Fans who attended last year's Division II World Series in Cary, N.C., will be treated to a new crop of national title hopefuls this year.
Central Region winner Minnesota State-Mankato is the sole 2012 participant returning to this year's double-elimination tournament, which kicks off Saturday at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
The Mavericks will face off against Midwest Region champion Grand Valley State (Mich.) in the second game Saturday, with East champion Franklin Pierce (N.H.) and Atlantic champion Shippensburg (Pa.) playing in the opener. On the other end of the bracket, South winner Tampa (Fla.) and Southeast champion Coker (S.C.) play Sunday's first game, while a pair of tournament first-timers, West champion Grand Canyon (Ariz.) and South Central's St. Edward's (Texas), square off in the second game.
The championship game is slated for June 1 at 7 p.m., and as a No. 1 seed in the South Region, Tampa (43-11) seems like an early frontrunner to contend for the title. The Spartans have a potent offense: They're tied for fifth in the country with a .424 on-base percentage and score 8.1 runs per game.
"The offense just grinds and grinds," 13-year coach Joe Urso told The Tampa Tribune. "And they'll wear you out."
The Spartans also have a few Division I transfers at their disposal. Junior Zach Alvord, a starting second baseman with Auburn a year ago, is a draft prospect with a plus arm and some pull power. He's batting .344 in 32 games this season with a .894 OPS. Starting pitcher Jon Keller (4-3, 4.19 ERA), formerly of Nebraska, has also joined the Tampa cause. He's a 6-foot-5 righthander who can touch 95 mph.
Additionally, Tampa has a couple of intriguing arms in lefty Mike Adams (2.43 ERA, 69 SO/56 IP), who has recorded six saves at the back end of the bullpen, and lefthander Eric Luskis, who hasn't had a stellar senior season (5-3, 5.08 ERA) but flashes a near-plus curveball. Tampa's first opponent, Coker, also has power in the bullpen in the form of 6-foot-3 righty closer Zach Loraine. Second in the NCAA with 15 saves, Loraine (2.40 ERA, 65 SO/60 IP) has been clocked as high as 95 mph.
Pitching could very well rule the tournament, as Grand Valley State (2.58 ERA), Minnesota State-Mankato (2.77), Franklin Pierce (2.82) and St. Edward's (2.85) are all in the top 10 nationally in team ERA. Minnesota State-Mankato and Franklin Pierce in particular have some promising pitchers worth keeping an eye on.
A Tommy John surgery survivor, senior Mavericks righthander Harvey Martin has been a durable — and reliable — arm this season, going 8-0, 1.52 with 85 strikeouts and seven walks in 71 innings. His right arm has obviously fully recovered, too, judging by his four complete games this season. Most recently, he pitched a 10-inning complete game and threw 152 pitches in a 4-1 win against Central Region foe Missouri Western on May 17.
"I respect that coach (Matt) Magers let me go out and finish," Martin told The Mankato Free Press after that win. "I really didn’t want him to take the ball out of my hands.”
Junior righthander Jason Hoppe joins Martin with some impressive numbers of his own. He's third in the nation with a 1.14 ERA and has compiled a 7-1 record with 87 strikeouts in 79 innings.
Meanwhile, Franklin Pierce looks to follow in the footsteps of defending champion West Chester (Pa.) as the second straight northeastern team to win the title. Its talented collection of pitchers is led by Florida Tech transfer Trevor Graham, a righty, who won Northeast-10 pitcher of the year, going 9-2, 1.76 while allowing just 69 hits and striking out 114 in 102 innings. Junior righthander Kevin McGowan joins him in the rotation with a 7-1, 2.87 record.
When healthy, southpaw Steve Hathaway (34 SO/29 IP) has a fastball that can touch 95-96 mph, and senior righthander Ryan Thompson (60 SO/47 IP) sits in the low 90s with a good slider. But neither pitcher has been able to stay on the mound for long.
That Franklin Pierce staff could have its hands full with a surprising Shippensburg team that knocked off Seton Hill in the Atlantic Regional. Senior catcher Tyler Shover (.357 AVG, .436 OBP) had an outstanding regional performance, going 10-for-20 with two homers, two doubles and six runs in five games to win tournament MVP.
"I'm really not sure it's happening right now," head coach Matt Jones told the Shippensburg News-Chronicle after winning the Atlantic Regional . "I feel like I'm going to wake up in about 20 minutes and have to cut the grass or something."
The Raiders are making their first D-II World Series appearance since 2008. Franklin Pierce and Tampa are returning for the first time since 2010, and Coker, Grand Canyon and St. Edward's are making their first-ever appearances.
The field of teams is much different than it was a season ago, but it still looks to be a talented one.