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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mid-major spotlight

Kendall Rogers        
More coverage: Weekly national column | College Top 25

Every season there happens to be a mid-major or two that makes a huge statement in the NCAA postseason.

From a conference standpoint, the Sun Belt fits the mold of a mid-major league, but Louisiana-Lafayette, a conference member, is one of the nation's elite teams.

Though coach Tony Robichaux's Ragin' Cajuns are the elite team hailing from a mid-major league, there are plenty of other mid-major programs in the process of accomplishing something special this season.

Indiana State and Central Arkansas, both teams who had some success the past couple of seasons and accrued heavy personnel losses last summer, are continuing their successful ways, while Alabama State has total control of the Southwestern Athletic Conference after taking a series from Jackson State last weekend.

Another week is in the books, and the mid-majors continue to shine.

Central Arkansas (14-8): Remember these guys from last season? The Bears made a bold statement last season by taking an early season series from Mississippi State. UCA parlayed that series to more success throughout the spring and eventually ended up in the NCAA postseason. Now, even after losing some key cogs from last year's club, coach Allen Gum's crew might be ready for more after taking care of business against Sam Houston State last weekend. Sitting at 4-2 in the Southland, the Bears have shown steady improvements so far this spring. Junior righthanded pitcher Chris Caudle shined against the Bearkats and has a 3.25 ERA in 36 innings, along with 18 strikeouts and 14 walks. UCA's offense certainly has taken a drive in production so far this season, but Doug Votolato and Wesley Hoover are quality hitters from which a foundation can be built from.

Liberty (18-7): Jim Toman's Flames got some much needed experience last season when they reached the Columbia, S.C., Regional title game against South Carolina. Though the Flames fell short of their intended goal to advance to an NCAA Super Regional, they still had a good year, setting the stage for the 2014 campaign. So far this year, the Flames have been consistent, and the pitching staff particularly stands out to me. The Flames have a pair of very solid starting pitchers in Trey Lambert (2.82) and Carson Herndon (3.90), while the bullpen is a major strength with hard-throwing Ashton Perritt and Shawn Clowers leading the charge. Offensively, Ryan Seiz, one of the league's top sluggers entering the season, is meeting expectations with a .415 average, five homers and 22 RBIs.

Mercer (20-6): In not exactly a shocking development, coach Craig Gibson again has a club that could strike some serious fear in clubs as the season progresses. The Bears have a good, but not great, weekend rotation, while the bullpen is the strength of this team. Mercer was ecstatic when veteran reliever Dimitri Kourtis returned from an injury, while fellow relievers such as Morgan Pittman (0.36), Stephen Glaze (1.69) and Ben Lumsden (1.77) also are terrific options. Mercer again has a productive offensive lineup. And though Nick Backlund is back to doing his usual things, defensive specialist Michael Massi has developed into a serious offensive threat. 

Virginia Commonwealth (20-3): We featured the Rams a few weeks ago when they were on a run -- a run they're still on, by the way. VCU is playing an impressive brand of baseball, and the starting pitching is the most striking aspect of this club. JoJo Howie has a 2.43 ERA in 37 innings, Heath Dwyer has a 2.84 ERA in 31 2/3 innings, and has been very good as of late, and there's also Seth Greene and Daniel Concepcion, who both are quality starters. Freshman Logan Farrar continues to rally impressive offensive numbers, while the bullpen and quality depth is the lone concern the rest of the spring. Shawn Stiffler's club is dangerous.

Indiana State (16-5): Though the Sycamores came up short against lefthanded pitcher Kyle Freeland and Evansville last weekend, this is still a very solid club, as evidenced by several impressive wins thus far, including a midweek triumph over in-state foe Indiana. The Sycamores had some question marks after losing starting pitchers Sean Manaea and Dakota Bacus from last year's club. However, lefty David Stagg (2.79), and Brad Lombard (2.95) and Kurt Kudrecki (3.31) have held up their end of the bargain. Major kudos to first-year head coach Mitch Hannahs for having this team ready.

Tennessee Tech (21-5): The Golden Eagles were the favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference title, and not much has changed so far this season. This is a very balanced club with junior righthanded pitcher David Hess leading the way on the mound. Hess has the ability to get up to the mid-90s with his fastball, and has a 1.43 ERA in 37 2/3 innings, along with 42 strikeouts and seven walks. Meanwhile, the offense is very productive with a .323 batting average. TTU has a trio of outstanding seniors in Daniel Miles, Zach Zarzour and Brandon Thomasson. Miles is hitting .449 with six homers and 26 RBIs, Zarzour is hitting .386 with 23 RBIs and Thomasson is a guy we’ve talked about a lot already this spring, and has a .356 average with eight homers.

Seton Hall (15-4): The Pirates are a very intriguing club. SHU made a statement earlier this season by hitting the road and sweeping Arizona. Though the Wildcats have made that series less impactful since, this is still a good club with a lot of potential the rest of the spring. Ace righthanded pitcher Josh Prevost is a terrific ace with a 1.69 ERA in 48 innings, along with 37 strikeouts and five walks. The offense also is in good shape with Sal Annunziata (.370) and D.J. Ruhlman (.370) leading the charge. I’m liking the offense and starting pitching aspects of this club, but quality bullpen depth definitely is a concern of mine moving forward. 

Alabama State (21-8): We mentioned this before the season, but the Hornets have a team capable of finally punching through and getting to the NCAA postseason, possibly even winning a couple of games. Head coach Mervyl Melendez has attracted some impressive talent to the program, and this team is riding high after disposing of Jackson State last weekend. ASU has a solid ace in 5-foot-9, 170-pound, righthanded pitcher Joseph Camacho, who has a 1.85 ERA in 43 2/3 innings, along with 37 walks and eight strikeouts, while at the plate, infielder Emmanuel Marrero, the team’s elite prospect, is hitting an expected .367 with a home run and 35 RBIs, along with .416 OBP. It’s a long season ahead, but Melendez has his crew headed the right direction.

Georgia Southern (19-7): We featured the Eagles a few weeks ago and they’ve continued to rack up some nice wins, including one over Clemson last week, and a nice series win over Appalachian State last weekend. Junior lefthanded pitcher Sam Howard is the headliner for this club, tallying a 1.43 ERA in 37 2/3 innings, along with 43 strikeouts and five walks, and good overall stuff, including a good changeup and fastball that can touch 92-93 mph on the radar gun. Meanwhile, the offense gives the GSU pitching staff plenty of help with outfielder Aaron Mizell having a monstrous season with a .378 average, nine homers and 30 RBIs. Consistency is the key for this club the rest of the season. It’s still a long way until May, but the Eagles have an RPI of 106 and will need to record some nice midweek wins the rest of the way to really make inroads.

Illinois State (15-7): Redbirds head coach Mark Kingston always seems to have his club ready to play, and this season is no exception. Kingston and the Redbirds were expected to compete for the Missouri Valley Conference crown this season, and they’ve met expectations thus far with a two-headed monster on the mound leading the way in junior righthander Dan Savas and sophomore lefthander Dylan Craig. Savas has the ability to bump a 92 or 93 on the radar gun, but typically sits 88-91, along with a swing and miss slider. Savas has an outstanding 0.92 ERA in 39 innings, while Craig has a 1.46 ERA in 37 innings sits 88-91 with his fastball, and also includes a good cutter. Jeremy Rhoades is another high quality arm for the Redbirds, while Paul Dejong (.393) and Mike Hollenbeck (.373) are the offensive headliners. ISU has a respectable RPI of 47 right now, but must keep bad losses to a minimum the rest of the spring.

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