College : : Story
Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 NCAA Division II Preview

Allan Simpson        
Photo: UNC

Defending Champ Tampa Starts at No. 1;
Azusa Pacific Pitcher Earns Top Billing

The University of Tampa may not be as clear-cut a favorite to win the NCAA Division II national title this season as it was a year ago, when it went 47-12 on its march to the championship, or in 2006-07 when it decisively won consecutive World Series crowns by going a collective 106-17, but the Spartans have one thing in their favor that no other current D-II program can come close to matching.

A winning tradition. And that intangible may be enough to push the Spartans over the top again in 2014.

Besides capturing their sixth D-II championship in 2013, the Spartans haven’t had a losing season since their inaugural year in 1977, and are a scintillating 567-176 in Joe Urso’s 13 years as head coach. They’ve consistently dominated Florida’s Sunshine State Conference, the most-competitive D-II alignment in the country.

The Spartans, who open their season this weekend with a three-game set against Bentley (Mass.) College, don’t appear to be as strong on paper this year as in 2013, but still return their top four hitters—second baseman Tyler Ding (.378-2-37), shortstop Jacob Tillotson (.360-1-35), outfielder Michael Danner (.344-6-53) and first baseman Sean O’Brien (.341-1-31). In all, six regulars return.

Newcomers J.C. Coban and Tyler York, transfers from Penn State and Tallahassee (Fla.) CC, respectively, are already viewed as two of the team’s top prospects for the 2014 draft and should combine to make the catching position one of the team’s strengths, while ex-State College of Florida-Manatee infielder Orlando Rivera should also factor prominently into the lineup and be an offensive force.

With four Tampa arms lost to the 2013 draft, pitching is much less of a sure thing and the team’s success may hinge on a return to health of red-shirt junior lefthander Jimmy Hodgskin, a one-time top prospect at Troy who has been largely disabled the last two years while on the mend from Tommy John surgery, and the emergence of ex-Virginia righthander Trey Oest, who went 5-0 as a mid-week starter for the Cavaliers as a freshman in 2013.

Tampa went through an early dress rehearsal, of sorts, for the 2014 season in mid-January when it played and won all three games against teams of 23-and-under players from Cuba on a week-long trip to that country that was billed as a diplomatic and cultural exchange.

While Tampa has been deeded the No. 1 spot in Perfect Game’s pre-season ranking of the nation’s Top 10 Division II teams, two clubs with a recent track records of success that failed to advance to the World Series a year ago, Mt. Olive (N.C.) and Azusa Pacific (Calif.), may have done plenty during the off-season to facilitate their return to the national spotlight.

Mt. Olive, the 2008 D-II national champion and technically the host school for the World Series as it is played in nearby Cary, N.C., at the USA Baseball training facility, went a sterling 48-8 a year ago and spent several weeks ranked No. 1, only to get bumped off in regional play.

The Trojans return ace lefthander Alex Regan (14-1, 1.81), who tied for the national lead in wins, and outfielder Bradon Reitano (.361-10-63, 19 SB), and appear to have significantly strengthened their roster with the addition of pitchers DeShorn Lake and Tyler Joyner, both transfers from East Carolina, and ex-Auburn outfielder Jay Gonzalez.

Lake, a product of the Virgin Islands, was a highly-regarded 12
th-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2011 who never got untracked in three years at ECU, while Joyner and Gonzalez missed the 2013 season while on suspension by their respective teams.

Joyner, a lefthander, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2012 (35
th round), while Gonzalez was taken by the Texas Rangers (39th round) a year ago, even after sitting out the season at Auburn. An intriguing power/speed package in an under-sized 5-foot-9 frame, Gonzalez spent last summer playing for Utica of the Perfect Game Collegiate League and was selected that league’s 11th-best prospect.

Mt. Olive, ranked No. 2 by Perfect Game, opens its 2014 season on the road Saturday against Winston-Salem State and next Friday faces No. 1-ranked Tampa in a pre-season tournament at Aiken, S.C.

Azusa Pacific, meanwhile, went only 19-30 in 2013 in its first year of transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II membership, after going 47-12 a year earlier and falling a game short of its third appearance in the NAIA World Series.

The Cougars remain ineligible for post-season play, but could be in line for a significant bounce-back season with the addition of two high-profile arms, junior lefthander Adam McCreery, a transfer from Arizona State, and sophomore righthander Josh Staumont, who spent his freshman season at Biola (Calif.). Staumont ranks No. 1 on Perfect Game’s list of the Top 25 Prospects in the D-II ranks, McCreery No. 3.

The 6-foot-8 McCreery, who was pegged as a possible future first-rounder when he spurned a 14
th-round offer from the Minnesota Twins in 2011 in favor of attending ASU, went only 2-4, 6.93 with 40 walks and 31 strikeouts in 38 innings for the Sun Devils in 2013, before he was dismissed from the team in the fall. He showed only flashes of his considerable potential in two years at ASU, but could zoom up draft boards this spring if he cleans up his mechanics, harnesses his control and has a breakthrough spring.

Staumont isn’t eligible for the draft until 2015, but will be closely monitored this spring, as well.

A strong, durable pitcher with a clean, effortless delivery, explosive arm and repertoire that features two-above-average pitches, Staumont went 6-6, 3.96 with a club-leading 109 strikeouts in 102 innings a year ago at Biola, before moving on to Azusa Pacific this year along with former Biola coach and ex-big leaguer John Verhoeven, who has taken over as pitching coach for the Cougars.

Sandwiched between Staumont and McCreery at No. 2 in PG’s list of the top D-II prospects is 6-foot-4, 240-pound Lander (S.C.) righthander Mason McCullough, who like several prospects on the list ended up at a D-II school after being dismissed from a D-I school, in this case North Carolina.

With a fastball that routinely reaches the upper-90s, McCullough will undoubtedly be one of the hardest throwers in college baseball this spring, but his success at Lander and standing in the draft in June will hinge on his ability to harness his suspect secondary stuff.

The D-II World Series returns to Cary for a sixth straight year, with the eight-team tournament running from May 24-31.

NCAA Division II Top 10 Teams

RK School ST 2013 Record Top Prospect (Previous College)
1 *Tampa FL 47-12 J.C. Coban, c (Penn State)
2 Mt. Olive NC 48-8 Jay Gonzalez, of (Auburn)
3 *Minnesota State-Mankato MN 42-9 Josh Matheson, rhp
4 *Grand Valley State MI 38-19 Kevin Zak, ss
5 Colorado Mesa CO 45-11 Nevin Wilson, lhp (Vanderbilt)
6 South Carolina-Aiken SC 42-13 Ty Barkell, 1b/rhp
7 *St. Edwards TX 44-18 Brannon Easterling, rhp (Texas Tech)
8 Delta State MS 44-11 Taylor Stark, rhp (Mississippi State)
9 *Shippensburg PA 32-23 Pat Kregeloh, rhp/1b
10 #Azusa Pacific CA 19-30 Josh Staumont, rhp (Biola, Calif.)

* Participated in 2013 Division II World Series
# Ineligible for 2014 D-II World Series

NCAA Division II Top 25 Prospects

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