With only one national champion in its history, the Division III Central Region may not fit the bill of a traditional baseball power. But what the region might lack in historical starpower, it makes up for in depth—the Central boasts close to a dozen teams with reasonable hopes of qualifying for the NCAA tournament this season.
Webster and Ripon are good bets to win their conferences this season, boosting their streaks to 10 and four years, respectively, but they’ll face competition eager for the chance to usurp the usual dynamic. Webster might be the only Central team well-positioned to make a run at the College World Series, but if the ball bounces right, other teams in the region could have a similar opportunity. Wartburg boasts the best power-hitting offense in the region and is set on repeating as IIAC champs. The similarly high-powered lineups populating the CCIW should make that conference’s standings a roller-coaster ride.
With potential All-Americans across the region and a number of teams with their sights set on play in May, let’s take a look at what to expect from the Central in 2016.
|Matt Downs will guide the Golden Eagles four years after graduating from Spalding.
Spalding athletics photo
Alan Betourne, Monmouth: After bouncing around the baseball world for the past nine years, Alan Betourne returns to his alma mater. After graduating from Monmouth with a degree in physical education and a .344 career batting average, Betourne continued playing ball in McKinney, Texas, where he joined the independent Continental Baseball League from 2007-08. In his brief CBL career, Betourne helped the Thunder to a league title and was selected for the league’s All-Star game. Betourne succeeds Roger Sander, who won a program-record 370 games in 22 years at the helm.
Matt Downs, Spalding: Another coach making the clichéd journey home is Matt Downs, a former player and assistant coach for the Eagles. After graduating from Spalding in 2012, Downs stayed on with the baseball program by assistant coaching and recruiting for two seasons; he spent last year in Danville, Ky., with Centre before returning to Spalding for the upcoming season. Downs replaces former coach Jeremy Sheetinger, who accepted a job with the American Baseball Coaches Association.
Pat Bloom, Washington (M0.): After a dozen years at the UW-Stevens Point, where he is the all-time winningest coach, Pat Bloom heads south to St. Louis for the 2016 season. Bloom’s resume is impressive, including four College World Series appearances and as many Midwest Region Coach of the Year awards, and the Pointers reached the Division III top 10 in nine seasons under Bloom’s direction. He replaces former Bears’ coach Steve Duncan, who led Wash. U. to a school-record-tying 34 wins in his final season.
St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: With nine consecutive conference championships, No. 6 Webster is the cream of the Central crop. The Gorloks have reached the College World Series in three of the last four seasons, making them the only Central team to qualify for the final eight over that span. In nine seasons under coach Bill Kurich, Webster has won 30-plus games and qualified for the NCAA tournament every year save one.
First-baseman Kyle Uhrich paces Webster’s offense; the junior slugger tied for the national lead with 17 home runs, placed third with 63 runs batted in a year ago and enters the 2016 season as the favorite to win the SLIAC’s player of the year honor.
While the Gorloks’ offense projects to be the team’s strength, a trio of returning starters give the team a formidable pitching staff to match. Sophomore Josh Fleming and juniors CJ Lee and Matt Goro all posted ERAs below 3 last year, with Fleming winning the region’s top freshman award. The southpaw struck out more than a batter per inning while walking only 11 hitters all season, good for a striking 7.8 K/BB ratio.
|Greenville was a surprise participant in the 2015 NCAA Regionals after upsetting Webster in the SLIAC Championship.
Greenville athletics photo
Competition for the Gorloks could come from outside St. Louis, despite the conference’s geographic name. With a surprise victory in the SLIAC tournament last spring, Greenville qualified for the first postseason appearance in school history. Despite losing top hitter Dalton McFarland to graduation, the Panthers return a majority of their lineup and nearly their entire pitching staff in 2016. They look poised to build on last year’s strong spring showing.
With new coach Downs in tow, Spalding, which in recent years has played second fiddle to Webster in the conference, adds a bevy of transfer students to an experienced lineup in 2016. Most notable among the group is junior Clay Kelly, a transfer from Division I Murray State, who posted a .351 on-base percentage in one year at the top collegiate level.
Midwest Conference: Ripon has finished each of the last three seasons with a 14-2 conference record and breathing room in the MWC standings. In order to maintain their stranglehold on the conference in 2016, the Red Hawks will have to worry about replacing one very big bat.
Michael Polcyn, a Ripon, Wis., native who came home after spending his first two undergraduate years at the UW-Oshkosh, spent the better part of his junior and senior seasons with the Red Hawks annihilating Division III pitching, to the tune of a .403/.501/.792 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line. In just 77 games, the shortstop smacked 25 home runs, knocked in 84 runs and tallied twice as many walks as strikeouts.
As a parting gift to Ripon before he signed a professional free-agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals (he retired after just two games in the minor leagues), Polcyn hit 12 homers in his final 14 games, propelling the Red Hawks to their fourth MWC title in six years and an NCAA Midwest Regional appearance.
Aaron Landon struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings in 2015 for the Red Hawks.
