Swing Away: SIAC, CIAA Tournament Previews

By Chuck Curti
Updated: April 18, 2007

PIKESVILLE, Md. — Stillman College baseball coach Donny Crawford spent the better part of the day Tuesday with a scraper in one hand and a paint brush in the other.

In addition to getting his team ready for Wednesday’s SIAC playoffs, he and his players were getting the facilities at Stillman ready. Such is the responsibility of the host school.
“I don’t know if it (home field) helps us,” said Crawford. “Our guys are not only here to play, they have to fix fields and everything else. All the other teams just have to show up and play.”
The SIAC tournament began Wednesday at Stillman and two nearby high schools in Tuscaloosa., Ala. First-round byes went to defending champion Albany State, Paine and Stillman.
All three will see their first action Thursday. The CIAA playoffs will also begin Thursday – but more on that later.
Though Stillman went through the SIAC West Division unbeaten (15-0), Albany State comes in favored to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA regionals. The Golden Rams have won five of the last six SIAC titles, with Paine interrupting the streak in 2005.
“The way they’re playing, they’re the favorite to repeat,” said Paine coach Pete Cardenas.
This season, there seems to be little secret to ASU’s success: pitching.
Leading the way for the Rams’ staff is lefty Brandon Griffin, who is a perfect 10-0 with a 3.12 ERA. He ranks fifth in the nation in total strikeouts (78) and ninth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.0).
Opponents are hitting a paltry .195 against Griffin, and his 10 wins are tops in the nation. Last year, Griffin was only 2-7 with a 4.81 ERA. He struck out 51 but walked 53. In 2007, he’s walked only 38.
“He’s still doing the same things he was doing last year,” said ASU coach Edward Taylor. “He’s just more mature. He’s been working a lot harder. He tried to rely a lot on his fastball, but I told him he can’t do that.”
Griffin has had plenty of help. Stanley Bell is 8-1, DeMario Cash is also 8-1, and Samuel Murphy is 5-1. “That’s our foundation this year,” said Taylor. “They’re keeping people off balance.”
The Rams also feature a potent offense, led by Cash, who is hitting .313 with a team-leading six home runs and conference-leading 44 RBIs. Diante Blanton leads the team with 81 total bases and ranks 13th nationally in steals (36).
He also hits .351 and ranks second on the team with 39 RBIs. But Taylor isn’t taking victory for granted. Stillman and Paine should both post significant challenges.
Paine is led by senior shortstop Donovan Phillips, who gets the most out of his 5-foot-6, 150-pound frame. He’s followed two straight .403 seasons with a .413 performance so far this year.
He has an on-base percentage of .508, slugging percentage of .662 with 12 doubles, six triples and three homers. On top of everything else, he has a 3.15 GPA in biology/pre-med.
“That’s all I really want to do is be consistent,” said Phillips, who wants to follow his mother’s and father’s path into the medical profession. “I just try to make the routine play.”
Phillips said his team’s pitching has also been consistent this season and hopes that his fellow Rams can get their bats rolling at the right time.
Stillman is led by Michael Lewis and his .418 batting average and 50 runs scored. Clay Gilliam is also hitting .400 but, said Crawford, has been struggling a bit down the stretch.
The pitching staff is led by Chase Wilson (7-0), who is coming off a two-hitter in his last outing, and Andrew Brown (5-2).
“Stillman has a very good ballteam,” said Cardenas.
“We’ve had a tendency to leave too many runners on base, and our starting pitching needs to step up in the three and four spots,” Crawford said. “We’re going to need all our pitchers.”
And it wouldn’t be wise to discount team a like Benedict, which has superstar DeShaun Brooks to carry it. Brooks was second in the conference in batting average (.435), slugging percentage (.670), on-base percentage (.539), RBIs (42) and homers (5).
Teams in the CIAA will have a little extra incentive for the tournament this year. With the addition of North Carolina Central, playing collegiate baseball for the first time since 1975, the conference now has the requisite minimum of six teams necessary to qualify the winner for an automatic bid to the NCAA regionals.
The CIAA has not sent a team to NCAA regionals since 1990 (Norfolk State), and this year’s race might come down to … well … just about anyone. Games begin Thursday on the Virginia State campus.
“If you’re going to give anybody the clear edge, North Carolina Central is playing really good baseball at the end of the year,” said Elizabeth City head coach Terrance Whittle. “But when you get into a conference tournament, you never know what is going to happen.”
Virginia State’s Merrill Morgan concurs. “The teams are all very equal,” he said. “There’s really no clear-cut favorite. Whoever is the hottest team is going to win the tournament.”
Considering the head-to-head results this year, that certainly should be the case.
Virginia State swept Elizabeth City this season (4-0), NCC swept Virginia State (4-0), but Elizabeth City was 3-1 against NCC.
And not to be forgotten is defending champion Shaw, which nearly lost its baseball program during the off-season. The Bears split with both Virginia State and N.C. Central this season while dropping three of four against ECSU.
Thursday, NCCU faces Shaw at 10 a.m., and Virginia State faces Elizabeth City at 1 p.m. North Carolina Central has been a hit in its return. NCC finished 15-5 in the CIAA and 20-22 overall.
The Eagles also placed four players on the CIAA first team: RHP Alex Weathersby, C Seth O’Brien, 3B Robert Landis and OF Oliver Jenkins. Jenkins ranks second in the nation with 0.94 stolen bases per game (34 total).
As a team, the Eagles lead the nation in total stolen bases (170) and stolen bases per game (4.72). Weathersby tied for third in the nation with eight victories and ranked 14th in strikeouts (63).
Elizabeth City State placed three players on the CIAA first team: Nick Johnson, Meshaw Taylor and J.J. House. Taylor finished the regular season hitting .429 with 40 runs scored and 39 RBIs.
Johnson hit a team-leading six homers to go with a .373 average and 31 RBIs. House had a .400 average with 43 RBIs. Freshmen Tyler Barfield, Marcus Richards and Joe Brown lead the pitching staff.
“These guys have gone above and beyond what we have expected,” said Whittle, whose roster features 12 freshmen and just one senior. “They really have to give us a chance. We have to minimize walks and keep guys off base. With such a young club, no one expects us to win it.”
The host Trojans of Virginia State will lean on Michael Knight, who is hitting .401 with six homers and 53 RBIs, as well as leadoff man Charles Monroe (.347, 45 runs scored) and clean-up man Jason Jennings (.395, 4 HRs, 41 RBIs).
Against CIAA teams, Monroe hit .480 and Knight .439, with five of his six homers coming in conference. No. 1 pitcher Jeff Shelton posted a 3-2 record against conference foes with a solid ERA of 3.00.
“We’re very confident,” said Morgan. “We feel if we take care of business, we can win.”
The only certainty in these two tournaments is: an NCAA berth awaits the worthy winners.