PIKEVILLE, Md. — Stop us if you’ve heard this before: As the 2010 baseball season dawns, Bethune-Cookman is the clear-cut favorite to win the MEAC, while the SWAC promises to be wide open.
Bethune-Cookman begins 2010 having won four straight MEAC championships and nine of the last 10, with the only interruption coming in 2005 (North Carolina A&T).
The SWAC, meanwhile, had had three different champions the past three years, including 2008′s miracle run by Texas Southern, which was the lowest seed in the tournament.
INSIDE THE MEAC
Bethune-Cookman received all 14 first-place votes in the preseason MEAC poll and will be the team everyone is chasing again. Tops among the Wildcats’ returning players is outfielder C.J.
Lauriello, who was voted the conference’s co-preseason Player of the Year along with Xavier Macklin of A&T.
Lauriello was also an All-MEAC First Team selection last season after finishing third in the conference in hitting (.398). He hit four home runs, two triples, 19 doubles and drove in 36 runs.
Lauriello was one of four B-C position players to be voted to the preseason all-MEAC team along with catcher Peter O’Brien (.314-4-30), shortstop Alejandro Sanchez (.299-2-24) and designated hitter Ryan Durrence (.307-11-48).
Anchoring the pitching staff will be Ali Simpson. Just a sophomore, Simpson tallied nine wins overall last year and went 5-0 in the MEAC with a microscopic 1.09 ERA. He also struck out 39 in 33 innings of work in MEAC games.
After B-C, the rest of the MEAC looks to be up for grabs. Norfolk State was voted second in the preseason poll, earning 112 points.
North Carolina A&T earned 110 points in the poll, while Delaware State and Florida A&M each earned 100.
Norfolk State returns all but one starting position player and two of its top three pitchers from a year ago: Jason Barker and Chase Davenport. Both pitchers posted six wins and ERAs under 5.00 in 2009.
Head coach Claudell Clark, a former pitcher, as always looked to bolster his rotation, and he will be counting on several freshmen to add depth behind Davenport and Barker.
Richie Salter, a 6-foot-4 left-hander from Virginia Beach, is an intriguing prospect after going 10-0 with 78 strikeouts in 63 innings at Cox High School.
First baseman Brandon Hairston leads the offense (.348-1-23) along with Juan Herrera (.333-3-21). Returning outfielders TiQuan Griffin and John Lynch combined to steal 31 bases in 32 attempts last season.
“I feel that our ballclub will benefit greatly from the additions that we were able to make to our bullpen as well as to our core of position players,” said Clark. “We also feel very confident about our starting rotation. Our ballplayers are excited about the upcoming season and feel like they are in a position to be extremely competitive on a daily basis.”
North Carolina A&T went through a bit of a rebuilding phase a year ago, but for 2010 the Aggies return six position players and two starting pitchers. All eyes will be on Macklin as he looks for a repeat of his outstanding freshman season.
Macklin was named to the all-conference first team last year after hitting. .364 with 12 homers, five triples, 20 doubles and 51 RBIs. He also posted a .673 slugging percentage.
But Macklin wasn’t A&T’s only impact freshman in 2009. Second baseman Marquis Riley hit .340 with three homers and 21 RBIs a year ago, while left-handers Esterlin Paulino and Nick Boles led the Aggies’ pitching staff.
Paulino led A&T with six wins and a 4.11 ERA, while Boles went 5-2 with a 5.36 ERA. The team leader will be Nick Rogers, a senior who hit 11 homers and drove in 50 runs last year.
“I am very confident about this team,” said coach Keith Shumate.
“They respect the game, work extremely hard, are unselfish, and believe in each other. There are leaders on this squad.”
Florida A&M will try to nudge its way into the conference race with a trio of preseason all-conference players: 2B Jared Jeffries, 3B Derrick Shaw and OF Darryl Evans.
Jeffries led the team with a .438 batting average in 2009; Shaw went .373-2-20, while Evans led the team with five homers and was second on the Rattlers with 28 RBIs.
