Midwest On The Rise

Before I get to today’s mailbag question, I just want to touch briefly on Wednesday’s action. There were just a few teams in action, but Arizona’s Brad Glenn put on a show in the Wildcats’ 13-2 win against Utah Valley State. Glenn, a sophomore left fielder, belted three home runs and just missed a fourth when he doubled high off the left-field wall. That offense is rolling right now, and as I mentioned in Tuesday’s College Blog, they’ve got some quality arms as well. We’ll see what happens in conference play. On to the mailbag:

I’ve been a fanatical minor and major league baseball fan for a long time. However, I’ve just recently begun to become interested in the college game. For years, 15-12 scores turned me away from it. But now, as the game has evolved so too has my interest and I cannot help but be puzzled by the amazing lack of talented teams (according to BA) that reside in the Midwest. Sure, there is Wichita State, Evansville, etc. In general, however, it seems that the Midwest takes a backseat to other powers. Can this be attributed solely to the weather and year ’round baseball that warmer climates are permitted? Will the new rules limiting when teams can begin play make any difference at all?

Jared Simmons
St. Louis

Wichita State and Evansville are the only Midwestern teams in our Top 25, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only good ones. Notre Dame has long since established itself as a perennial power, and new Irish coach Dave Schrage proved he can win in the Midwest during his time at Evansville. He should be able to continue what Paul Mainieri started in South Bend. The Irish are one of the favorites in the Big East again thanks to a very nice pitching foundation, led by ace lefthander Wade Korpi, a short, stocky strikeout machine. Fellow lefty Sam Elam pitched just 12 innings as a freshman but flashed his considerable talent by striking out 19, before winning the pitching triple crown in the Jayhawk League. With a fastball that touches 95 and a pair of decent offspeed pitches, Elam is a major breakout candidate in 2007. Then there’s closer Kyle Weiland, a first-team freshman All-American last year after posting a 2.37 ERA and racking up 16 saves.

Ohio State and Michigan are also established programs with bright futures. The Buckeyes return their entire weekend rotation, led by J.B. Shuck and Cory Luebke, both of whom are legitimate professional prospects. Michigan has a star-in-the-making in righthander/outfielder Zach Putnam, plus several interesting sleepers in third baseman Adam Abraham (a former hockey player who is just tapping into his baseball potential), center fielder Eric Rose (an exceptional defender with plus speed) and 6-foot-8 righthander Chris Fetter (whose velocity began to jump in the fall). Also keep an eye on little lefty Eric Katzman, a freshman from New Jersey with a short, quick arm action and plenty of deception. He figures to be Michigan’s Sunday starter.

Those are all now established programs in the Midwest, but there are others that are on the rise. Kent State brought in a stellar recruiting class this year, led by righthander Kyle Smith, who figures to start on Friday nights before too long and could be one of the nation’s best pitchers by the time he’s a junior. Miami (Ohio) and Central Michigan both return more talent than the Golden Flashes and should be significant factors this season. Like Kent State, those programs have quality coaching staffs that should enable them to compete for years to come. The same goes for Louisville, which could emerge as a Big East power under new coach Dan McDonnell and veteran pitching coach Roger Williams.

The change-of-season plan figures to help all of these programs accelerate their growth. The gap between cold-weather schools and warm-weather schools is already narrowing, as emphatically demonstrated by Oregon State’s run to the national title, but right now Southern schools still have the advantage of getting started earlier in the year. Next year that advantage will be gone, leaving tradition as the only major advantage for schools in the sun belt. As Wichita State and Notre Dame have proven, you can build your own tradition in the Midwest.