Division II Championships Preview

Next week’s 2008 Division II Baseball Championships will be marked by both change and continuity.

After 23 consecutive years in Montgomery, Ala., the tournament moved to a new locale this year in Sauget, Ill., home of the Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies. But even in a new place, there are some familiar faces, as two-time defending national champion Tampa returns again, seeking the first-ever D-II World Series three-peat.

Tampa headlines a talented field of eight teams remaining for the double-elimination tournament, which starts Saturday afternoon. The event, co-hosted by Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Missouri-St. Louis, the Village of Sauget and the Grizzlies, will take place at GCS Ballpark.

The tournament will kick off at 2:30 p.m. with Sonoma State (Calif.) playing Shippensburg (Pa.), followed by a Central Missouri-Franklin Pierce (N.H.) nightcap at 6:30. On Sunday, Ouachita Baptist (Ark.) and Mount Olive (N.C.) College will square off in the day game, followed by a battle between Tampa and Ashland (Ohio).

Here’s a breakdown of the eight regional champions in the field:

Sonoma State: Ranked No. 2 in the nation with a 50-13 record, the Seawolves will embark on their first ever trip to the World Series. They earned this World Series berth by cruising through the West Regional tournament. They scored at least 10 runs in each of their four games and outscored their opponents by a 49-12 margin, culminating in an 11-4 blowout in the finals against Cal State Chico. Junior catcher Ian Bridges, who hit .406 this year, was named ABCA/Rawlings West Region player of the year, and senior Nick Nosti went 2-4 in the title game to earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the regional. Sonoma State has already tied a school record for wins in a season and is riding a seven-game win streak into this weekend’s action.

Shippensburg: After defeating West Chester (Pa.) in the finals of the North Atlantic Regional in Johnstown, Pa., Shippensburg (38-24) advanced to its fourth championship tournament, and its first since 1996. The 5-4 title game victory came down to pitching–the Red Raiders’ biggest strength this postseason. North Atlantic Region pitcher of the year Matt Wright escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam, and went on to pitch four scoreless innings in relief. Six Red Raiders were selected to the all-tournament team, including MOP Tyler Redick. Shippensburg’s biggest hitting threat comes in senior outfielder Justin Garber, who leads the Red Raiders with a .439 average, 100 hits, 60 runs, 16 doubles and seven homers.

Central Missouri: First-year coach Tom Myers became the fourth consecutive Central Missouri skipper to lead the team to the NCAA championships in his inaugural year with the team. The No. 7 Mules have one of the more impressive historical resumes in the field. National champions in 1994 and 2003, UCM took down Nebraska-Omaha to win its 14th Central Regional title. The road to this year’s regional title was unorthodox, though–as the fourth seed, the Mules (45-15) had to overcome all three of the higher seeds to advance to Sauget. Reliever Chris Matlock was awarded the region’s MOP award, and he was joined by four teammates on the all-tournament team. MIAA pitcher of the year and staff ace Mark Carey notched a 10-1 record for the year, and he fanned 93 batters in 90 innings of work.

Franklin Pierce: The national championship tournament is familiar ground for Franklin Pierce, which took home its third straight Northeast Regional championship with a 10-3 win against Bryant (R.I.) College in the finals. This one didn’t come easy, though–the Ravens dropped the first game of the championship and had to rally to win the Northeast. Senior center fielder Kevin Renaud won the region’s MOP award for the second straight year, as he hit .522 in the tournament and crushed a home run in each of the five games. Franklin Pierce was at its most productive with two outs–37 of its 59 runs were scored with two down in the frame, and 10 of Renaud’s 12 RBIs came in these clutch situations. The No. 15 Ravens now enter Sauget with a 43-13 record and the second-best team ERA in the nation at 2.65.

Ouachita Baptist: Playing the top teams in the country will be nothing new for Ouachita Baptist, which already knocked off the nation’s No. 1 team, Delta State (Miss.), in the South Central Regional finals. And the Tigers pulled off the upset handily. Jarod Hershberger pitched 7 1/3 innings and retired the first 11 batters he faced. Tournament MOP Justin Pennell added three hits and Steve Smith, who already had pitched a complete game in the tournament, closed out the 8-1 win. With the win, the Tigers (47-14) earned their first-ever trip to the D-II World Series–in fact, it was the first time they had ever made the regional finals. After a disappointing loss in the first round of the Gulf South Conference Tournament, the No. 4 Tigers arrive in Sauget boasting four straight wins.

Mount Olive: The Mount Olive resume speaks for itself: a 54-6 record, the No. 1 ranking in the nation (tied with Delta State), a 23-game winning streak earlier in the year, and now South Atlantic Regional champions after taking down South Carolina-Aiken in an 8-3 contest. The Trojans have menacing stats, as well: a team batting average of .354 with six players hitting over .360, a team ERA of 3.00 (good for fourth in the nation), and a run differential of 534-191 for the season. Trojans claimed eight of the 12 spots on the all-tournament team, led by third baseman Rich Racobaldo’s four-hit, two-run, two-RBI performance in the final game.

Tampa: The two-time reigning national champions had to overcome an early 5-0 deficit to beat Catawba 9-8 in the regional finals and once again claim the South Regional title. The win clinched the second time in school history that Tampa has won three straight regional crowns. The Spartans have won five regional titles since 1992 and have made the postseason every year since 2001, when coach Joe Urso took the reins. The Spartans opened the regional tournament with a 21-1 drubbing of Stillman (Ala.) College and never looked back. MOP Jesus Barroso hit three home runs, knocked in 13 and is in the midst of a 14-game hitting streak. Fellow junior Jose Jimenez, who homered three times and racked up 10 RBIs in a single game earlier this year, went yard in the finals and joined Barroso on the all-tournament team. At 42-9-1, the No. 3 Spartans are now looking to become the first team ever to win the D-II College World Series three years in a row.

Ashland: For the second time in the last three years, Ashland won the North Central Regional tournament as the fourth seed. The 39-16 Eagles, ranked No. 16 in the nation, knocked off Wayne State (Mich.) by a 3-0 margin in the final to advance to their fifth College World Series. Righthander Ben Minard won two games in the tournament and registered a complete game shutout in the finals, on his way to being named MOP. The Eagles, who feature four players on the all-tournament team, provided Minard with the only runs he would need in the sixth, when center fielder Tyson Rowland hit an RBI double off the wall.

After Saturday’s opening ceremonies at 1 p.m., the eight contenders will play the double-elimination tournament until the championship game on Saturday, May 21. If both bracket winners are undefeated, there will be no games Friday.

After each day’s action, the College Blog will be updated to reflect winners, stats and other notable happenings. Keep checking back to see if Tampa can pull off the three-peat, Mount Olive can ride its No. 1 ranking to a title, or one of the other six teams will take home the hardware.