baseball-d2 flag | February 1, 2018

Which of the final eight teams can return to Cary in 2018?

West Chester crowned the 2017 DII Baseball Champions

The road to Cary begins this weekend as Division II baseball season is set to commence. West Chester ended last season on top of the DII world, surviving the eight-team battle in Grand Prairie, Texas, taking home its second championship in six years.

RELATED: Nine days in Grand Prairie: West Chester wins national championship

So how do those final eight teams look heading into 2018? Does anyone have an easy route back to North Carolina for this year's championships? A quick look around the regions should show what to expect this season.

West Chester returns quite a few big pieces from its championship squad. Mike Cipolla and Jon Fisher pitched significant innings in Dallas and should anchor an impressive staff. They did lose closer Josh McClain — the tournament’s Most Outstanding Players — but have enough pieces that should fill the void.

There are strong teams lurking in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference alone, never mind the Atlantic region. Mercyhurst returns one of the stronger pitching staffs in DII, with Russell Lamovec, Vincenzo Lucente, Chase Vallimont and Matthew Minnick all back on the bump. Head coach Jon Shehan always seems to throw together a contender in Millersville. Eli Nabholz is coming off a big sophomore campaign in which he went 7-2 with a 3.00 ERA and 93 strikeouts in just 78 innings. Seton Hill may be a team to keep on the radar as well. The Griffins made it to the PSAC Championship game last season and return some nice pieces like home run leader MP Buckley and Craig Lewis and Tom McCarthy who tied for the team lead in batting average at .379.

The Atlantic region suffers the same fate as both the East and the Central. Teams play their early slate in unfavorable, winter conditions, if they even play consistently at all. Whoever can figure out their offense and pitching the quickest has a big advantage down the stretch.

Speaking of the East, St. Thomas Aquinas made a nice run, as one of the last three teams standing in Dallas. Giovanni Dingcong’s monster bat returns to the heart of this lineup after hitting .302 with 20 home runs, including a few highlight reel blasts in Dallas. Frankie Moscatiello also returns as ace, earning East Coast Conference Preseason Pitcher of the Year honors. The three-headed monster at the back of the bullpen — George Navadel, Chad Sinko, and Chris Pennell — has been split up with only Sinko not lost to graduation. The Spartans were nearly unbeatable when they were able to get those three the ball.

This region will likely be a battle between the Spartans and Southern New Hampshire. Head coach Scott Loiseau has built a Northeast-10 powerhouse in the Penmen. The Penmen have won 93 games over the past two seasons, each year falling one game short of the final eight. There’s no reason to expect anything less in ’18.

Lindenwood was one of a few pleasant surprises to find themselves in Dallas last year. The Lions advanced as underdogs in the region and then shutout Delta State in the first round of the championship for their first-ever win in the finals. Brendan Feldmann, who pitched deep into that shutout, is graduated, as is Connor Law, the Lions' reliever who closed out the game. Wes Degener and Drew Quinones, the team’s top hitters, do return to lead a solid lineup, so while the road may be tough, they have the pieces in place to make another run.

As always, Emporia State will loom large in the Central region as will Minnesota State. Dalton Roach is coming off of a 10-1 season that saw him post a 1.56 ERA with a 13.29 strikeout-per-nine rate and a 10.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was rewarded with DII Pitcher of the Year honors and anchors another solid Mavericks' staff in 2018.

The Midwest region was one of the more compelling storylines of the 2017 postseason. Northwood completed one of the biggest turnarounds in DII and not only made its first postseason tournament, but earned the No. 1 seed. Kentucky Wesleyan advanced to the regionals by upsetting the No. 1 seed and No. 2 seed, winning on a wild pitch in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference championship. St. Joseph's (IN) advanced to regionals playing an inspired season in their final year as a program.

None of those teams were the one who advanced. Instead, it was Quincy who found its way to Dallas, making its first appearance in the Championship in program history. The Hawks ace, Graham Spraker is gone as is their star second baseman Jake Walters, but this team returns quite a bit of its star power that got them to the finals last year. J.C. Demuri, Troy Wehde, and Nolan Snyder, three of the team's top four hitters return as does Riley Martin, Alex Pribyl and Cole Crawford looking to build off their postseason experience on the mound. 

The Hawks biggest obstacle will be a Northwood team that fell just short of an improbable run to the finals last season. The Timberwolves lost some big hitters in Connor Foley and Daniel Pulver, but return David Vinsky who finished second in DII with a .449 average as a freshman. Ian Dimitrie Tyler Jandron, and Matt Pearsall combined to make 39 starts last season, and all three return for their senior seasons. Northwood should be a team to watch from start to finish. Southern Indiana is a team to always watch as well. The Screaming Eagles return their best hitter in Drake McNamara -- who's .368 average, seven home runs and 43 RBI were all team bests -- and ace Kyle Griffin to the bump. They will be highly ranked all season.

