The NCAA Division III baseball tournament has narrowed its field from 54 to eight as Championship Tournament play opens up today with four games. Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, Wis., home of the Midwest League’s Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, hosts the D-III World Series. The double-elimination tournament features the winners of eight regionals from across the country, including undefeated Trinity (Conn.) College, which enters the weekend with an NCAA-record 41 straight wins.
After the first day of games, the tournament will progress into a double-elimination format with a winners’ bracket and a losers’ bracket.
DAY ONE SCHEDULE
Game 1: Chapman (Calif). Vs. Kean (N.J.)
Game 2: Adrian (Mich.) College vs. Johns Hopkins (Md.)
Game 3: Wisconsin-Whitewater vs. Linfield (Ore.) College
Game 4: Cortland State (N.Y.) vs. Trinity (Conn.) College
Chapman: Winners of five out of the last six D-III West Region championships, Chapman is as experienced as any squad in Appleton. The Panthers swept their regional with four straight wins, but not without some close calls. Three of their four victories were of the one-run variety, and their only victory by more than one run was a 5-3, 12-inning win over McMurry (Texas). The Panthers may not have the undefeated credentials of Trinity, but they enter the championship atop every major D-III poll.
Chapman has defeated first-round opponent Kean twice this year, 19-0 and 1-0. But Kean beat the Panthers 3-1 in last year’s championships to send them to the loser’s bracket.
The Panthers will rely on the same strategy they have used all year to win games in Appleton: combine solid hitting and solid pitching to give standout reliever Kurt Yacko the ball in the late innings. Yacko has 14 saves in 2008 and was named MVP of the West regional after throwing 8 2/3 scoreless innings. Opponents are batting just .148 against him this year.
The Panther offense is paced by their impressive middle of the order. While Yacko slams the door on opposing teams, he has set the table for the heart of the Panther lineup, scoring 42 runs. Cleanup hitter Mike Vass is batting .385/.452/.711 and leads the Panthers with 14 homers on the year.
Kean: The defending national champion’s two losses to Chapman earlier in the year are not a harbinger of good things to come, but the Cougars come into Appleton riding a 12-game winning streak. And Chapman hasn’t lost an NCAA tournament game in over a year. The Panthers have won 12 in a row in NCAA postseason play.
The Cougars, champions of the New Jersey Athletic Conference, are led by an explosive offense and a strong bullpen. Maikel De La Rosa may not be the most physically imposing player in college baseball at 5-foot-5, 130 pounds, but his bat has carried Kean in 2008. De La Rosa, batting out of the leadoff spot, has hit .368/.487/.428. The Cougars’ offense won’t display much power, but they have won games with their experience and prowess on the basepaths. The Cougars are second in the nation with 134 stolen bases in 2008. Derek Gianakas has 12 of the Cougars’ 27 home runs in 2008 and has been the key power hitter on the otherwise light-hitting squad. Both Gianakas and De La Rosa were named to the all-Mid-Atlantic regional team last weekend in Newark.
Kean has relied on solid bullpen work all year to put it in a position to hold leads or come back late. Brandon Aich has been the anchor of a bullpen that has gone 14-4 on the year. Aich, named to the all-regional team, is 7-1, 1.60 in 39 innings.
Adrian: The undisputed underdog of this World Series, Adrian is making its first appearance in the Division III Championships in school history. Adrian entered the tournament as a No. 5 seed in its regional in Terre Haute, Ind., and needed late-game heroics just to make it to Appleton. Down 7-5 in the final inning of the deciding game of the Mideast regional, Adrian roared back with three runs to clinch its first-ever trip to the World Series.
Adrian is the first team from the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) to reach the D-III World Series, but it has gained a reputation as a clutch, scrappy team on its run to Appleton. Adrian moved to the finals of the Mideast regional with a pair of one-run victories.
Offensively, the Bulldogs are led by senior third baseman Bobby Rickstad. Rickstad is batting .360/.438/.573 on the year, including a 6-for-20 performance in the Mideast regional with a home run and three RBIs. Rickstad’s contributions don’t stop on the mound, though. He delivered a complete-game victory in Adrian’s second game in the Mideast regional, a 4-3 win over Rose-Hulman Tech (Ind.). Rickstad went the distance, throwing 151 pitches and striking out 10, picking up his sixth win of the year.
Johns Hopkins: The Blue Jays lacrosse team isn’t the only Hopkins team competing for a national championship this weekend. The baseball team makes its second appearance in a Division III World Series, bringing one of the nation’s most explosive offenses to Appleton.
