2021 Summit League Preview
The sands underneath the Summit League have shifted of late, both on the field and off. On the field, for the first time in a long time, Oral Roberts’ supremacy in the conference has been challenged. Not only did Nebraska-Omaha win the outright regular-season title and the automatic bid in 2019, but it looked the part of a contender again in 2020 and seems to be building something that’s made to compete for the long haul.
Off the field, the conference is dealing with some changes in membership. Purdue-Fort Wayne is now a member of the Horizon League. That’s not a huge problem in most sports the league plays, but it was an issue for baseball. With league members like Denver, Missouri-Kansas City, North Dakota and South Dakota not sponsoring baseball, it took the Summit down to five members on the diamond, fewer than the six required to ensure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
There is a grace period that prevents conferences from immediately being stripped of automatic NCAA Tournament bids, however, so that will allow the Summit to continue to award an automatic bid this season with just five members. The situation will be remedied beginning next season, when Northern Colorado joins as an associate member for baseball and St. Thomas moves up from Division III to join the league.
Having seven members gives the league some breathing room from a baseball standpoint, but it still leaves it susceptible to falling at or below the six-team threshold as realignment at the mid- and low-major Division I level, spurred by FCS football, continues. That is certainly a storyline to watch in this league moving forward.
The format of conference play in the Summit League this season is eight weekends of four-game series for a total of 32 conference games. As usual, the top four finishers in the league standings move on to the conference tournament.
Here are five pressing questions as the Summit League season draws closer.
Is Nebraska-Omaha now the class of the Summit League?
Given how long Oral Roberts absolutely dominated this conference, it’s far too early to declare that the Golden Eagles have fully been toppled, but it seems clear that Evan Porter and his staff have something cooking in Omaha.
By winning the regular-season and tournament title, the Mavericks showed that they were clearly the better team in 2019, and by bringing back a ton of talent and getting off to a 10-4 start in 2020, they showed no signs of slowing down last year.
That momentum should continue into 2021, particularly with the opening of Tal Anderson Field, Omaha’s first on-campus baseball facility, a sight for sore eyes for a program used to playing its home games at municipal fields and local high schools. And with another experienced group returning, the Mavericks have a team befitting a new stadium.
On the mound, Omaha returns all four pitchers who started games last season. This season, they’ll line up beginning with fifth-year junior righthander Joey Machado (2-1, 3.72) on Fridays, the role he has held for each of the last three seasons. In those three seasons, lefthander Spencer Koelewyn (2-0, 2.70) has followed him, and that will be the case again. The fourth-year junior sits 90-92 mph with his fastball.
The projected third starter, third-year sophomore righthander Richie Holetz (2-2, 2.49), has the best stuff of anyone on the staff, with a fastball that sits in the low 90s but can reach 94-95 mph. Fourth-year junior righthander Easton Smith (2-1, 2.65) will round out the rotation.
The most-used pitchers in the bullpen are back as well in fifth-year senior righthander Jacob Mohler (0.00, 6 IP), who will close after saving five games a year ago, and fourth-year junior righthander Tanner Howe (4.22, 10.2 IP), a sidewinder who led all Omaha relievers in innings in 2020.
The lineup might not have as high a ceiling as the pitching staff, but it’s experienced with the return of fifth-year senior shortstop Keil Krumwiede (.360/.459/.600), a good defender who took a step forward with the bat last season, fifth-year senior third baseman Breyden Eckhout (.280/.333/.360) and sixth-year senior first baseman Parker Smejkal (.231/.328/.423), who will look to return to his 2019 form, when he hit .329/.457/.561.
Suffice it to say that while they’re not yet the class of the Summit League, the Mavericks are capable of taking another step in that direction in 2021.
Is Oral Roberts ready to take back the throne?
We’ve established that Nebraska-Omaha is ready to run it back, but what do we make of Oral Roberts? It was certainly tough to get a read on the Golden Eagles last season, and the word inconsistent comes to mind. They finished 6-10, winning a series against Baylor along the way but also getting swept by Incarnate Word the very next week.
