Five Quick Hits: Mid-Majors To WatchSeason Preview
If you are a true American then you love a good underdog story. And this year, college baseball will be full of them. But the bad news is that nine of the last ten college baseball national champions have been from Power Five conferences. In 2016 Coastal Carolina was the lone wolf from the land of the mid-majors to pull off a national title in the past decade, edging Arizona in three games in the CWS Finals.
But as the big money and facilities wars rage on with the upper crust Power Five conferences in our sport, we can always hope for an uprising from the “little brothers” come this June. And who would be the most likely non-Power Five conference teams to win a national championship in 2019? Here is a quick-hitter top five to keep an eye on come June.
– EAST CAROLINA
The Pirates have amped up their game and stayed as one of the top non-Power Five conference ever since Cliff Godwin took over the reins. This season will be no different with three of the top four returning hitters and 45 of last year’s starts on the mound coming back from a staff that posted a 3.41 team ERA. The preseason No. 11 Pirates should make an immediate impact in the rankings with their easier-than-usual nonconference schedule early on. Midweek games at Mississippi State and Ole Miss and a three-game trek to UCLA will be early indicators if this team is a contender for Omaha or not.
Last year, I had the Huskies on this “Five Mid-Majors To Watch” list and sure enough they made noise in the postseason, reaching the championship round of both the AAC Tournament and the Conway Regional. This year, they’ve got all three weekend starters back, including Team USA pitcher Mason Feole and a pair of up-the-middle stalwarts in in Anthony Prado and Michael Woodworth among six returning starters. Unlike ECU though, the Huskies have a rugged nonconference slate and play 21 of their first 22 games on the road. So we might have to wait till April or May to see their best baseball.
– CAL STATE FULLERTON
Oh THESE guys again, eh? Ha ha. Yes, yes, we all know the Titans. The only thing is, this is the final shot for the Titans to win a natty in the two-thousand-teens. See, they’ve won the title trophy in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and the 2000s. There will be lots of new arms on the pitching staff but soph Tanner Bibee is the next great Titan ace. A standout recruiting class will contribute (especially RHP Michael Knorr, OF Jason Brandow and C Kameron Guangorena) but they’ll face the usual vigorous schedule, including games vs. TCU, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Washington, Stanford, Oklahoma and Arizona State in the first three weeks alone. Egad.
– COASTAL CAROLINA
Hey, if you’re looking for the mid-major to pull a Coastal Carolina, why not Coastal Carolina? A lot to like about this year’s Chanticleers squad including some veterans that were there to dogpile after the 2016 national title in OF Kieton Rivers, OF Cameron Pearcey and the return of two pitchers who sat out 2018 in LHP Austin Kitchen and CWS hero RHP Bobby Holmes. Coach Gary Gilmore called this year’s incoming class “the most talented class in the history of the program” so look for immediate contributions from the newbies.
– SOUTHERN MISS
The Eagles could have the best two-way player in the country in OF/RHP Matt Wallner, who could be a first-round draftee in June. But he’s far from all they’ve got as weekend starters Stevie Powers and Walker Powell will join Wallner in the rotation and 1B Hunter Slater and 2B Matt Guidry are both solid power hitters who went .300-plus last season. The return of four-year starter Storme Cooper from injury will be another huge boost to the infield. This team is well-armed for a C-USA title and a deep June run.
Five More To Watch:
– Dallas Baptist
The Patriots have won 40-plus in each of the last five years. Even though there are some holes to fill, the pitching staff returns 39 starts from last year and incoming catcher Herbert Iser is a future MLB backstop.
– UC Irvine
Former Anteater shortstop Ben Orloff takes over for the legendary Mike Gillespie and has a bevy of talented players, led by Team USA ace Andre Pallante, senior closer Jordan Bocko and smooth-as-silk shortstop Christian Koss.
Coach Steve Trimper can’t count on the big arms of Logan Gilbert and Brooks Wilson anymore, but there is enough talent back and stout newcomers to allow the Hatters to dream of another home regional.
– Missouri State
The Bears got bad news this week as Friday starter Ty Buckner is on the shelf for the season, but there will still be seven of the top ten pitchers from a year ago coming back to the mound. Catcher Drew Millas and 1B Ben Whetstone will continue the Bear home run tradition.
– Sam Houston State
The coaches feel the Bearkats can “match anyone in the country on the mound” as seven pro-caliber pitchers return, including the entire weekend rotation. There is speed to burn in the batting order, though not as much HR power.