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April 11, 2006

SCS.comThere are many very good teams outside of the big conferences that have a chance to do some damage come June. Part I of this two-part article gives an in-depth look at the best of the "mid-majors" and just how much of a chance they have to trouble the big boys come time for Regionals play. All of these guys should earn at-large berths when this year's sixty-four team NCAA field is announced in less than two months.

The unofficial RPIs are taken from Boyd’s World ( and are as of Monday’s games.

College of Charleston (27-6, 10-2 Southern, 15 RPI)

College of Charleston has quietly made their way into the top 20 again this year after winning nearly 50 games last season and earning a #2 seed in the Clemson Regional. They’ve returned many of their key players from last year, and that has helped them to a stellar record both overall and in conference play. They currently lead their conference by a half-game over Furman.

Offense – Last season, the Cougars were one of the top hitting teams in the country, led by Brett Gardner and Chris Campbell. Gardner is in the Yankees’ farm system now, and Campbell hasn’t been at his best this year, but CofC is still hitting .332 as a team. Miami transfer Alex Garabedian (.362, 31 RBI) and South Carolina transfer Joey Friddle (.359, 10 doubles, 22 RBI, 10 steals) have fit into the lineup nicely. Power is not one of their strengths, as they have only 25 homers in 33 games, but they do have 79 steals, led by Philip Coker’s 21 and Oliver Marmol’s 20.

Pitching – Charleston backs up a good offense with a solid pitching staff (2.92 team ERA). They have three solid starters in Danny Meszaros, Nick Chigges, and Graham Godfrey, who’ve combined to go 17-3 so far. Closer Josh McLaughlin has picked up where All-American Brett Harker left off, compiling eight saves and a measly 0.52 ERA in 17 appearances.

With Clemson and South Carolina getting most of the attention in the state, it’s easy for CofC to be overlooked. But the Cougars have a legitimate shot to make a run at a #1 seed somewhere again, and if they do, it’s going to be hard to let them fly under the radar any longer. Even if they don’t win the SoCon’s automatic bid, the Cougars are going to be among the field of 64, and they’ll be a team to watch.

Winthrop (26-9, 6-3 Big South, 18 RPI)

The state of the South Carolina apparently knows a thing or two about good baseball, don’t they? The Eagles have been established as one of the top mid-majors for several years now, but this year’s club may be one of their best yet. Midway through the season, the boys from Rock Hill have broken into the top 20 and look to only be getting better.

Offense – You’d think that after losing a star like Daniel Carte that the offense might be down, right? Not at all. Jacob Dempsey has been the power man for the Eagles (.393, 13 doubles, 11 homers, 46 RBI). His average is only third-highest on a team hitting .327 overall. Two-way star Heath Rollins leads the team at a .426 clip, and Tommy Lentz is at .407. Leadoff hitter Chris Carrara (.362, 41 runs) sets the table for the hot hitters below him. He and Rollins both have 20 steals, so if they can get on base, there’s a good chance they’ll be crossing home plate before long.

Pitching – Kevin Slowey was the ace of the staff last year and went head-to-head with Mr. All-World Luke Hochevar in the Knoxville Regional. This year, Alex Wilson has been the leader. Rollins has gotten it done on the mound (5-3, 4.41 ERA, 81 Ks in 67 innings), and Josh McDonald provides an able third starter for the Eagles.

Winthrop may well challenge College of Charleston for one of the final #1 seeds. Charleston beat them last week at home, and they play in Rock Hill on Tuesday. If the Eagles lose out, they’ll still be very dangerous as a #2. They have the right combination of hitting and pitching to win a Regional, and they’ve beaten top opposition on the road (series wins at Miami and Alabama). The downside for the Eagles is that the bottom half of their lineup is comparatively much weaker than the top half, so they could be in trouble if the guys at the top struggle.

Troy (24-9, 6-0 Sun Belt, 23 RPI)

Last year, Troy won the Atlantic Sun regular season title but missed out on the NCAAs after being eliminated early in the conference tourney. This year, it’s the Sun Belt they’ve taken over, and they’re one of the nation’s hottest teams right now, having won 12 games in a row. The Trojans lead the Sun Belt by two games after sweeps in their first two conference series against Western Kentucky and Sun Belt favorite South Alabama.

Offense – The Trojans are hitting .340 as a team, with 99 doubles and 48 homers. Shortstop Tom King leads the country in hits (70) and doubles (22), is second with a .479 average, and sports the nation’s second longest current hitting streak at 27 games. They also have eight guys hitting .313 or better.

Pitching – A good offense can do a lot to help offset a pitching staff that’s prone to giving up runs (4.58 team ERA). But they do have a solid ace in Auburn transfer Mike Felix (6-2, 3.06 ERA, 82 Ks in 61.2 innings).

Their postseason prospects look good, even if they don’t win the Sun Belt’s automatic bid. An RPI of 65 hurt them last year, but the Trojans are in position to secure at least an at-large bid this spring with wins against Alabama, Auburn, Birmingham Southern, and the sweep of USA. This weekend’s series against FIU will be another RPI booster, and they still have games remaining against Auburn and BSC. As long as Troy finishes in the top two and doesn’t exit early in the conference tournament, they should be in the field of 64.