Delaware State got two players on the preseason all-conference team: reliever Brandon Penick and 1B Abe Eubank. The Hornets will lean heavily on these veterans as they will field a mostly new-look lineup.
Eubank hit .375 with 10 homers a year ago, while Penick had a 2.16 ERA with five saves. “It’s mostly a new team with some quality returners,” said head coach J.P. Blandin. “It’s a hard-working group that can contend in the MEAC.”
The remaining two MEAC programs, Coppin State and Maryland-Eastern Shore, continue to try and work their way up to competitive status.
Coppin State will begin its second season under head coach Mike Scolinos.
In his first season, Scolinos could barely field a full team. Now, the Eagles have a full roster and a full pitching staff that includes five juco transfers.
Offensively, the Eagles will once again be led by stalwart Harry Williams.
During Coppin’s bleak stretch the past few seasons, Williams, a senior, has been a bright spot. He has been the team’s leading hitter in all three of his previous season, and in 2009 he hit a career-high .360.
“Coppin State goes from a team of nine players to a full-roster team,” said Scolinos. “The team has two solid catchers in Alex Black and (Derek) Richards. The entirely new pitching staff will determine the extent of the success of the team.
“Overall, the question is: Will Coppin be a transition team, or a team that is capable of challenging top Division I baseball teams?”
UMES also will have much of its success determined by its pitching.
Coach Will Gardner believes his staff has much better depth than it has in the past, including three returning pitchers.
Offensively, the Hawks will be led by 2B Brian Chaikowsky and CF Phil Vaughn. Chaikowsky was the team’s leading hitter at .381 (.619 slugging), while Vaughn topped the Hawks in hits (57), RBIs (30), runs (34) and stolen bases (28).
INSIDE THE SWAC
While the rest of the MEAC tries to catch up with Bethune-Cookman, several teams in the SWAC believe they have a shot at earning the conference’s NCAA Tournament berth.
Last year’s champion, Southern, has a shot at repeating with a group coach Roger Cador said is “more talented than the 2009 team.”
James Armstrong leads the Jaguars’ returning position players after hitting .345 with eight homers and 40 RBIs. Frazier Hall hit .338 with two homers and 20 RBIs. The pitching staff is anchored by Jarrett Maloy, who went 8-2 with a 3.50 ERA last year.
“We had a great recruiting class,” said Cador. “The juco players will make an instant contribution, and the large number of incoming freshmen will help an already experienced team.”
Southern’s win in the SWAC the 2009 SWAC tournament prevented a storybook ending for long-time Alcorn State coach Willie McGowan. The Jags knocked off Alcorn in what was the finale of McGowan’s illustrious career.
Now, the Braves are under the direction of Barrett Rey, who helped turn Grambling into a competitive program. “I’m looking to win a championship as always,” said Rey. “There’s a lot of parity (in the SWAC) and I’m anxious to see the east side and what it has to offer.”
Rey is especially optimistic about his pitching staff, which is led by senior Collin Arnold, juco transfer Steve Easter and Cedric Pomerlee, who was taken in the 34th round of the MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007. Handling the pitching staff will be veteran David Reed.
Offensively, the Braves are led by Josh Brumfield, Rodney Warren and sophomore Eduardo Gonzalez. As a freshman, Gonzalez led the SWAC with a .407 batting average while amassing 16 extra-base hits and 41 RBIs.
“You can’t say enough about him,” said Rey.
Warren hit .356 with four homers and 50 RBIs, while Brumfield, who will also see time on the mound as a spot starter and out of the bullpen, was .338-2-17. Outfielder Kilby Perdomo, a juco transfer, is also expected to bolster the offense.
Grambling is now under the direction of James Cooper, a former player for the Tigers who was drafted by the Houston Astros and played three years in their system.
He had spent the three previous years on the Tigers’ staff as a graduate assistant and as the top assistant last year. With a senior-dominated team, Cooper expects his alma mater to be a contender this year.
“We finished (2009) with a 17-37 record, and we’re looking to improve on that this year,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t be a .500 team. The fact that I’m an alumni, I want to see my school do great. All the guys who are seniors this year, I was here when they were freshmen.”
