With Re-Tooled Tampa Showing The Way, Florida Should Continue Its D-II Dominance
The 44-year championship history of NCAA Division II baseball has largely been the domain of schools from Florida. Led by Florida Southern with nine and Tampa with five more, colleges from the Sunshine State have captured 16 national titles at the D-II level through the years.
That run of dominance is expected to continue this year as Tampa, which won back-to-back championships in 2006-07, has been installed as the No. 1 team in Perfect Game’s pre-season look at D-II baseball. Tampa will field a significantly beefed-up roster from the team that went 36-17 a year ago and was not a factor in the national-title picture.
The Spartans return four of their top six hitters, led by senior outfielder Andrew Jones (.385-6-43) and senior third baseman Eric Grabe (.379-5-35), who were 1-2 on the team in batting and homers, and have added the likes of sophomore catcher Shane Rowland, a transfer from Miami who was heralded as one of the nation’s top catching prospects out of high school.
Tampa’s pitching staff was victimized by a string of injuries in 2011, but includes several former Division I arms and should become the team’s strength.
Among the newcomers are junior lefthanders Ben O’Shea (9-2, 3.03 at Santa Fe, Fla., JC), an unsigned 10th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in last year’s draft, and Erik Luksis, who went 7-4, 3.68 in an all-star season for Manhattan; and former Connecticut righthander Mike Zaccardo. Moreover, former Vanderbilt righthander Sean Bierman returns after missing last season while recuperating from Tommy John surgery.
While Tampa is clearly the team to beat this spring in Florida, if not the nation, nothing is for sure when it comes to Division II baseball in that state.
West Florida, a relative upstart, was a surprise winner of the D-II World Series a year ago, in the process becoming the only championship team from Florida that was not a member of the powerful Sunshine State Conference. The Argonauts (52-9), a member of the Gulf South Conference, began their title run by dismantling SSC regular-season champion Barry in regional play on their way to running the table at the national tournament.
Two years earlier, Lynn University somewhat surprisingly emerged from the Sunshine State Conference to represent Florida in the D-II World Series, and dominated the field at the national level much like West Florida did a year ago.
Lynn was unable to sustain its success as it has gone a combined 42-60 the last two years, while West Florida may also be challenged to duplicate its magical 2011 campaign as it lost three pitchers who combined for 40 wins, including Daniel Vargas-Vila (16-1, 1.86), the nation leader in wins, along with ace closer Shane Waller (14 SV, 0.59 ERA). Most of the team’s top offensive weapons, notably outfielder Greg Pron (.423-10-69) have graduated, as well.
If those clubs lack staying power, the same cannot be said for Tampa, which historically has been one of the most-dominant teams in Division II baseball and may field one of its stronger teams ever this season. Like most D-II teams in Florida and the Sun Belt states, the Spartans open their 2012 season this weekend.
The D-II World Series returns to Cary, N.C., the home of USA Baseball’s national training center, for the fourth year. The eight-team tournament will run from May 26-June 2.
North Carolina’s Mt. Olive College is the official host school for the event, and has a solid chance of participating in the tournament again after finishing third a year ago. The Trojans may be hard pressed, though, to top some of their accomplishments of recent years that include winning a national title in 2008 and producing the top Division-II player in the 2011 draft in righthander Carter Capps.
Capps, who never lost a game in college until last year’s D-II World Series, was selected by the Seattle Mariners with a supplemental third-round pick (127th overall). Just before signing with the Mariners at the mid-August signing deadline, Capps’ fastball was clocked at 97-98 mph.
This year’s top-ranked D-II player, St. Edward’s (Texas) righthander Stephen Johnson, has a remarkably similar profile when compared to the 6-foot-6 Capps and is expected to be selected in roughly the same position in this year’s draft. He is ranked No. 71 on Perfect Game’s master pre-draft ranking of the Top 500 Prospects.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Johnson was a relative unknown coming out of a Colorado high school—much like Capps, who was immediately red-shirted when he enrolled at Mt. Olive—and largely flew under the radar in his first two years at the D-II level in Texas.
But Johnson’s draft stock surged last summer while pitching for Santa Barbara in the California Collegiate League, where he showcased an electric arm and dominated in a relief role with a fastball that was steadily in the 94-98 mph range. A summer earlier, Capps also came of age as a prospect as a closer in the Coastal Plain League.
Johnson was used as a starter last year for St. Edward’s, going 7-5, 3.56 with 35 walks and a team-high 65 strikeouts in 78 innings, and will move to his more-natural role as a closer role this spring. He still needs to continue developing his breaking stuff and refining his changeup, but should emerge as one of the hardest throwers in the 2012 college draft class.
Scouts will get an early opportunity look at Johnson and many of the other top prospects in the D-II ranks over the next 2-3 weeks, especially those playing for traditional Sun Belt schools, as the more powerful Division I ranks won’t kick off their 2012 season until Feb. 17, the uniform starting day for D-I teams.
NCAA Division II Top 10 Teams