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College : : Story
Mid-major spotlight
Kendall Rogers        
Published: Tuesday, March 04, 2014

ALSO SEE: PG College Top 25 | College chat transcript | Profile: Virginia OF Derek Fisher | Column: Texas surges

A surprising amount of wintry weather has wreaked havoc on a vast majority of the country, especially in the northern states and Mid-Atlantic region during the past couple of months.

Somehow, despite that setback, coach Shawn Stiffler has had Virginia Commonwealth locked in and ready since the start of the season, sitting at 10-1 overall through the first three weeks.

College Baseball TicketStiffler, in his second season as head coach, is off to one of the best starts in school history with a surprising crop of players leading the charge.

“If the weather would cooperate, we’d be in very good shape,” Stiffler said. “The big thing I’m pleased with is I wasn’t sure if we’d be ready to play because of weather issues earlier in the season, and even now. We were able to overcome that obstacle, and that’s something I’m excited about.

“I feel like this club has a lot of balance,” he continued. “We’re getting a lot of contributions from a lot of players right now.”

VCU has played a splendid brand of baseball the first few weeks, and has tallied some good wins along the way. VCU made its first statement opening weekend when it went 3-0 with wins over Radford, a quality mid-major, and Georgia Tech, while it swept Furman the following weekend and has since captured a midweek win over East Carolina, yet another club that could find itself in the NCAA postseason come June.

Though it’s far too early to use the RPI as a metric, the Rams are off to a start that could help propel them to their first NCAA postseason appearance since 2010 should they continue to perform at the current level.

Stiffler is pleased with several aspects of his team at this point, but is particularly excited about the infusion of a talented freshman class, including hard-hitting second baseman Matt Davis and designated hitter/outfielder Logan Farrar.

Farrar and Davis were prospects to follow out of high school, and Farrar, in particular, has exceeded expectations through the first three weeks. Davis is hitting .344 with five RBIs, while Farrar is a versatile hitter with a .359 average, double, triple and eight RBIs, along with an impressive .457 on-base percentage.

“I’ve been beyond pleased with the job some of our freshmen have done so far this season, particularly Davis and Farrar,” Stiffler said. “Logan is a guy we knew coming into the fall had some raw athletic ability, but we were pleasantly surprised during the fall with just how skilled he was in all facets of the game. He doesn’t strike out a ton, and his best days are ahead of him as he transitions from the infield to the outfield.

“Once he makes that transition, he’ll definitely be on everyone’s radar.”

Stiffler and the Rams also are excited about the return of senior outfielder Bill Cullen. Cullen is no stranger to success. He entered last season as the Conference Preseason Player of the Year. However, he tried to play through an injury, and that directly affected his numbers, as he batted just .284 with three homers and 18 RBIs.

So far this season, Cullen is hitting .316 with a team-high 15 RBIs. The next player in the RBI department is shortstop Vima Machin, who has nine RBIs.

“The big thing for us has been the emergency of Cullen. He was hampered the last half of last season, and that hurt his overall numbers,” he said. “He seems to be back to normal this year, and that’s really transformed our offensive lineup.”

What about the pitching staff?

Accumulating enough pitching depth always seems to be a concern of coaches around the country, especially mid-major programs. But for now, VCU looks good in the pitching department moving forward.

The pitching staff, against some quality competition, has recorded a 2.70 ERA with a talented group of starting pitchers leading the charge.

Midweek starter Daniel Concepcion, a talented junior college transfer from Connor State, earned some rave reviews not long ago when he shutdown East Carolina in a 3-0 victory. Concepcion arrived at VCU as a righty with an 86-88 type of fastball, but he’s made significant strides in just a couple of months in the weight room. Concepcion has been 88-90, and up to 92 with his fastball, with good overall stuff, while also having a 2.25 ERA in 15 2/3 innings.

Junior right-hander Matt Blanchard, another junior college transfer, also is making a strong impact this spring. Blanchard has the biggest arm on the team and carries an 0.84 ERA in 10 1/3 innings, along with eight strikeouts. Blanchard, who was up to 95 against Georgia Tech a couple weeks ago, needs to work on his command, as he’s walked nine batters in three appearances.

“He started for us this past weekend and though he can get up to 95, he was 90-92 consistently as a starter over the weekend,” Stiffler said. “He has a hard breaking ball and has a live arm. His command is still a work in progress, but he’s a guy who has a chance to do some pretty big things.”

Elsewhere on the mound, senior right-handed pitcher Seth Greene has a 2.65 ERA in three starts and 17 innings, while junior lefty JoJo Howie has started three games and has a 2.25 ERA in 16 innings, along with 14 strikeouts and eight walks.