Delta State may be the best team in DII heading into the season. They return a few big guns that got the Statesmen to Dallas last year. Zack Shannon — a two-way star at first base and the bullpen — hit .434 with 19 home runs last season en route to DII Player of the Year honors. Outfielder Clay Casey also raked, hitting .333 with 17 home runs. Junior right-hander Seth Birdsong will ace a rebuilding pitching staff, coming off of a 10-2, 3.01 ERA, 83 strikeout season.

The biggest obstacle they have in getting back to Cary is the South region. It’s arguably the toughest in the land. If Delta State is seen as the No. 1 heading into 2018, the Tampa Spartans are right behind them.

Tampa lost seven position players from last year’s squad but return South Region Pitcher of the Year David Lebron. Sophomore Jordan Leasure made six starts as a freshman posting a respectable ERA (3.33) and strikeout-per-nine (9.62). Add in big time transfers like Miami’s Keven Pimentel and North Carolina’s Cole Aker, and the pitching staff is deep enough to hold strong as the offensive gets its feet underneath it.

February 3 sees Nova Southeastern host Delta State. The Sharks are two years removed from a title and a likely Top 20 team once again. Florida Southern, Valdosta State, North Alabama and West Alabama all lurk in the region and will be strong teams from start to finish, each one making a case for the Top 25 at some point during the year. Making it out of this region and getting to Cary is like winning a championship itself.

Colorado Mesa advanced from the South Central region. They lost two of the biggest bats in DII last year with Bligh Madris (.422, 17 home runs, 14 stolen bases) drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kyle Serrano (.397, 23 doubles, 10 home runs) to graduation, but do return plenty of pieces that should make them the favorites in the Rockey Mountain Athletic Conference.

RELATED: For Evan Gattis, the road to the World Series went though DII 

The Mavericks are stacked in the pitching department. Kyle Leahy and J.R. McDermott are already making noise and catching scouts' eyes on the bump, and they'll be joined by an incredibly deep pitching staff, also featuring Jake Mielock who came out of the pen in Dallas last year. Keenon Eaton does return to the lineup, but two-way, Arizona State player Reagan Todd may be the bat to watch.

This is also a tough region thanks to the Texas swing. Angelo State has become an NCAA tournament staple the past three years and that is likely to continue in 2018. West Texas A&M and Lubbock Christian also have solid teams ready to make a run this season.

If you like to watch a lot of runs being scored, be sure to tune in to the Southeast region. North Georgia made it to Dallas by scoring the most runs in DII last season. But that's what the Peach Belt Conference does, making it widely unpredictable. North Georgia, UNC Pembroke, and Gerogia College all finished in the top ten in runs scored while Georgia College led DII with an astounding .358 team batting average. Pitching will often have the upper hand in this region and that's why Mount Olive seems to always be in the hunt. The Trojans lost some key pieces to graduation and the MLB Draft, but this is a team that has not only been to the postseason every year since 2011, they've been the host team four out of those seven years.

That leaves the wild west. The West is always one of the more fun regions, thanks to a nice mix of big bats and solid pitching staffs. UC San Diego combined both last season and made an unexpected and memorable run to the final game. The Tritons lost an extra inning heartbreaker on the opening day of the tournament and then won every game until the 5-2 lost to West Chester. Some of the big bats -- like Alex Eliopulos, Tyler Durna, and Michael Palos -- return and will be joined by exciting transfer Zander Clarke from UCLA. Jack Rupe, Jr. should lead a new look pitching staff, including Oregon State transfer Mitch Hickey, but with Troy Cruz and Adrian Orozco -- two pitchers from the 2017 postseason run -- now on the coaching staff, there is plenty experience returning.

The Tritons will need to hold off a bevy of teams, with California Baptist being arguably the toughest. "Pitcher U" returns two starters in Justin Montgomery and Logan Reinhart who are already drawing scouts' interests. Some big bats like All-American Tommy Bell, reigning PacWest Freshman of the Year John Glenn, and Bryce Macy return amongst a few others that give the Lancers balance on both sides of the ball.

Chico State, Cal Poly Pomona, Azusa Pacific, Dixie State and Point Loma give the West region more than a handful of teams with legitimate Top 25 potential and make it one of the more fun regions to watch from start to finish. Whoever survives the West will either be burnt out trying to win, or so full of momentum they have a run like the Tritons did in '17. UC San Diego has plenty of fire power and experience to make it back, but the road to Cary won't be easy. 

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