College : : Story
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

2013 NAIA Preview

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Perfect Game

In-State Showdown Looms Between Defending
Champion Tennessee Wesleyan, No. 1-Ranked Lee

With 16 championships in the 27-year period from 1981 to 2008, the NAIA World Series has long been the bastion of Idaho’s Lewis-Clark State College. But the balance of power has swung in recent years to Tennessee and its rich assortment of NAIA teams.

Tennessee Wesleyan College won the NAIA national title a year ago, following in the footsteps of Cumberland University in 2010 (and 2004). But the real power of NAIA baseball in the Volunteer State may well be Lee University, which is in search of its first championship but has made six straight appearances to Lewiston, Idaho, the permanent home of the NAIA World Series.

The Flames finished second in both 2008 and 2010, and pulled up short again in 2012 by finishing fourth. But this may be their year as they return several key players from a 56-11 team, and have a distinguished crop of newcomers, led by righthander Myles Smith, who ranks No. 1 in Perfect Game’s list of the Top 25 Prospects in the NAIA ranks.

Appropriately, Lee holds the same No. 1 distinction in PG’s pre-season ranking of the nation’s Top 10 NAIA Teams. The Flames open their 2013 season on Friday with a three-game set against Northwestern Ohio.

“I really like this year’s team,” said Mark Brew, who took over the head coaching duties at Lee effective with the 2007 season and has won 50-plus games every season. “We feel we will be balanced in the three big areas (pitching, defense and offense). We have had some quality teams in the past, but I really think what sets this one apart is the depth on the pitching mound and in the lineup.”

Smith, a 16
th-round pick of the Mets in the 2012 draft, transferred to Lee for his junior year after going 8-2, 2.78 at Miami-Dade Community College. With a fastball that ranges from 90-94 mph, an excellent changeup and improving slider, Smith will move in as the No. 1 starter in the Lee rotation, replacing righthander Kris Hall, who went 12-0, 1.71 a year ago on his way to being drafted in the eighth round by the Athletics.

Hall was one of four Flames pitchers drafted in 2012, but 6-foot-7, 235-pound righthander Andy Hillis elected not to sign after being taken in the 29
th round by the Cardinals and returns to his closer role. He went 5-1, 2.73 with seven saves as a draft-eligible sophomore and ranks as the hardest thrower on the Lee staff with a fastball that tops out at 95 mph.

Even with the loss of Hall and their two other primary starters, the Flames may have an even more prolific staff this season as Smith will be joined in the rotation by senior righthander Jose Samayoa (8-0, 2.70), junior lefthander Chris Terry (7-2, 1.21 at California’s College of San Mateo), a 36
th-round pick of the Giants in last year’s draft; and junior righthander Keegan Yuhl (11-2, 2.08 at California’s Orange Coast College, the nation’s No. 1-ranked junior college team most of 2012).

The Flames also return four regulars in the field, including senior outfielder Corey Davis (.345-11-61, 31 SB), a 15
th-round pick of the Nationals in 2009, and have added the likes of senior catcher Danny Canela, who was the leading hitter at North Carolina State in 2012 (.348-6-46); junior shortstop Alex Silver, the leading hitter for California state junior-college champion Cosumnes River (.335-1-30), and first baseman Derrick Pitts, the leading home-run hitter for the College of Western Nevada (.286-9-51).

“Our team on paper looks really good, but we can’t play the game on paper,” Brew said. “We have to go out and execute all areas of the game we speak with our guys about. If we do those things, then I like our chances to be in the mix at the end.”

In order to win their first national title, Lee may well have to go through Tennessee Wesleyan again, as the defending champion Bulldogs (53-12) return a senior-dominated team that includes third baseman Jake Stone (.407-13-78), DH Drew Levi (.326-12-58), outfielder Travis Burnside (.284-1-32, 26 SB), righthander Corey Rhoney (10-0, 2.31) and lefthander Josh Culler (10-2, 3.02). The Bulldogs have also brought aboard several key junior-college transfers.

Not to be overlooked, Cumberland (32-26), Bryan (41-18) and Freed-Hardeman (36-23) are other Tennessee NAIA schools that could make their presence felt in 2013, and it’s not out of the question that the NAIA World Series could feature as many as three teams from the state—much like occurred in 2010, when Cumberland defeated Lee in the championship game, and Tennessee Wesleyan also made an appearance in the tournament.

Should any of the Tennessee teams falter this spring, Oklahoma City University, which won the NAIA World Series in 2005 and has appeared in the last five tournaments, will be lurking. The No. 2-ranked Stars (48-12) return established players like catcher Kale Gaden (.327-11-51), shortstop Chris Munoz (.388-11-44), lefthander Ryan Gibson (4-0, 1.63), and righthanders Cody Crabaugh (10-2, 2.29) and Pat Goelz (1.70 ERA, 8 SV).

A second Oklahoma team, Rogers State, moved into the title picture last year by finishing second to Tennessee Wesleyan, and begins this season at No. 4.

Though it’s been five years since Lewis-Clark State last won an NAIA title, the Warriors (42-14, 1-2 in last year’s tournament) can never be overlooked, especially since the World Series has been played on their campus field every year since 2000 (and from 1984-91 prior to that).

The Warriors, ranked No. 5, have a new coach this year in Jeremiah Robbins (former coach at Division II Western Oregon State), and return senior 1B Eric Peterson (.329-3-34), junior outfielder Kyle Knigge (.355-4-32), and two senior starters, lefthander Anthony Armanino (10-1, 1.99) and righthander Mike Noteware (9-3, 2.23).

The 57th annual NAIA World Series, a 10-team affair, will be played in Lewiston from May 24-31.

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