With the first day of February, comes the first pitch of the DII baseball season. Two days later, North Greenville gets its national title defense rolling against Central Missouri — the 2021 national runner-up — on Feb. 3 from the Houston Winter Invitational at Minute Maid Park. That’s a Week 1 matchup of two Power 10 teams.
The Crusaders enter the season firmly locked in at No. 1 and have arguably the best chance to be the first repeat champions since Tampa went back-to-back in 2006-07. That very same Tampa team could be one of North Greenville’s obstacles should both make it to Cary, N.C. for the DII baseball championship, as Tampa enters the season No. 2.
2022 RECAP: How North Greenville won its first DII baseball title
Before the Road to Cary begins, let’s take a look at the preseason Power 10 rankings. Remember, these are mine and mine alone. I mix my observations, conversations with coaches, and the metrics used by the selection committee to come up with a different version of the top 10. With this being the first rankings of the season, and metrics and eye tests not available just yet, much of these initial rankings were based on returners and historical dominance.
One last reminder. DII baseball is a rolling start, with teams in the Northeast and Midwest not starting until mid-February. Because of that, the next Power 10 won’t come out until the week of Feb. 20.
The 2023 DII baseball preseason Power 10 rankings
No. 1 North Greenville: The Crusaders return entirely too much firepower from their national championship run and are No. 1 by a significant margin in my opinion. When you take into account the amount of returners and head coach Landon Powell’s best recruiting class of his tenure, this team seems like it will go from 0 to 60 on the first pitch.
It starts with John Michael Faile, the All-American catcher who is my pick for DII baseball player of the year right now. Faile is one of the best bats in the game and has Marek Chlup, the 2022 Conference Carolinas player of the year, back in the lineup with him. On the bump, Conference Carolinas pitcher of the year Reece Fields will lead the way but keep an eye on southpaw Mike Rodriguez. The reliever is nicknamed The Nightmare and struck out 36 guys in 14 innings this fall. This team is deep down to the last man on the bench.
No. 2 Tampa Tampa is, well, Tampa. This team hasn’t won eight national championships (four in the past decade at that) by mistake. Yes, their ace was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, but the Spartans have Michael Paul back on the bump and a few intriguing transfers that were starters at their last stop. The Spartans also have the top five hitters back this year, so as usual, to win the SSC and South Region, you’ll have to go through Tampa.
RANKING AND MORE: The final Power 10 of 2022, plus annual awards
No. 3 Southern Arkansas: The Muleriders return seven hitters and three of their four starting pitchers that got them to Cary for the first time as a DII program. One of those pitchers was Jeremy Adorno, who was my freshman of the year after going a ridiculous 15-0 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in his debut. With hitters like Brett McGee and Brandon Nicoll behind him, this team is dangerous.
No. 4 Angelo State: The Rams lose some of their big hitters, but let’s be real… there are always big hitters in San Angelo, Texas. Eight everyday players return to this lineup, and that includes All-American second baseman Austin Beck who is borderline impossible to get out. On the bump, Angelo State went out and got five interesting transfers, with Kade Bragg (a lefty with low-90s stuff) and Mason Bryant (a hard-throwing righty that touches 96) among the best of the bunch.
No. 5 Point Loma: The Sea Lions lose arguably the best player in DII last year (my player of the year Baxter Halligan) and Otto Kemp, who reached base in 61 of the 61 games he played (that is so ridiculous it almost doesn’t make sense). That said, Scott Anderson and Jakob Christian are back to lead a lineup that, while yes, they can hit, more importantly plays the best defense in DII. Plus, if the starters can get the ball to returning closer Cole Hillier, the game is all but over.
No. 6 Columbus State: Columbus State lost a Cougar legend in Robert Brooks but return a strong nucleus. If we have learned anything over the previous few seasons, head coach Greg Appleton is going to field a contender for Cary, no matter the returning situation. If the starting pitching delivers and gets the ball to Peyton Burton (three-pitch mix with a low 90s FB), the Cougars will have wins aplenty. Steven Minter and Derek Wylie, who were second and third on the team in homers last year, should provide plenty of pop.
HISTORY: The most DII baseball titles ever
No. 7 SNHU: I started covering DII baseball in 2016. In that span, the Penmen have made it to Cary 50 percent of the time (three times in six tournaments, remember there was none in 2020). This is routinely one of the best programs in the land and with six hitters back in the lineup, three returners in the rotation, and veteran Jeff Praml back for one more year after missing all of last season, this team is primed for another annual Penmen run.
