APPLETON, Wis. -- The nation’s top talents, traditions, and programs take center stage this weekend for the NCAA Division III national finals. Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium has served as host for each of the past 15 years bringing in more than 33,000 spectators in each of the past two seasons.
Both teams from last year’s national championship game return to Appleton in 2014 as part of a dynamic field. Seven of the eight squads are ranked in the top 25, with six of those teams winning at least 35 contests, and four schools with a national championship under their belt.
Linfield hoisted its first national title in 2013 and look to be the first program in school history to repeat with the nation’s highest honor. Returning runner-up Southern Maine has a pair of titles (1991, '97), St. Thomas (Minn.) won the crown twice (2001, '09) along with a pair of runner-up finishes and third place in '12, and Wisconsin-Whitewater seeks its second national championship (first in '05).Adding to the experienced field, Cortland State has made the trip to the national finals more than any other school in the country (12 appearances), while Emory and Salisbury each make their fifth trek to the final weekend of the season. Baldwin-Wallace is the lone newcomer.
The action starts Friday at 11 a.m. ET with a classic battle of top pitching versus top hitting. Defending national champions, Linfield (37-7), ranks in the top five nationally in multiple pitching categories while St. Thomas (37-7) is the top hitting team in the field (.344) and hitting .381 throughout the NCAA tournament. Linfield’s two-time national pitcher of the year Chris Haddeland anchors the staff with a 0.97 ERA, four shutouts, and leads the nation with 11 victories. Aaron Thomassen (10-1, 1.76 ERA) and Zach Brandon (8-1, 1.95 ERA) make up the remainder of the Linfield staff seeking to repeat as national champions. The Tommies have been without All-American Tyler Peterson since May 10, as he was sidelined with a season-ending injury on a diving play in the MIAC tournament. Aside from Peterson, the Tommies put up 38 runs on 56 hits as they swept through the Central Regional.
Baldwin Wallace (29-18) makes its national finals debut against Emory (34-11) in the second quarterfinal game. The Yellow Jackets look to continue their Cinderella-esque journey behind fourth-year head coach Brian Harrison. Squeezing into the Ohio Athletic Conference tournament as the final seed, Baldwin Wallace reached the championship and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament before sweeping through the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Across the diamond, Emory came out of the loser’s bracket in South Regional to make their fourth trip to the national finals. All-American Brett Lake leads the nation with 64 runs batted in while hitting .430 on the season. The Eagles lead the nation with 231 walks and rank ninth with 118 stolen bases, creating headaches for opposing pitchers.
“This team can do some damage there [in the National Finals],” Emory head coach Mike Twardoski said, “and I think we are at the peak of our playability right now.”
"This is great for our student-athletes, and especially the seniors, good for Baldwin Wallace University and definitely good for our baseball program," Harrison said. "We look forward to the challenge in Appleton.”
A pair of 2014 regional coach of the year winners square off in the third quarterfinal with Cortland’s (35-8) Joe Brown and Salisbury’s (37-7) Doug Fleetwood each receiving the honor from their respective region. Cortland has made 22nd consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, which is the longest active streak of any NCAA DIII team.
The Red Dragons are the nation’s best defensive team with a .976 fielding percentage and the pitching staff holds a 2.65 ERA with 10 shutouts, second to only Linfield. Salisbury, on the other hand, is one of the top-producing offenses with a .431 on base percentage, .344 batting average, and 370 runs – all ranking in the top 10 nationally. The Sea Gulls are riding a 20-game winning streak into the national finals looking for their first title in school history.
Southern Maine (35-13) and Whitewater (40-7) will wrap up Friday’s action. Southern Maine returns from last year’s runner up season with a balanced attack of offense, defense, and pitching. The Huskies pitching rotation is highlighted by a pair of lefties in sophomore Tyler Leavitt (8.3, 2.85 ERA) and senior Logan Carmann (8-6, 1.71 ERA). Five Huskies were named to the Second Team All-New England Region as they rank in the top 10 nationally in hits (542), runs (365) and home runs (30).
Staying close to home, Whitewater has hosted its Region for the past five years and make the short trip to Appleton for its seventh national finals appearance. The Warhawks potent offense ranks in the top ten in ten different categories, led by All-American short stop Mikole Pierce. Leading the way, Pierce is hitting .446 with 58 RBI, a .519 on base percentage and team-best 16 stolen bases. A total of four Warhawks are hitting above .360 while they have outscored the opposition 412-187. Warhawk head coach John Vodenlich (398-128-1) is two wins shy of hitting 400 and was named Midwest Region coach of the year.