“Cooper’s going to be all right,” said Rey. “He’s rock solid.
People better not sleep on them in the West.” Senior Mychal Roby is the Tigers’ best offensive player and coming off a season in which he hit nine homers and drove in 39 runs.
Steve Kletke hit .331 with four homers a year ago, and Milton Barney, who Cooper calls the “best fastball hitter in the conference,” hit .308 with three homers. On the mound, Cooper will lean heavily on a pair of juco transfers: Eric Zagone and Jesus Favela.
Alabama A&M also is sporting a new head coach in Demetrius Mitchell. Mitchell inherits a team that has made some strides over the past couple years, and 2009 saw the Bulldogs make the SWAC tournament for the first time in a decade.
Last year also saw AAMU’s first sweep of Alcorn State, first win over Alabama-Huntsville and first season in which the Bulldogs beat Jackson State twice.
“We have pitching depth, power, speed and we are capable of doing the small things like getting runners over and hitting behind runners,” said Mitchell.
LaDale Hayes returned to from last year after sitting out 2008 with an injury. As a sophomore, he hit .302 with 22 RBIs and 20 extra-base hits then rebounded last year by hitting .301 with 15 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs.
Alabama’s other SWAC entrant, Alabama State, posted the worst record in the conference in 2009, going 3-20. The Yellowjackets return Chris Davis, who led the team with a .356 batting average, Ron James Jr., .311, a team-leading six homers and 34 RBIs, and pitcher Rannie Fore, who went 3-3 with a 2.84 ERA.
Staying in the SWAC East, Jackson State finished second in the division behind Mississippi Valley. The Tigers had the conference’s best ERA in 2009, and coach Omar Johnson will rely on his pitching staff as well as some experienced returning players on offense to carry the team.
“We’re going to be a young team, very inexperienced,” said Johnson.
“We’re probably going to end up starting three sophomores and some redshirt freshmen.
“It (the conference) is up in the air, but I think we’ll have a good chance as well as some other teams.”
Center fielder Chad Hall returns after hitting .417 last year, and Johnson calls him “the kind of player who makes things happen.” Braneric Holmes hit .345 a year ago, and Cortez Cole has potential both with his bat and with his legs.
“He can probably steal 40-50 bases and drive in 30-40 runs,” said Johnson.
The pitching staff will not be as deep as last year, but Johnson likes the arms at the top of his rotation. Quintavious Drains made his mark primarily as a reliever last year, but he’ll get more opportunities to start in 2010.
As a freshman, he posted a 4.26 ERA and struck out 53 in 50 innings.Righty Terrence Washington and southpaw Cortney Nelson are also expected to anchor the pitching staff.
Pitching should not be a problem for MVSU. Senior Britt Goodman returns after his all-SWAC season that saw him lead the conference with a 1.99 ERA. Two transfers have shown promise: Steven Barnes and Eric Dowell both have low-90s fastballs. But the most promising arm for the Delta Devils is David Braugh, a 6-foot-4 righty who, according to head coach Doug Shanks “throws the hardest of all and could be the best pitcher in the SWAC.”
Shanks also is high on freshman Kameron Stady, an all-state pitcher from Coast Christian Academy on Gulfport, Miss. Offensively, the Devils will be led by Chris Herron, Paul Olson, who redshirted last year, Curt Ford and Nick Faniglio.
Over in the West, Texas Southern hopes to challenge Southern for the division title. Under the direction of Michael Robertson for the second year, the Tigers will have big holes to fill with the graduations of Adam Sellers, David Arrendondo, Earnest Rhone, Charles Derkowski and DeShaun Dillworth.
Quentin Smith hit .417 in a part-time starting role last year and will be the Tigers’ DH. SS Ray Hernandez is TSU’s second-leading returning hitter at .323 a year ago. Five pitchers return, but all had limited success last year.
Still, Robertson is optimistic about the season and beyond. “The leadership is strong and the future is soaring at TSU after a recruiting season in which we have added 14 freshmen to our 2010 roster,” he said.
