Grand Valley State is the top-ranked team in the nation and will begin its NCAA Division II Championship journey at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., against Sonoma State. The Lakers, who have won their 32 games, will be one of four teams in action in Sunday’s opening round games.
Grand Valley State
Some teams might cringe at the idea of being No. 1 heading into the Division II Finals. The pressure often becomes too much for a team to handle.
GVSU, the hottest team in the country, is ready to embrace its role as the team to beat.
“It’s fine with me being No. 1,” GVSU head coach Steve Lyon said. “We want to have fun with it and we like the attention it brings to our program and our region (Midwest). Once the games start, we’ll be ready.”
The Lakers (52-3) are trying to become only the second national champion from the Midwest since 1968, and there is no doubt that they have the talent to make that happen.
The offense has been rolling, hitting .342 as a team, and Cody Grice has helped pave the way with his .395 average. Grice has scored 56 runs and has knocked in 59.
Junior Steve Anderson is hitting .386 and has tallied 15 doubles and seven home runs to go along with 63 RBI. Senior Cory Phillips checks in with a .377 average and has driven in 45 runs. In all, the Lakers have 10 players hitting .300 or better.
That makes life easier on a pitching staff that features five hurlers with at least five wins. Junior Kyle Schepel is 11-0 with a 2.22 ERA and has struck out 66 batters. Freshman Bill Maple is 7-0 and owns a 2.50 ERA. He has 37 strikeouts this season.
GVSU has a team ERA of 2.44 and has racked up a total of 323 strikeouts.
“We have had all of the elements that a team needs to contend for a title. We have good pitching, timely hitting and we play well defensively,” Lyon said. “Every team is good at this point and we have to continue to play like we have in our first 55 games.”
And winning another title would be huge for the region.
“Southern Indiana silenced a lot of critics when they won it last year,” Lyon said. “I think it made people realize we do play good baseball in this part of the country. We want to add another title for our region.”
The Seawolves are making their second trip to the Division II Finals in school history and will be the only unranked team playing baseball on Sunday.
And while Sonoma State (36-20) might arguably have the toughest draw of the tournament, head coach John Goelz isn’t worried about what the other team does on the field.
“The enemy is not the other team. We have to focus on ourselves and not make the mistakes that will beat us,” Goelz said. “If you play your best, good things usually happen.”
Sonoma State didn’t win its conference tournament, but what the Seawolves did do was play their best in the regional, beating Cal Poly Pomona twice for the title.
Kyle Jones has been a spark for the offense. The senior star is hitting .380 an has knocked in 52 runs. He has also hit 19 doubles.
Junior O’Koyea Dickson has blasted a team-high 10 home runs and is hitting .340 while senior Alex Todd is batting .328 and has driven in 35 runs. Todd has hit 10 doubles and five home runs as well.
Sonoma State is only hitting .272 as a team and needs to execute in key situations, something it has struggled with at times.
“We have struggled in certain situations, like with the bases loaded, and we know we have to step up in those moments at the tournament,” Goelz said. “Our guys don’t quit and we will play hard.”
Kenny Arnerich has been key for the pitching staff. The senior has a 2.93 ERA and has struck out 63.
No one else on the staff has more than four wins. The Seawolves have a team ERA of 3.72.
“We have to stay focused and make plays,” Goelz said. “The key is to not be overwhelmed by the moment. If we play our baseball, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Southern Connecticut State
The Owls will try to become the first team from the Northeast to win a national title, and after a remarkable run through the regional, head coach Tim Shea is confident his team is ready for the quest ahead.
“It was a great run through the regional,“ Shea said. “It wasn’t necessarily the route a team would want to take, but my guys battled and came up with some heroic efforts to get the job done.”
The 20th-ranked Owls (43-7-1) have won their last three games, beating Adelphi twice for the regional crown.
Pitching and solid defense have been the keys to Southern Connecticut State’s success. The Owls have been led on the mound by junior Chris Zbin, who is 10-2 with a 1.30 ERA. Zbin has put away 109 batters on strikeouts and has walked only 29.
Senior Kevin Pettine has yet to lose a game. The veteran hurler is 10-0 and owns a 1.68 ERA. Pettine has recorded 93 strikeouts and has issued just 15 walks.
Sophomore Steven Landell and Steve Simon boast 6-1 records and have come through with 57 and 74 strikeouts, respectively. The pitching staff will have to be at its best for the first-round battle against West Florida.
“The key is getting ahead of their hitters and executing our pitches,” Shea said. “We want to make them hit from two-strike counts and limit base on balls. They are a very good offensive team. They are going to be a challenge for our staff.”
Offensively, senior Kyle Rosadino has been huge for the Owls. He is batting .342 with 38 RBI. Junior Ryan Geffert is hitting .311 and has racked up 19 doubles while driving in 49 runs.
Junior Kyle Cummings is batting .300 and has hit 11 doubles. The Owls are hitting .276 as a team and have committed only 61 errors in the field.
As for the challenge of contending for a national title, nothing changes this week in terms of getting ready to play baseball.
“We know who we are as a team,” Shea said. “We understand our strengths, what we do best and how to win games. We look forward to the opportunity to compete for a national title.”
The Argonauts (48-9) lost only once in five games at the South Regional tournament, beating 11th-ranked Barry twice for the championship.
That grueling slate has helped prepare No. 5 West Florida for what it will be up against at the Division II Finals.
“I think the South Region is one of the toughest to come through,” West Florida head coach Mike Jeffcoat said. “It should prepare us for anything we will face in Cary.”
West Florida features a phenomenal pitching staff. There is Daniel Vargas-Vila, who is 14-1 and has an ERA of 1.98. He has 78 strikeouts and only 25 walks.
Jason Postill is 12-1 with a 2.55 ERA. He leads the team in strikeouts with 106 while Ben Hawkins owns an 11-3 mark and has a 2.82 ERA. Hawkins has recorded 98 strikeouts. The three pitchers have combined to give up only 45 extra-base hits.
Jeffcoat explained the reason for their success with a simple answer.
“They have fed off of each others’ success,” Jeffcoat said. “They all want to out-do each other.”
Greg Pron is batting .433 and has belted 10 home runs to help lead the offensive attack of the Argonauts. He has knocked in 65 runs as well.
Brandon Brewer is hitting .385 and has driven in 33 runs while committing only 11 errors at the shortstop position.
Dustin Lawley has been to the success of the offense as well. He is hitting .330 and has crushed 10 home runs. He has knocked in 55 RBI as well. West Florida is hitting .327 as a team.