The Rams also are excited about left-handed closer Matt Lees, who has worked in five games and has a 3.52 ERA in 7 2/3 innings, while Heath Dwyer, one of the more talented arms on the staff, has a deceivingly rough 5.20 ERA in 10 innings with 11 strikeouts and two walks.

VCU has the pieces to do something special in the Atlantic 10 this spring, though, Saint Louis will provide a stiff test. In the meantime, the Rams feel like they’re in terrific shape if they can get through the next week unscathed with a midweek bout against Maryland, a weekend series at UNC Wilmington, and a pair of midweek bouts against Charlotte and Virginia Tech next week.

Other than the weather, it’s been smooth sailing for Shawn Stiffler’s crew.


MORE MID-MAJORS TO WATCH

College of Charleston: Monte Lee’s Cougars are knocking on the door to the PG College Top 25 with an incredibly fast start, sitting at 10-1 entering this week. The Cougars have been solid on the mound with talented reliever Chase Henry and starting pitcher Taylor Clarke leading the way, while offensively, Blake Butler is hitting .447 and hard-hitting Carl Wise is hitting .350 with a team-high 16 RBIs.

Georgia Southern: Coach Rodney Hennon always seems to have the Eagles ready to play. GSU is sitting at an impressive 10-2 so far this season with a very potent offensive lineup leading the way. The Eagles are hitting .348 as a team and have a red-hot leading hitter in Aaron Mizell, who’s hitting .425 with five homers and 16 RBIs.

Sam Houston State: The Bearkats were very good in last weekend’s Houston College Classic, and were rewarded for it with a spot in the PG College Top 25. SHSU has one of the nation’s better offensive lineups with a .328 batting average, and outfielder Hayden Simerly, who’s hitting .444 with a home run and nine RBIs. SHSU also has an excellent ace pitcher in right-hander Tyler Eppler, who has a 2.35 ERA in 15 1/3 innings, along with nine strikeouts.

Tennessee Tech: The preseason favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference has only impressed so far this season with an 11-1 overall record. TTU has a potent offensive lineup, hitting .335 with senior Brandon Thomasson leading the way. Thomasson is hitting .364 with five homers and 17 RBIs, while Dylan Bosheers is another headliner with a .460 batting average.

Western Carolina: If there’s a mid-major outside of SHSU that has a chance to be the biggest threat, it’s probably the Catamounts. WCU has an excellent staff ace in right-hander Jeremy Null, who has a 0.41 ERA in 22 innings, along with 25 strikeouts and four walks, while the offense is in good shape with Aaron Attaway (.378) and Bradley Strong (.389) leading the way.


Campbell: Remember the Camels from last season? Campbell tallied over 50 wins last season, but still didn’t reach the NCAA postseason. CU hopes to literally leave zero doubt this spring, and is a team on a mission. Campbell is 9-3 with a win over the SEC’s Missouri Tigers in the past week. In terms of notables, talented freshman Danny Pardo is off to a terrific start, hitting .429 with four RBIs.

Indiana State: The Sycamores lost a good one in coach Rick Heller, along with talented arms such as Sean Manaea and Dakota Bacus, but they haven’t skipped a beat with coach Mitch Hannahs leading the way. ISU’s Cody Zimmerman is off to a great start this season, hitting .381 with a home run and seven RBIs.

Kent State: Though the Flashes dropped a series opening series at Arizona, they’ve been fantastic since, winners of six of their last seven contests to be 7-3. Kent is coming off a series win over C-USA’s Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, and Zarley Zalewski is off to an outstanding start, hitting .467 with 12 RBIs and a .489 OBP.

Seton Hall: Here’s another program that’s close to earning PG College Top 25 recognition. The Pirates have formed into a solid overall program, and they’re off to another good start, sweeping Arizona last weekend to improve to 7-2. SHU senior right-handed pitcher Josh Prevost is having another strong campaign, tallying a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings, along with 20 strikeouts and just three walks.

Texas State: The Bobcats have earned some rave reviews the first three weeks and have a solid 9-2 overall record. Texas State has a rising right-handed pitcher in junior Austen Williams, who has a 1.86 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, along with 20 strikeouts and five walks, while fellow starter Lucas Humpal (2.41) also is making a strong impression.

VMI: The Keydets made a bold statement last week with a midweek win over top-ranked Virginia, and followed that up with a successful weekend. VMI's Brandon Angus (.429) and Jordan Tarsovich (.400) are off to terrific starts at the plate, while the 7-3 Keydets have a good one in starting pitcher Reed Garrett, who has an electric arm and has yet to allow a run in 20 2/3 innings, along with 20 strikeouts and nine walks.


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