“The key is how quick will our consistent play catch up with our potential. This upcoming season will be a springboard for things to come in future years in our program.”
Robertson’s former school, Prairie View A&M, will be looking to rebound this year after missing out on the SWAC tournament in 2009. The Panthers were back-to-back SWAC champs in 2006 and 2007.
“I had a strong recruiting class this past summer that I feel is one of the top (ones) in the SWAC,” said head coach Waskyla Cullivan.
“With 10 transfers from winning junior college programs along with two freshmen who produced on the high school level, I anticipate all of them making an immediate impact on our program this spring.”
PVAM does return its top two starting pitchers, Ben Blackburn and Mark Almaguer. Outfielder Darryl Johnson, who hit .297 with a homer and 13 RBIs, is Prairie View’s top offensive veteran.
Unlike Prairie View and Texas Southern, Arkansas Pine Bluff will return most of its starting lineup from a year ago. But the story for the Golden Lions will be the player who does not return.
Kevin Edwards was killed in a car accident in November, and how the team copes with his loss, said coach Michael Bumpers, will define the 2010 season.
3B Lloyd Burchett is UAPB’s top holdover among the position players, having hit .339 with a pair of homers and 33 RBIs in 2009. OF Tre Austin hit .320 in spot duty last year, and Hinton Huckabee hit four homers from his shortstop position.
The returning pitchers are led by Cornell Wyatt, who, in five appearances last year, had an ERA of 1.69, Vincent Newton and Kyle Jones.
The SWAC could have any number of contenders for its conference title. In the Great West Conference, former independent Chicago State believes it can contend in just its first season.
“We had a spectacular recruiting season this past year and we were able to attract some very good players to Chicago State University,” said coach Michael Caston. “With a mixture of our returning players, junior college transfers and incoming freshmen, look for (us) to put up some numbers offensively and defensively.
“We will be a completely different team in 2010. We are headed in the right direction and I feel the foundation has been set in order to build a legitimate baseball program.”
The Cougars return their two leading hitters from a year ago: Patrick Hernandez (.336) and Austin McDowell (.303). Also back are the three Carpen brothers: outfielders Jonathon and Albert and infielder Michael.
Two HBCUs will continue as independents: North Carolina Central and Savannah State. NCCU is in its fourth season since resurrecting the program and its third in NCAA Division I.
The Eagles took their lumps a year ago, winning only six games, but head coach Henry White expects the team to improve.
“On paper, North Carolina Central baseball has made improvements in several key areas,” said White. “Pitching was the emphasis in recruiting. On the offensive side, (newcomers) Derrell Parker, Joe Winecoff and Nathan Smith … will add much more punch to a line-up that struggled at the plate.”
White’s two top pitching recruits are 6-foot-7 Drew Robinson out of Southeast Community College and 6-5 freshman Glenn Frye.
Offensively, the Eagles return their top three hitters in Akeem Hood (.322), Kurt Wilson (.299) and Blake Murray (.283).
Savannah State didn’t have problems offensively last season, particularly on the basepaths, where the Tigers led the nation in stolen bases. But this year, head coach Carlton Hardy wants his pitching staff to catch up with his offense, and that’s where he focused a lot of his recruiting.
“We welcomed 19 newcomers into the program, which added more depth specifically to the pitching staff,” said Hardy. ” Pitching will be much better than last year with the added depth.”
Starter Mike Allegretti returns after leading SSU with seven wins a year ago, and redshirt senior Mark Sherrod returns looking to recapture some magic from three years ago when he won his first six decisions.
Offensively, Jonathan Ross returns his .380 batting average, while Dexter Kelley hit .318 and was one of the reasons the Tigers led the nation in steals; he posted 33 in 41 attempts. Kelley also has pop at the plate, evidenced by his team-leading nine homers in 2009. Darien Campbell (17 steals) also returns.
“We the added athleticism in the recruiting class and we look to improve our efficiency,” said Hardy. “We have great team chemistry with this group and great leadership from the upperclassmen.”