No. 8 Illinois Springfield: The Prairie Stars lose two of the best sluggers in DII baseball but should still be highly competitive. I’m most intrigued by their pitching as Chad Saner, who was lights out in 2021 but out all last season, and transfer Clayton Johnson, who throws one of the hardest fastballs I’ve seen this fall, join the rotation. With two guys able to miss bats like they should, it will give the new(ish)-look lineup time to adjust.
No. 9 Wingate: There’s a common misconception that the eight teams that made it to Cary are probably the eight best teams heading into the next season. But with regionalization, that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in the Southeast Region which, right now, is the best in DII baseball. Let’s not forget the Bulldogs were the 2021 national champions and won 48 games last year. This team returns 11 — ELEVEN — players that had playing time in the lineup last year, two of their three weekend starters, and a bulk of one of the deepest and toughest bullpens in DII.
No. 10 Central Missouri Let me tell you a story about the Mules. Last year, I left the Mules, the defending national runner-up mind you, out of the preseason Power 10 and first five out because of the roster turnover they had. You know what they did? They won 46 games, and that was even after a slow start to the season. The Mules lose talent once again this year, but don’t be fooled. Even in a stacked region, head coach Kyle Crookes will put out one of the most competitive rosters in the land for one of the winningest programs of the 2000s.
First five out (in alphabetical order)
- Azusa Pacific: The Cougars are going to be dangerous. Head coach Kirk Nieuwenhuis is in his second season with a ton of returning talent, including Tido Robles who is an early player-of-the-year contender.
- Colorado Mesa: Let’s see what skipper Chris Hanks has up his sleeve. The Mavericks didn’t just lose three players. All three — Haydn McGeary, Spencer Bramwell and Caleb Farmer — are on minor-league rosters. That’s some serious-sized talent to replace, but the Mavs are always competitive.
- Lenoir-Rhyne: The Southeast Region is deep, and the Bears are the fourth team from the region to appear in these rankings. It’s hard not to like what head coach Chris Ramirez is building in Hickory, NC, who would be playing in front of a “home” crowd if the Bears can get to Cary.
- Rollins: Talk about a wild card. Rollins was so impressive last year but lose quite a bit from one of the best pitching staffs in DII last year. They do have some hitters coming back, but as always, the Sunshine State Conference is loaded and won’t be easy to get back to the regionals, never mind Cary.
- West Chester:The Golden Rams were tough to leave out of the top 10, but here’s why: They are very good, with a bunch of returners from last year’s Cary run. That said, in the always stacked PSAC, I can’t even figure out if they are the best team in their own conference yet. They get the nod here because of last year’s strong finish.
Also considered (in alphabetical order): Augustana (SD), East Stroudsburg, Lee, Millersville, Minnesota State, Mount Olive, Nova Southeastern, Quincy, UNC Pembroke, West Texas A&M
Five teams to watch for 2023
Each year, my five teams to watch are what many call “sleepers,” often not getting much, if any, preseason love in the national rankings. These aren’t made by throwing darts, but a lot of research. The 2022 “five teams to watch” were Charleston (WV), Delta State, Northwood, Quincy and Wheeling. Four of those five teams made the tournament, and this year Quincy is firmly in the national preseason top 25 while Delta State and Charleston were voted conference favorites.
So, who has the magic to make some noise this year?
- Colorado School of Mines: Pretty simple. The Orediggers return eight of their nine starters in the lineup, three of their four starting pitchers, and seven relief pitchers. That is too much returning talent to overlook.
- Montevallo: They return a ton of talent with a very senior-laden team and should only get better when Gino Cozzi returns from injury. Transfer Barry Eiseman should make an instant impact and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team sneak up and win the GSC.
- Southeastern Oklahoma State: There is certainly a storm brewing in Durant, Oklahoma (see what I did there?). The Savage Storm has eight returns to the lineup (five of which hit .300 or better), three weekend starters, and four relievers. The GAC is Muleriders Country for now, and I don’t know that the Storm has what it takes to overtake them, but a run to the regionals isn’t out of the question.
- St Cloud State: Augustana (SD) and Minnesota State run the NSIC, but both lose a ton of talent that was among DII baseball’s best last year. The Huskies are as steady as they come, and with the returning talent, could make a run for the NSIC crown.
- St. Edwards: There's something about the Hilltoppers this year that seems like they are on the verge of a breakout. Yes, right now, they are the third or fourth best team in their own conference, but the Lone Star is always deep. There is a bevy of returners to watch and some impact transfers, so keep them on your radar.