As they go into the 2021 season, the lineup features a number of players who not only began careers at power conference programs but were also productive for ORU in 2020.
That group includes fifth-year senior left fielder Jordan Wiley (.339/.448/.643), who began his career at Louisiana, fourth-year junior third baseman Adam Oviedo (.300/.354/.517), who started at Texas Christian, and fifth-year junior second baseman Ryan Cash (.290/.357/.290), whose first stop was at Oklahoma State. Also back is fifth-year senior shortstop Anthony Martinez (.313/.377/.396), a plus defender who has also seen time at third base and center field.
The key to the lineup might be bounceback seasons from fifth-year senior right fielder Blake Hall (.193/.277/.351) and third-year sophomore first baseman Isaac Coffey (.128/.192/.170), who will also be a key contributor on the mound if he’s healthy. Hall hit .291/.371/.535 with nine home runs in 2019, while Coffey hit .305/.387/.477 that season.
ORU should have confidence every Friday with the return of James Notary (1-2, 3.20), a fourth-year junior righthander who started his career at TCU. A start to this season similar to what he did last season would be a very good sign for the Golden Eagles.
With the rest of the rotation, the Golden Eagles will be looking for bounce backs or steps forward. The second spot in the rotation will be held by the pitcher with the best stuff on the staff, third-year sophomore righthander Trey Wolf, who missed last season with injury. He sits 93-96 mph with his fastball with a plus slider, and in 2019, he had a 3.10 ERA in 40.2 innings, primarily as a reliever.
Fifth-year senior righthander Matt Gaskins (7.88, 8 IP) and fifth-year senior lefthander Hunter Swift (1.13, 8 IP) will round out the rotation. Two seasons ago, Gaskins was a workhorse for ORU, going 5-5 with a 5.13 ERA over 15 starts.
Oral Roberts has the talent to get back to winning the Summit League title, and the pitching staff living up to its potential is a huge key.
Can any other teams get into the title race?
Despite Omaha’s returning experience and Oral Roberts’ raw talent, which make them both obvious title contenders, don’t sleep on North Dakota State as a team that could elbow its way into the mix.
An experienced NDSU lineup is back in the fold with the return of third-year sophomore first baseman Brock Anderson (.333/.447/.460), fifth-year senior third baseman Tucker Rohde (.297/.352/.422), third-year sophomore second baseman Peter Brookshaw (.274/.342/.468), fifth-year senior catcher Nick Emanuel (.267/.389/.333) and fifth-year senior shortstop Bennett Hostetler (.216/.432/.412). Hostetler’s .216 batting average from last season leaves something to be desired, but he was still an effective offensive player due to his knack for finding his way on base and the pop in his bat.
One veteran looking for a bounceback season is fifth-year junior right fielder Charley Hesse (.220/.264/.240), who was an all-conference performer in 2019 after hitting .299/.420/.374. A return to form for him would give the Bison lineup some real length.
While the lineup stands out for its depth and experience, the pitching staff has perhaps more star power. The team’s No. 1 starter, third-year sophomore lefthander Max Loven (2-1, 3.13), is one of the best pitchers in the Summit League and should challenge for pitcher of the year honors in the conference.
Third-year sophomore righthander Ben Smith (0-3, 6.20), the No. 2 starter, struggled out of the gate last season, but if he can pitch in 2021 like he did in 2019, when he went 4-3 with a 3.25 ERA in 60.2 innings, he’ll complement Loven well.
The bullpen is highlighted by a couple of big arms in sixth-year senior lefthander Parker Harm (3.00, 9 IP) and fourth-year sophomore righthander Gabe Pilla (0.96, 9.1 IP). Harm, who works with a fastball from 90-92 mph with movement and a swing-and-miss slider, has thrown 124.2 career innings for NDSU, mostly in relief. Pilla has the firmest stuff on the staff, with a fastball that sits 92-94 mph and can touch 96.