In addition to Polcyn, Ripon also had to say goodbye to four other graduating starters, leaving the Red Hawks’ lineup awfully thin this season. On the rubber, Ripon is also sans two of its workhorses from 2015, with both Marshall Zahn and Patrick Van Daalwyk graduating. The two starters combined to throw 122.2 innings last year, including five complete games and a 3.45 combined ERA.
Three-fifths of the starting rotation will return in 2016, however, the most intriguing of which is Aaron Langdon. The lanky junior pitched to a team-leading 2.73 ERA in limited action last year (29.2 innings). His most promising stat was his 9.4 K/9 rate last season, a large uptick from the 4.3 mark he posted his freshman year.
Roster turnover aside, there shouldn’t be much for Ripon to worry about in conference play. Apart from the Red Hawks, the MWC has been notoriously weak in recent seasons. This is especially true in the southern half of the conference, where three out of the past five regular-season leaders have finished .500 or worse overall.
Ripon’s most consistent threat has been St. Norbert, but the Green Knights must deal with their own departures after finishing second to Ripon the last three seasons. Junior shortstop Derek Klegin (.354 batting average in 2015), sophomore third-baseman Tyler Banovich (.336) and senior outfielder Tyler Brown (0.279) are the notable holdovers from what was already a light-hitting squad in 2015.
Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Since Coe won its first conference title back in 2011, four teams have been crowned IIAC champs. The sluggers from Wartburg, however, rank 20th in D3Baseball’s preseason poll and have a prime opportunity to become the first repeat champions since 2008, the last of the Knights’ 12-year dynasty.
|Ryan Kemp hit eight home runs for the Knights in 2015.
Wartburg athletics photo by KatieJo Kuhens
Wartburg’s calling card last season was its prodigious power. The Knights blasted 45 home runs, good enough for a tie for second place in Division III, behind only Frostburg State. Their power wasn’t concentrated in a single player either, as five Knights slugged seven or more long balls. Wartburg will have to contend with the graduations of first-baseman DJ Utley and catcher Blake Wilson, who combined for 18 of those homers last season, but a deep lineup that boasts two returning All-Conference honorees (Jacob Thumann, First Team, and Ryan Kemp, Second) should be able to withstand that loss of power.
In 2016, Warburg’s success might have just as much to do with the fading of Coe as it does with the Knights’ own improvements. While Wartburg took home the regular-season conference championship last year, Coe won the IIAC tournament and actually finished with a better overall record than Warburg. However, while Wartburg has the personnel to maintain its performance, Coe might have peaked in 2015.
The Coe Kohawks graduated nine seniors last season, including three Second Team All-Region players. Between two-way stars Jack Hoffman and AJ Reuter and outfielder Michael Goerdt, Coe lost its 2-3-4 hitters and its top two pitchers to graduation.
Left alone in the Kohawks’ lineup is ABCA All-American Craig Konrardy. In 2015, the shortstop ranked third in Division III in hits (83), tied for fifth in doubles (22) and tied for 10th in runs (55).
Buena Vista is the third team capable of winning the IIAC. The Beavers did so as recently as 2014, when they compiled an impressive 37-9 overall record, but they took a step back and milled around .500 in conference play last season. Buena Vista returns most of its core talent, like Wartburg, but lacks a game-breaking feature. The Beavers play a well-rounded game—they finished second in the conference in both batting average and team ERA last year—and their title hopes will rely on maintaining consistent performances across the board.
College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin: Unlike the other Central region conferences, the CCIW has no clear favorite entering 2016, as the conference’s recent parity projects to extend into the new season. Three CCIW teams have earned the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid in as many seasons, with the same number winning the regular-season title in that span.
|Jared Helmich will be a big part of Carthage's title chances in 2016.
Carthage athletics photo
Last year’s conference tournament winner, Carthage , brings back most of its starters from last season, including conference Player of the Year Jared Helmich. The two-way star—Helmich batted .354 at the plate and collected a 2.21 ERA on the mound—leads a deep lineup that made it just one round short of last season’s College World Series.
A second contender for the CCIW crown is North Central (Ill.), which placed first in the conference in the 2015 regular season. Senior starting pitcher Bryan Polowy returns to North Central’s rotation after winning the region’s top pitcher honor last season, when he collected a set of sparkling numbers: an 8-1 record in 10 starts and a 1.09 ERA that ranked fourth in all of Division III.
The rise of Carthage and North Central came as the conference’s usual heavyweights scuffled below their regular standard. Illinois Wesleyan failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament after five consecutive appearances—including a national title in 2009—while Augustana struggled to a 10-11 conference record after losing just 12 CCIW games in the previous two years combined.
But in 2016, the two powers are well-positioned to rebound. For IWU, First-Team All-Central catcher Pat Mollo returns for his junior year after batting a robust .361 with 26 extra-base hits last season. Mollo leads a troupe of four returning Titans who each hit better than .340 last season.
Augustana boasts similar offensive firepower, with five batters who collected hits at better than a .330 clip in 2015. Senior Walter White, a second-team all-conference performer last year, leads the pitching staff, but the rotation behind the stalwart starter carries question marks and could prevent the Augies from reaching their lofty aspirations.
STORY COURTESY OF D3BASEBALL.COM