College : : Story
Friday, January 24, 2014

2014 NAIA Preview

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Maryland

The More Things Change in NAIA,
The More They Stay the Same

The 2014 NAIA baseball season kicks off in selection locations around the country this weekend, and it is noteworthy because of the continued defection of a number of previously successful programs to the NCAA Division II ranks.

Chief among those schools that have bolted over the last two years are Lee (Tenn.), Lubbock Christian (Texas), Point Loma Nazarene (Calif.) and Rogers State (Okla.), all of which have participated in the NAIA World Series championship game in the last five years. Lubbock Christian is a two-time former champion.

It is not unusual for athletic programs to leave the NAIA ranks as World Series champions through the years have included the likes of prominent NCAA Division I colleges like East Carolina, Eastern Michigan, Georgia Southern, Lipscomb, Kennesaw State, Sam Houston State, San Diego State and Southern. Additionally, three-time former NAIA champion Grand Canyon (Ariz.) is in the process of transitioning to full D-I status.

But the NAIA landscape has never undergone such upheaval as has occurred over the last two years with the departure of upwards of 20 programs, many of which have prominent baseball ties.

The more things change, though, the more they stay the same as Idaho’s Lewis-Clark State remains the gold standard by which NAIA baseball is measured.

The Warriors will again host the 10-team World Series, for the 14
th consecutive year and 22nd time since 1984, and not coincidentally have amassed a record 16 national titles in that 30-year period. They won on seven of eight occasions when they hosted the series from 1984-91—with their first title coming in their first year as host—and captured six more titles in the first eight years after the tournament returned to Lewiston, Idaho, in 2000.

But the Warriors have experienced a relative drought since winning their last title in 2008, though they lost in the final a year ago to Faulkner (Ala.).

Those two teams are expected to challenge for the NAIA title again this year, albeit in a dwindling pool of elite-level teams, but the early favorite to capture the 2014 championship may be Tennessee Wesleyan, the 2011 champion.

Tennessee Wesleyan (45-18) failed to even advance to the NAIA World Series a year ago, losing out in a regional final, but return ace pitcher Jarrod Jameson (14-0, 2.57) and five regulars in the field, including shortstop Wes Minton (.318-7-40). And the team has been bolstered by a number of key transfers, notably two former Maryland players, infielder K.J. Hockaday and first baseman Tim Kiene.

Hockaday ranks No. 1 on the accompanying list of Perfect Game’s top 25 prospects in the NAIA ranks, while Kiene checks in at No. 5.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Hockaday, a 14
th-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2011 after a record-setting career as a home run hitter at a Maryland high school, starred for three summers in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League, winning the batting title a year ago. He was suspended midway through his sophomore season at Maryland for a violation of team rules, and initially intended to sit out the 2014 college season while attending classes at a local junior college, but subsequently had a change of heart and chose to transfer to Tennessee Wesleyan.

Kiene’s once-promising career at Maryland was ravaged by injuries the last two seasons, and he played in only eight games in 2013 as a junior. If healthy this spring, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound slugger could emerge as one of the top power threats in the NAIA ranks.

Possibly the most-closely scrutinized talent this spring will be Thomas (Ga.) shortstop/outfielder Tyler Palmer, a one-time fourth round of the Miami Marlins who has travelled a nomadic path since severely cutting his hand on broken glass, and nearly bleeding to death, in a freak accident almost three years ago, just days before he was set to sign a $600,000 bonus contract with the Marlins out of a Georgia high school.

There were significant doubts at the time that the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Palmer would ever play baseball again because of the severe nerve damage done to his hand, but he resurfaced the following spring at Oakton (Ill.) Community College, where his array of offensive skills were largely unimpeded but his ability to throw was severely compromised, before sitting out last year to undergo his third operation on his impaired hand.

Even though the feeling in his hand had not fully returned, Palmer spent last summer in the Florida Collegiate League and dominated that summer circuit like no player in league history, leading all players in runs scored (35), hits (49), doubles (10), homers (9), RBIs (32), stolen bases (24) and slugging (.642). He would have won the league Triple Crown had he gotten just one more hit. As it was, he finished second in the batting race, .354 to .350.

Palmer initially intended to attend Seminole State (Fla.) CC this spring as a third-year sophomore, but elected during the fall to enroll at Thomas, an NAIA school located near his Georgia home. If he can prove to scouts that his ability to throw is no longer a drawback, he could emerge as a significant draft pick again in June.

NAIA Top 10 Teams

RK School ST 2013 Record Top Prospect (Previous College)
1 Tennessee Wesleyan TN 45-18 K.J. Hockaday, 3b/of (Maryland)
2 *Lewis-Clark State ID 45-15 Joe Mello, ss (Chabot, Calif.) JC
3 *Oklahoma City OK 49-13 Shane Henderson, rhp (Grayson, Texas, CC)
4 *Embry-Riddle FL 50-15 K.J. Buchanan, of (Florida Gulf Coast)
5 *Faulkner AL 56-11 Tom Dorminy, lhp (Lurleen B. Wallace, Ala., CC)
6 Concordia CA 35-21 Cody Smith, of (San Diego State)
7 Bellevue NE 45-10 Brennan Henry, lhp (Northeastern, Colo., CC)
8 *Missouri Baptist MO 37-14 Josh Fuentes, ss (Saddleback, Calif., CC)
9 *Sterling KS 48-14 Juan Avena, 3b/of (Compton, Calif., CC)
10 Cumberland TN 49-19 Jhon Peralta, rhp (Odessa, Texas, CC)

* Played in 2013 NAIA World Series

NAIA Top 25 Prospects

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