It’s a high bar to clear to compete with the top two teams in the Summit this season, but NDSU just might have the right combination of experience and talent to get it done.
How does the South Dakota State pitching staff take shape until Nic McCay can return?
The bad news for South Dakota State is that third-year sophomore Nic McCay is currently on the shelf due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The righthander burst onto the scene with an outstanding performance as a freshman in 2019, going 6-1 with a 4.08 ERA over 79.1 innings in 14 starts. The SDSU staff estimates that he could be back on the mound in game action around May 1.
The good news is that the Jackrabbits’ rotation was likely going to be among the league’s best with McCay in the mix, which means that it should still be in solid shape while he works his way back.
The top starter will be second-year freshman righthander Adam Mazur (1-2, 5.75) who handled the Friday starter role last season as a freshman. He took some lumps, as any freshman would in trying to handle that job, but he has good stuff, including a fastball up to 94 mph, and there should be confidence that he’ll be an improved pitcher this time around.
Behind him, SDSU will turn to fifth-year senior righthander Tyler Olmstead, who missed last season due to injury, but was one of the best starters in the Summit in 2019. That season, he put up a 3.30 ERA in 95.1 innings.
The last two spots in the four-man rotation will go to junior college transfer righthander Ryan Bourassa and fifth-year sophomore lefthander Cody Carlson (0.00, 2 IP). They will have a lot to prove in those roles, but Bourassa’s track record in particular, which includes 111 strikeouts in 62.1 career innings at Bismarck (N.D.) State suggests that he could be ready to succeed at the Division I level.
The Jackrabbits may have some challenges on offense as they try to improve upon a .230 team batting average without the services of top hitter Gus Steiger, who signed as a free agent, so they’ll have to hope the current rotation can hold the line until McCay returns. After that point, they will look for the returning righthander to be ready to help the team make a push into and through the conference tournament.
What can we expect in Andy Pascoe’s second season at Western Illinois?
Pascoe’s first season at Western Illinois was a tough one, as the Leathernecks went 0-13 against a tough schedule that included series against Tennessee and Missouri. With a .195 team batting average and a 10.56 team ERA, not a lot went right in Macomb. No team was happy that the 2020 season got canceled the way that it did, but at least in WIU’s case, it gives them a chance to press the reset button.
Having a full 2021 season will give Pascoe a much better chance to establish a baseline for where the program is and where it needs to go moving forward.
For now, the good news is that the Leathernecks return a lot of experience, although the transfer of ace Javin Drake to Indiana State and arguably the team’s most dynamic position player, Drue Galassi, to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne (N.C.) does increase the degree of difficulty.
Fifth-year senior shortstop Kevin Raisbeck (.271/.314/.313), who is also a teaching assistant on campus at WIU, will be a key piece both in the lineup and defensively. In 2019, he hit .291, walked more than he struck out and swiped 10 bases. Fifth-year senior DH Trenton Bauer (.286/.348/.452), who was also a teammate of Raisbeck’s at the junior college level, is the best returning hitter in the lineup. Second-year freshman right fielder Chase VanDerGinst (.368/.455/.421) swung the bat well in a small sample last season and will look to keep the ball rolling into 2021.
On the mound, fourth-year junior lefthander Jace Warkentien (0-4, 10.24) is a huge piece of the puzzle as the projected No. 1 starter. He really had a hard time last season, but in 2019, he had a 4.41 ERA in 87.2 innings in a swing role. Fourth-year junior righthander Justin Foy (0.00, 1 IP), who will slot in behind Warkentien in the rotation, has one of the biggest arms in the conference, giving him high-end potential if he can put it all together.
The reality is that Western Illinois is a tough place to win, perhaps among the toughest in Division I. But a full, uninterrupted 2021 season will perhaps give us a glimpse of the vision Pascoe and his staff have for the program.
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