The Division II Baseball Championship commences on Saturday from Grand Prairie, Texas. Eight teams battled through their respective regions to have a chance at the national championship. Neither defending champion Nova Southeastern nor national runner-up Millersville return, which means DII will have a completely new look in the championship series.
This tournament is wide open. Delta State was the only No. 1 seed to advance from its region. Quincy, Lindenwood, St. Thomas Aquinas and UC San Diego all present compelling underdog stories. West Chester and North Georgia are two of the hottest teams in DII. And Colorado Mesa hasn't stopped hitting the cover off the ball since February.
So, who do you watch?
THREE TEAMS TO WATCH:
Coach: Mike Kinnison
Key players: It’s a Zac Attack. Junior Zack Shannon is fourth in DII in batting average (.442) and ninth in home runs (19), while making some solid relief appearances out of the bullpen as well. Senior Zach Osbun is one of the more dominant relievers in the division, shutting the door eight times this season behind a 1.16 ERA.
What you need to know: Kinnison earned the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Coach of the Year, earning his sixth trip to the DII Baseball Championship, winning it all in 2004. The Statesmen are the highest nationally ranked team remaining, as they have been near the top of the rankings for most of the season. They have a balanced attack, batting .320 as a team, blasting 63 home runs and scoring 442 runs, which helped them sweep through the South Region, becoming the only top seed to advance.
Coach: Tom Cantrell
Key players: Freshman Bill Leroy paces the team with a .425 batting average, while junior Connor Hoover leads the team with 18 home runs and 72 RBI. Junior Daniel McCrary (2.13 ERA) leads a three-man rotation that all boast an ERA below three.
What you need to know: The Nighthawks are a run-producing factory. No one has scored more than their 515 runs this season in DII. Pair that with a pitching staff that boasts the 11th-best ERA and 18th-best WHIP in DII, and it's a dangerous scenario. That combo is what helped UNG sweep through a very tough Southeast Region, including victories over No. 15 USC Aiken, No. 1 Mount Olive and No. 22 Catawba. A somewhat surprising loss in the Peach Belt Conference tournament may have awoken one of the most balanced teams remaining.
UC San Diego
Coach: Eric Newman
Key players: Senior outfielder Jack Larsen has been a beast all season, hitting .346 with team-bests in home runs (14) and RBI (59). Sophomore first baseman Tyler Durna leads the team with a .371 batting average. Senior righty Adrian Orozco anchors a staff with a strong bullpen as well. The starter is 9-0 with a 2.86 ERA.
What you need to know: The West Region is one of the toughest there is, with seeds one through six all contenders for a title run. Four of the teams were nationally ranked heading into the regional and the other two received votes. Whoever survived this gauntlet had to be considered a serious player in Grand Prairie.
That's assuming the Tritons have anything left. They swept through the West, going a perfect 4-0, defeating both No. 11-ranked Azusa Pacific and No. 16 Dixie State two times. They don't have a lot of star-power -- none of UCSD's lineup were All-Americans -- but they have incredible balance. As a team they hit .309, and as a pitching staff -- bullpen and starters combined -- they were tough on opponents with a 3.69 ERA. UCSD will have its hands full with St. Thomas Aquinas in round one, but could come out on top and carry over some momentum from the regionals.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Catcher Kyle Serrano is part of a high-fueled offense at Colorado Mesa. He hit .411 this season, belting nine home runs and a team-best 23 doubles. He also is slick behind the plate, posting a .982 fielding percentage and throwing out eight runners.
First base: The aforementioned Zack Shannon of Delta State hit .442 with 19 home runs and a DII-best 88 RBI. He also pitched six innings in relief, striking out seven and picking up a save. Any question on why he is the NCWBA DII Player of the Year?
Second base: The Midwest was arguably the most Cinderella-bracket of them all. Two teams were making their NCAA postseason debut, while Saint Joseph's was playing its final games as a college. Quincy emerged wearing the glass slipper, adding to the drama of the region. The Hawks NCBWA First-Team All-American Jake Walters was a key cog in Quincy’s first-ever trip to the championship. Walters hit .320 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI.
Shortstop: Joseph Pena of St. Thomas Aquinas earned Honorable Mention All-American honors this season. He did it behind a .391 batting average with six home runs. He also stole 24 bases and posted a .526 on base percentage, sixth in DII.
Third base: North Georgia’s Michael Gouge was solid all season. He hit .379 with 20 doubles, 10 home runs and 60 RBI while getting on base at a .527 lick, fifth best in DII.
Outfield: Colorado Mesa can flat out hit, with the best team batting average (.340) in the tournament. The Mavericks right fielder Bligh Madris is amongst the best in DII with the seventh-best batting average in DII (.438), 16 home runs, and 66 RBI. He also made eight appearances out of the bullpen on the season.
Delta State’s junior Clay Casey swings a big bat as well, hitting .346 with 17 home runs on the season.
St. Thomas Aquinas surprised a few people winning the East Region behind two double-digit victories over No. 6-ranked Southern New Hampshire. That was in large part due to the East Regional Most Outstanding Player and Honorable Mention All-America Giovanni Dingcong, who batted .301 with 18 home runs on the year, being a dual power-speed threat with 24 stolen bases.
Utility/ Designated hitter: Quincy's Troy Wehde is listed as a catcher on the roster, but has played in the DH slot for much of the season. The junior is having a career-year, leading the Hawks with a .353 batting average. He had seven hits in their Midwest Region title-run, including his 12th home run of the season.
Starting pitcher: Kyle Leahy of Colorado Mesa was undefeated in his First-Team All-American season. The sophomore right-hander was 13-0 on the season with a 1.22 ERA, second best in DII.
The 2017 East Region Champion Spartans will be headed to the Lone Star State later this week to begin the NCAA D2 Baseball Championship. pic.twitter.com/KpScypBnIK— STAC Spartans (@STACSpartans) May 23, 2017
Junior Frankie Moscatiello was the ace of the St. Thomas Aquinas staff this season. He went 9-1 with a 1.59 ERA, striking out more than a batter per inning.
West Chester’s junior ace Mike Cippola earned All-Region honors in the Atlantic Region. His 1.75 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and eight wins were all team bests, while he also walked a team-low 13 batters.
Closer: If Lindenwood can get the ball in senior Connor Law’s hands, there is a good chance the game is over. Law went 6-1 this season, recording 12 saves, tied for eighth best in DII (along with Quincy’s Cole Crawford who is also in the championship). He struck out 9.63 per nine innings as well, so he can bring the heat.