Hopkins coach Bob Babb recorded the 800th win of his career on March 29 and enters the World Series with 825 career wins. While this is just Babb’s second appearance in the D-III World Series, his teams have had a winning record every year since he took the helm of the program in 1980, including 12 30-win plus seasons.
Hopkins will look to slug its way to a national championship with an offense that has put up eight runs or more in 36 of its 45 games. The Blue Jays’ attack is led by sophomore outfielder Brian Youchak. Youchak has the highest batting average of any player in the World Series, with a .500/.532/.827 line. Youchak has also pounded nine home runs and 57 RBIs in 2008. Highly decorated senior outfielder Rob Pietroforte has put up another stellar season for Hopkins, batting .483/.559/.792 on the year.
Wisconsin-Whitewater: The Warhawks have plenty of experience with the wacky Wisconsin weather that could come into play this weekend. Fresh off a 21-13 regional-clinching victory that featured five errors from both teams, Whitewater should feel at home in Appleton.
Not only will the Warhawks be playing in their home state, but their roster boasts nine players who were a part of the 2005 D-III national championship team. This is Whitewater’s first trip back to postseason play since its national title run in 2005.
The Warhawks have a balanced attack that is led offensively by senior catcher Billy Johnson. Johnson played sparingly on the ’05 team, but he has been a force for Whitewater this year, batting .424/.508/.635. Cleanup hitter Kevin Zalnis has powered the Warhawks offense with 16 home runs and 50 RBIs in 2008.
After three mediocre seasons, senior Adam Dominick has emerged as the ace for Whitewater. Dominick, a 6-foot-5 righthander, is 10-2, 3.15 with 87 strikeouts and 16 walks.
Linfield: The atmosphere in Appleton this weekend will be a far cry from what Linfield coach Scott Brosius experienced in his four major league World Series appearances with the New York Yankees, but it is certainly meaningful for Brosius, who has led his alma mater to its first World Series appearance in just his first year on the job.
Brosius’ clutch performances in the big league postseason seems to have carried over to his team, which began the tournament as the No. 5 seed in the Central regional, but won the deciding game 4-3 in extra innings to advance to the World Series. It has been a record-setting year for Brosius, who has also guided Linfield to a school-record 34 wins heading into Appleton.
Linfield will rely on its hot bats to continue to carry them if they hope to make more history. Junior outfielder/DH Stew Davis most likely won’t see action defensively in Appleton, but his .359/.453/.559 numbers in ’08 make him one of the Wildcats’ most important hitters. Senior catcher Drew Van Cleave has provided excellent defense behind the plate while also leading the team with 42 RBIs, on top of batting .338/.405/.547.
Cortland State: The nightcap of the opening day of the World Series provides the most intriguing matchup of the day. The two hottest teams in D-III baseball, Cortland State and Trinity, face off. The Red Dragons come into Appleton riding a 38-game winning streak and the nation’s longest streak of consecutive D-III tournament appearances with 16. Adding to the intrigue surrounding Friday’s finale is the fact that the Trinity’s last loss came at the hands of Cortland State in last year’s regionals, ending Trinity’s season.
The Red Dragons came in fourth in last year’s World Series and boast the most impressive resume of any program traveling to Appleton. Cortland State’s eight previous D-III World Series appearances are the most of any school participating in the World Series this year.
The Red Dragons have worn down opponents with their offense while stifling them defensively. Junior outfielder John Zilnicki has been the offensive leader for Cortland State, batting .426/.513/.603 in 2008. Senior catcher Mike Zaccardo has produced runs all year for the Red Dragons, driving in 47, while also hitting 6 home runs. The New York regional’s Most Outstanding Player, Nicolas Blanco, has anchored the pitching staff, drawing starts and working out of the bullpen. Blanco has overmatched his opponents this spring while posting a 1.31 ERA to go along with an impressive 33-13 strikeout-walk ratio.
Trinity: There is no doubt who faces the most pressure heading into this weekend. Trinity has drawn national attention for its undefeated regular season and subsequent run through the postseason and enters the weekend looking to become the first college baseball team to finish a season undefeated.
The Bantams cruised through the New England Small College Athletic Conference regular season schedule and showed no signs of slowing down as they breezed through the New England regional, winning every game by at least four runs.
Not only has Trinity’s run featured eye-popping numbers in the win-loss columns, but also for their pitchers. Trinity righthander Tim Kiely has compiled one of the most dominant statistical seasons in college baseball history. Kiely has posted an impressive 1.37 ERA, but has posted an astounding 87-1 K-BB ratio. Sophomore Jeremiah Bayer has complemented Kiely’s dominance with an 8-0 record and an even lower 1.10 ERA. Trinity’s pitching staff has befuddled opponents all year, holding opponents to two runs or fewer in 25 of their 41 games.