winning season.
• Opening Up: Feb. 5 at Barton College
No. 10 Franklin Pierce (43-17-1)
The Ravens have six Preseason East Region All-Americans on the roster after claiming their fourth NCAA Regional title in the past five seasons. Junior catcher Mike Dowd, also a Baseball America Preseason All-America pick, leads the way after batting .306 with six homers, 14 doubles and 33 RBI last year. Senior designated hitter Derek Ingui will also contribute to the Ravens offensively after hitting .326 with 20 doubles and 32 RBI a year ago.
• Opening Up: Feb. 25 at Dominican
• Winston-Salem State will field a baseball team for the first time since 1973. It is now a requirement for teams joining the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Kevin Ritsche, a former player at St. Scholastica, will serve as the Rams’ coach. WSSU opens the season Feb. 1 at Wingate.
• Barry University has a 7-foot-2 pitcher on its roster, the tallest pitcher in NCAA baseball history. Sophomore Frank Szczepanik, a native of Newark, N.J., competed at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey last year.
• Nebraska-Omaha junior Joe Holtmeyer is one of four starting pitchers on Baseball America’s Preseason All-America list. An Omaha native, Holtmeyer led Division II with 15.67 strikeouts per nine innings last year.