With the bats they have and an ace in Felix, the Trojans have a chance to make some noise in a Regional as either a 2 or a 3 seed. As long as you can score runs, you’ve got a chance, and Troy can do it in bunches. Their lack of quality pitching is a worry, but if the staff can follow Felix’s lead, then they’ll be dangerous.

Old Dominion (31-4, 14-1 Colonial, 25 RPI)

On the wings of an 18-game winning streak, Jerry Meyers’ Monarchs have flown into the top 20. With a combination of solid hitting, speed, and good pitching, ODU is having their best year since the mid ‘90s.

Offense - The Monarchs are hitting .327 and are led by speedy leadoff hitter Jimmy Miles. The junior college transfer is hitting .392 and is among the nation’s leaders with 32 steals. Dana Arrowood is close behind at .389. They’re not a power club (31 homers in 35 games), but Patrick Nichols leads the team with 10. However, ODU does have 84 doubles and 19 triples to go along with 70 steals.

Pitching - ODU's three primary starters have combined to go 18-2: freshman Dan Hudson (6-0, 1.49 ERA, 50 Ks), junior Jason Godin (7-0, 3.34 ERA, 81 Ks in 70 innings), and senior Kevin Gunter (5-2, 4.03, 59 Ks). Arrowood serves as the team’s closer, and he’s just as good on the mound (2-1, 2.08 ERA, 6 saves, 28 Ks in 21 innings). The Monarchs average nearly a strikeout per frame, with 310 punchouts in 317 innings.

The Monarchs are three games ahead of James Madison, who they swept in the first weekend of April. Three of their final five conference series are on the road, but with the lead they have, they should be able to win the conference title. If they don’t win the conference tourney, 42+ wins should be enough to get ODU in, as long as they don’t go two-and-through.

ODU will likely end up in one of the ACC-hosted regionals as a #2 seed. They have the right mix to cause an upset and take a regional, but it’ll be interesting to see how they do against the best of the best. The Monarchs did win at Virginia, but there are no eye-popping wins. Still though, they should be playing for a Regional title come June.

San Diego (22-12, 4-2 WAC, 36 RPI)

The Toreros have been on the national radar since they opened the season with a three-game sweep of Texas and started off at 8-1. They followed that hot start with a seven-game losing streak but have since rediscovered their early form, winning 14 of their last 17 before a loss at Portland on Sunday.

Offense – USD will not wow anyone with their offensive numbers (.303, 18 homers, 35 steals), but they are doing enough to win ballgames. Seven starters hit .290 or better, with Steve Singleton’s .377 leading the team.

Pitching – The Torero pitching staff is led by junior Josh Butler (8-2, 1.76 ERA). They have three capable starters behind him, including Matt Couch (5-1, 3.15 ERA). The bullpen has struggled, which means they’ve had to use their starters in relief roles occasionally. That can work in the regular season, but in the postseason, the bullpen is going to have to step up.

With the long list of quality wins USD has assembled, they look good for an at-large bid if they can finish at least 2nd in the WCC. An eight-game road stretch that includes series against title contenders Pepperdine and San Francisco will go a long way in determining the Toreros’ fate. As long as they don’t hit the skids again, it’ll be hard to deny USD a bid.

If they can play in the Regionals like they did against Texas, then they have a shot of getting to the Supers. But their bullpen woes make their chances just a little shaky. They can ride the arms of Butler and Couch to Sunday and then turn to one of the other two starters, but if the two staff studs struggle, the Toreros hopes will take a severe hit.

Fresno State (26-10, 7-2 WAC, 37 RPI)

Thank goodness for the rest of the WAC that Rice is gone to Conference USA. The Owls had dominated the conference for the past several years, but now the league is wide open. The Bulldogs have set the pace so far and look to be the favorites to take the conference crown, winning their first three series on the way to a 7-2 record.

Offense – The Bulldogs are hitting over .300 as a team with 73 doubles and 33 homers. Sophomore slugger Beau Mills isn’t crushing bombs like he was last season, but his stats (.328, 17 doubles, 7 homers, 35 RBI) are nothing to frown about. Junior shortstop Christian Vitters leads the team in the triple crown categories (.381, 8 homers, 36 RBI). The guys from Fresno have decent speed on the basepaths, with Loren Storey (16-17) and Vitters (10-13) leading the way on a team with 58 thefts.

Pitching – The Bulldog pitching staff is by no means spectacular, but they’ve gotten the job done thus far. Eddie Romero (8-1, 3.14 ERA) is the ace, and Andy Underwood (5-2, 3.48 ERA) is another solid weekend starter. Jason Breckley is their top reliever (3-0, 4.15 ERA, 16 appearances).

Louisiana Tech is likely where the toughest challenge is going to come from in the WAC, and those two teams just happen face off this weekend in Ruston. Fresno has series wins against UCLA and Pepperdine, along with wins over Stanford, Washington State, and Gonzaga, that help their resume. They have a good enough RPI to be in contention for an at-large bid, but their best bet is to erase any doubts by winning the conference title. There is no conference tournament, so the automatic bid will be won in the regular season.

The Bulldogs will likely end up as a #2 or a #3 wherever they’re sent, which likely won’t be too far. Once they get in, they have the bats, but their pitching is a question mark outside of their top two starters. The Bulldogs have had an issue with giving up big runs in several games this season, and in the postseason, that isn’t something you can do if you want to make it far.

Next week's Part II will focus on the mid-majors who will likely have to win their way into the NCAAs.

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