2021 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Preview
The 2021 season will represent the end of an era for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Three teams – Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T – will depart the conference after the season. Additionally, North Carolina Central on Thursday announced it will eliminate its program at the end of the season. By July, the MEAC will be a dramatically altered conference
While the future is uncertain, there is familiarity as the 2021 season approaches. NC A&T and FAMU, the league’s last two champions, again look to be the best teams in the conference.
The MEAC in 2021 have expanded league schedules due to the pandemic. Teams will play four-game series and mostly face intra-division competition. The top two teams from the Northern and Southern Divisions will advance to the MEAC Tournament, which will be held in Norfolk from May 20-22.
What is the state of the conference?
It’s been a turbulent few years for the MEAC. The conference first saw Savannah State depart after the 2019 season to move down to Division II. North Carolina A&T then announced its intention to leave for the Big South Conference, following former MEAC member Hampton (which does not play baseball). But the biggest blow came in June, when Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M jointly announced their plan to leave for the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the other Division I conference composed of historically Black colleges and universities.
Then, on Thursday, North Carolina Central made a shocking announcement that it would eliminate its baseball program following the 2021 season. The university cited the financial crunch resulting from the pandemic, which had already led the athletic department to cut its overall spending by 30%.
BCU and FAMU have long been the MEAC’s baseball powerhouses and losing them, especially to the SWAC, is a blow. All the departures have put the MEAC in a difficult position. By July 1, 2021, the conference will only have four baseball-playing members, two less than is required for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
When a conference falls one team below the minimum number of members in a given sport, it is automatically given a two-year waiver to find a solution. But that automatic waiver does not apply if a conference is two teams short. As it stands, the future of the MEAC as a baseball conference is now in doubt.
In addition to that uncertain future, the MEAC is facing a challenging spring. BCU and Maryland-Eastern Shore both decided to opt out of all sports for the 2020-21 school year. That leaves just six teams playing in the conference this season.
Can NC A&T go out on top?
The Aggies have won the MEAC’s more competitive South Division in back-to-back seasons and in 2018 won the MEAC Tournament. Now, as NC A&T prepares to move to the Big South, it enters its final season in the MEAC as the favorite.
Ace Michael Johnson (1-3, 2.77) and lefthander Ethan Chavis (2-1, 2.70) return in the rotation. The bullpen will be anchored by righthanders Leon Davidson (1-0, 1.93) and Evan Gates (1-1, 2.25, 2 SV). That quartet gives A&T a strong core to build around.
The Aggies’ pitching staff benefits from a strong defense – the best in the MEAC in 2020 with a .979 fielding percentage. Catcher Ryne Stanley (.160/.246/.180) plays a key role behind the plate and in 2020 threw out 10 of 16 would-be base stealers. Shortstop Dustin Barber (.261/.354/.304) also returns to anchor the infield.
While run prevention is certain to be a strength for A&T, it should also be solid offensively. Veteran outfielders Justin Rodriguez (.362/.434/.447, 6 SB) and Camden Williamson (.313/.438/.453) return to lead the lineup.
Coach Ben Hall has a well-rounded team that will match up favorably with the rest of the conference. A return to the NCAA Tournament could well be in the cards for the Aggies.
Can Florida A&M contend for another title?
The Rattlers in 2019 won the MEAC Tournament, their second triumph in five years. They’ve also finished first or second in the MEAC’s Southern division in five of the six conference seasons under coach Jamey Shouppe. So, if any team is going to stop NC A&T, FAMU is likely to be it.
The Rattlers are led by outfielder Jared Weber (.393/.439/.557) and third baseman Tristen Cooper (.327/.407/.404), their top two hitters in 2020. Second baseman Octavien Moyer (.214/.343/.286) and outfielder Seyjuan Lawrence (.250/.339/.365) were both off to slow starts in 2020 but were much better in 2019 when they were the Rattlers’ top two hitters. Moyer is the team’s best power threat and Lawrence is a proven base stealer. Getting them going in 2021 and adding shortstop Josh Tease, who transferred from Florida State after redshirting in 2020, would add a boost to the lineup.
FAMU returns a rotation of righthanders Josh Barr (0-2, 6.75), Kyle Coleman (1-1, 6.95) and Josh Hancock (2-1, 3.48). While that group struggled statistically in 2020, they fared much better against MEAC competition in 2019 and should be formidable in conference play again. Closer Jerimiah McCollum (1-0, 1.42) is back to anchor the bullpen after last season striking out 11 of the 27 batters he faced.
If they can put last season’s slow start behind it, the Rattlers figure to bounce back and be a factor in the title race in their final season in the MEAC.
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Who is the favorite in the Northern Division?
The MEAC’s balance of power is decidedly in the southern half of the conference. No team from the Northern Division has won the MEAC Tournament since 1998 when Howard, which has since eliminated its baseball program, swept through the field to complete an undefeated conference season.
But the division race is often quite competitive and promises to be again in 2021 with Coppin State and Norfolk State duking it out.
Norfolk State returns six regulars in its lineup, including catcher Ty Hanchey (.368/.455/.404), first baseman Mason Velasquez (.302/.362/.381) and second baseman Alsander Womack (.284/.347/.358). That trio led the Spartans in hitting in 2020. On the mound, veteran starters Ridge Walker (1-3, 6.00) and Alex Wright (0-3, 7.23) return, as does closer Michael Portela (0-0, 1.59, 1 SV). Improvement on the mound will be key for Norfolk State after it posted a 6.93 team ERA.
Coppin State returns several regulars in its lineup, including outfielder Marcos Castillo (.378/.491/.711, 3 HR). A fourth-year junior, he is a career .331 hitter and already owns the all-time program record for triples (12). The Eagles also get back the duo of second-year freshmen Eddie Javier (.172/.219/.172) and Toran Smith (.098/.191/.122), who locked down the left side of the infield with Javier at shortstop and Smith at third base. On the mound, fifth-year senior righthander Aaron Rea (0-2, 5.29) is back to lead the way. He ranks second in program history in starts (44), wins (15), innings (248.1) and strikeouts (208). He’ll pair with second-year freshman righthander Giovanni Canales (0-2, 4.86) to form a 1-2 punch atop the pitching staff.
Coppin State has been improving its talent level in recent seasons but hasn’t yet broken through. If its younger players take a step forward, that breakthrough could come in 2021.
Who are the conference’s top players to watch?
The MEAC’s player of the year award is likely to come down to Womack and Castillo. Both have proven themselves to be reliable hitters throughout their careers. In 2019, Womack hit .377/.444/.503 and ranked in the top five in the conference in all three categories. Castillo’s speed and feel for hitting makes him a worthy challenger as well.
If Moyer or Lawrence are able to recapture their 2019 form, the Rattlers would have a couple dark horses in the race.
Johnson is the most accomplished pitcher in the conference. His 3.22 ERA in 2019 ranked fourth in the conference and he walked just 13 batters all season. He take full advantage of pitching in front of the best defense in the conference and has a good feel on the mound.
North Carolina Central righthander Ryan Miller cannot be counted out, however. He went 6-4, 3.15 with 73 strikeouts and 13 walks in 71.1 innings as a freshman in 2019 and followed that up by going 1-2, 4.24 with 36 strikeouts and nine walks in 23.1 innings in 2020. He’s one of the conference’s best draft prospects and if he this spring takes another step forward, could well emerge as the MEAC’s top pitcher.