Image credit: Illinois State coach Steve Holm (Photo courtesy of Illinois State)
As this decade closes and eyes turn to the 2020s, it’s time to take a look at which mid-major college programs are on the rise and poised to break through to new heights.
The chances of another mid-major program winning a national championship like Coastal Carolina did in 2016 are slim, but the door is always open for an upstart to follow in the footsteps of Kent State and Stony Brook and break through with a run to the College World Series.
Whether it’s a program that has made the jump before and appears ready to do so again, one that has been on the cusp for a while, or a new face looking to make a first real impression on the national scale, these ten programs are ones to watch in the decade to come.
There are things that have always made BYU a potential mid-major power. Its home field, Miller Field, is a quality facility with a picturesque backdrop. It is also a brand name that allows for national recruiting.
Recent history is on its side as well. Under Mike Littlewood, the Cougars have won 36 or more games in three of the last four seasons, got to a regional in 2017, and fell just a couple of wins short of making a return trip in 2019.
Littlewood and staff also just reeled in a top-25 recruiting class that will be added to a 2020 roster returning a number of key pieces. The West Coast Conference being mostly a one-bid league and the cold climate of Provo will be hindrances, but BYU has more than it needs to overcome them.
The Patriots might be the most successful mid-major team of the last decade not to make a trip to the CWS. They made trips to regionals eight times, got to a super regional in 2011, and hosted in 2015.
DBU is simply a program that continues to put itself in position to get to Omaha. Not only are they in the postseason nearly every year, but they play well once they get there. Just once in the last decade did DBU get to a regional and fail to advance to at least the regional final.
At this point, very little is standing in DBU’s way. It has a quality facility, resides in the fertile recruiting grounds of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, plays in a Missouri Valley Conference that provides ample opportunity for at-large consideration, and Dan Heefner has proven himself to be an outstanding head coach committed to getting his program to the next level.
If you are betting on untapped potential, Grand Canyon is a solid bet to be among the next class of mid-majors that transforms into a perennial regional team. Everything is in place for the Antelopes to do so, and that’s by design.
When GCU was preparing to move back up to Division I ahead of the 2014 season, the administration made an inspired hire in Andy Stankiewicz. Then, in 2018, GCU Ballpark opened, giving the Lopes a showcase facility to match the rest of the new construction on a growing campus.
All of that support has had the desired result. Grand Canyon has three Western Athletic Conference regular season titles already, including twice before it was even eligible to take part in the postseason. The team hasn’t broken through to a regional yet, although they’ve only been eligible to do so for two years, but that will come sooner rather than later.
In his first year at the helm, Illinois State coach Steve Holm nearly skyrocketed Illinois State into rarified air. He led his 2019 Redbirds to a 36-26 season, a share of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title, and most impressively, a deciding seventh game of the Louisville Regional before falling to the hosting Cardinals.
There’s also evidence that it won’t be an aberration. The MVC continues to put multiple teams into regionals, Duffy Bass Field gives the Redbirds one of the best mid-major facilities in the Midwest, and winning games at Illinois State is not unprecedented. Under Mark Kingston, ISU won 32 or more games in five of six seasons, got into a regional in 2010, and won a regular season title in 2013.
Holm is another name that will come up in future coaching searches, so that stands as a threat to Illinois State’s continued success, but the Redbirds have a great shot to make repeated deep runs in the postseason while he’s there.
The Flames have been an indisputably good college baseball program for a while now. They haven’t suffered a losing season since 2004, have finished lower than fourth in their conference just once over that same time frame, and made regional trips in 2013 and 2014.
Along the way, its lot as a potential mid-major power has improved. A new stadium opened in 2013, giving Liberty a top-flight mid-major facility. More recently, the program moved from the Big South Conference to the Atlantic Sun Conference, a league more likely to produce multiple regional bids in any given season.
In 2019, things really started to come together, with another postseason appearance and 43 wins. In some years, the Flames have been a regional-caliber club, but the RPI hasn’t agreed. With an outstanding facility that makes it easier to schedule quality games, a new conference affiliation, and a habit of piling up 35-40 wins a year, it’s tough to see Liberty being denied those chances to make a move toward Omaha nearly as much moving forward.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have been to the mountaintop before, as they were one of two Cinderella teams (along with San Jose State) to compete in the 2000 College World Series. They were also a national seed in 2014, reached a super regional again in 2015, and hosted a regional in 2016.
The last few seasons have brought no postseason appearances, but now, the arrow is pointing up once again.
Taking over after the untimely passing of longtime head coach Tony Robichaux is former Sam Houston State coach Matt Deggs. With the Bearkats, Deggs led the team to a super regional appearance in 2017 and he was on staff under Robichaux from 2012-2014.
Add in Russo Park, a gem of a ballpark that was fully renovated for the 2017 season and the tradition that makes college baseball-mad Louisiana an attractive destination for recruits in the area, and you have the makings of a program on the cusp once again.
When the Bulldogs got into a regional back in 2015, it was the first postseason appearance for the program since 1987. Louisiana Tech has gone 109-64 overall and 55-35 in Conference USA play under Lane Burroughs since then, but doesn’t have a regional appearance to show for it.
That lack of June baseball shouldn’t deter anyone from thinking the arrow is still pointed upward for this group. It’s a program that has done an outstanding job of filling a vacuum created when many of the best teams in Conference USA departed for the American Athletic Conference in a recent round of conference realignment.
Beginning in 2021, the Bulldogs will also have a fully-renovated facility, as J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park is set to be rebuilt after it was destroyed in the devastating tornado that tore through Ruston, La., in April. It will be just one more feather in the cap of a baseball program on the rise.
Sacramento State, under Reggie Christiansen, continues to exceed expectations year after year. Despite having less history and less to work with when compared to some of their brethren on the West Coast, the Hornets have outshined most of them.
Their streak of eight straight 30-win seasons is the longest among Division I programs in California, their 275 wins in that time frame is just as impressive, and in a perennial one-bid league, three regional trips in the past six years is an excellent rate of return.
There will be challenges. The WAC will likely continue to put just one team into the NCAA Tournament for the foreseeable future, the school isn’t a big brand name that resonates nationally, and understandably, Christiansen will be a candidate for some of the programs that are brand names in the sport. But Christiansen this summer signed a seven-year contract extension, taking him through 2026, and as long as he is at the helm, it seems smart to assume that the Hornets will continue to win big.
Forget mid-major status, UNCW is probably the most consistent program, regardless of conference affiliation, that has yet to break through into a super regional. It has, however, come tantalizingly close.
The Seahawks made six regionals in the last decade, with four coming in the last five years. Just in those four appearances, they advanced to three regional finals.
Longtime head coach Mark Scalf retired after the 2019 season, which might normally shake the foundation of the program, but in his place steps Randy Hood, who has been with Scalf at UNCW since 2001.
With repeatedly getting to the brink being a strong indicator of a program about to make a move, perhaps none stands out more than UNCW.
The Rams advanced to a super regional in 2015, and while they’ve not been back to the postseason since then, they’ve continued on as a mid-major program to watch.
On the field, VCU has won 34 or more games in all but head coach Shawn Stiffler’s first season on the job in 2013. Off the field, the administration has invested in the program with the recent opening of an on-campus, baseball-specific player development center.
Despite all of that recent success, the Atlantic 10’s status as a one-bid league is a threat to VCU’s program growth, and there is also the possibility that Stiffler is poached by a bigger program. For now, however, the raw materials are in place for the Rams to take the next step.