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January 23, 2007

SCS.comCovering over 30 conferences and 300 Division I schools would be just a little time-consuming, but don't think that we at have forgotten about the teams and conferences that aren't getting full previews. There are a few teams on this list that may not fulfill their expectations, and there are also a few not on this list that will make some noise this season. Trust me, if I had the time to, I'd give even more teams some love. But these teams look like the cream of the crop of the good teams from the conferences that the preview issues aren't covering individually.

Wichita State
Missouri Valley

Wichita State enters '07 as a consensus top-20 team, and is ranked as high as #10 (Baseball America). The Shockers had to sneak into the regionals last year despite winning 40+ games, but that won't be a problem this year. Nine prominent position players return, led by All-American 2B Damon Sublett, who doubles as the Shockers' closer. Sublett was injured late last season and missed more than 20 games, which undoubtedly made a difference. Wichita State's pitching staff is one of the best in the country, led by All-American hopefuls Aaron Shafer and Travis Banwart, while Sublett shuts 'em down from the pen. If they can be consistent and avoid injuries to key players, Gene Stephenson's club could be in line for its first trip to Omaha since 1996.

Missouri Valley

Evansville will be looking to stop the Shockers and defend their MVC regular season and conference titles. The Purple Aces won 43 games in '06 and lost to South Carolina in the Charlottesville Regional title game. Michigan State transfer Troy Krider (.356 and .355 last two seasons at MSU) will start at the second slot in a lineup that already has award hopefuls Pat Tumilty and Kasey Wahl. The pitching staff is led by All-American Ben Norton and Matt Brinkmann, who posted a 2.97 ERA last season. Former coach Dave Schrage left to take over at Notre Dame, but the team won't miss a beat under new skipper David Seifert, who was formerly the team's pitching coach. They will give the MVC at least two teams in the field of 64.

Mountain West

TCU dominated the Mountain West in its first year in the league, and should repeat as champs, along with being a top-20 team. Slugger Chad Huffman and star pitcher Brad Furnish are now in the minors, but the Horned Frogs return four top hitters and a dangerous 1-2 punch on the mound in juniors Jake Arrieta and Sam Demel. Arrieta is a first-team All-American and tied for the national lead in wins last year with 14. TCU has made three straight regional appearances and should make it four, though their non-conference showing will have to improve upon last year's in case an at-large bid becomes necessary.

Big South

The Eagles lose slugging outfielder Jacob Dempsey and two-way star Heath Rollins, but should return to the top of the Big South standings. Joe Hudak's club will be paced at the plate by Tommy Lentz and Chris Carrara, and Birmingham Southern transfer Billy Froehlich should be an immediate contributor. Despite the loss of Rollins and his 13 wins, Winthrop's pitching staff still has one of the nation's top arms in All-American Alex Wilson, who posted the same number of wins and strikeouts as Rollins last season. The Eagles should be in store for yet another 40+ win season and postseason appearance, whether automatic or at-large.

Oral Roberts

Oral Roberts was two late-inning collapses away from reaching Omaha last year, and gave Clemson all it could handle and then some at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. They may not get that close this year, but the Golden Eagles will still be very good. All nine starters hit over .300 in '06, and five of them return. The pitching staff lost a few key guys, but has an All-American in Chris Ashman. Rob Walton's club should have no problem continuing their Mid-Con domination.

St. John's
Big East

If there's any time to knock Notre Dame off of their perch in the Big East, it's this year, and St. John's is the team in the best position to do it. The Red Storm are the preseason favorite to take the conference crown, and rightly so. Seven top position players and ten pitchers return. First baseman Chris Joachim (.398/46 RBI/20 SB) and DH Anthony Smith (.366/8 HR/46 RBI) are both preseason all-conference selections, along with starting pitcher Scott Barnes (3-2, 3.66), who is highly thought of as a draft prospect. Last year's 40-19 record wasn't good enough to get an at-large bid, in part due to a fourth place conference finish, but the team will be in a solid position for its second regional berth in three years.

Colonial Athletic Association

Delaware was the nation's top power team in '06, hitting 111 homers. But despite all of that bashing and mashing, the Blue Hens could only muster a 7th place finish in the CAA. This year's Delaware team returns seven guys who hit seven or more homers last year, led by All-American hopefuls Brandon Menchaca and Alex Buchholz. The pitching staff was the team's downfall last year, but should see some improvement as all of last year's main hurlers return. With all that they have returning, the Blue Hens could be considered the favorite in a league where the title is up for grabs this year.

Atlantic Sun

Jacksonville was one of the surprise teams of '06, winning 43 games and blitzing through the A-Sun on the way to an appearance in the Athens Regional. A second straight 40-win season is a distinct possibility, but this time it won't surprise anyone. Terry Alexander's Dolphins do lose leading hitters Daniel Murphy (.398 in '06) and Gordie Gronkowski (.358), but every other position starter is back. Dozen-game winner Matt Dobbins returns to anchor the rotation along with D.J. Ackley (7-4), while Matt Davis (6-2, 3.75) and Tim Brown (3-3, 3.90) will figure prominently. Justin Young hit .288 at the plate, but excelled as a reliever, posting a 1.66 ERA. JU should win its second straight A-Sun crown, and hopefully an automatic bid this time around, if there aren't any letdowns.

Central Michigan

CMU won the MAC West Division title last year and was 35-20 overall, but exited the conference tourney early. The Chippewas are primed to take things a step further, with the core of a potent lineup and key components of the pitching staff back to own the MAC. Eight regular position contributors are back, including the power-hitting combo of Ben Humphrey (.338/13/72) and Bryan Mitzel (.308/15/57). Josh Collmenter (8-5, 3.41 ERA, 94 Ks in 95 IP) and Kurt Lauscher (5-3, 4.60 ERA) anchor the rotation, with a couple of returning relievers to back them up. Two freshmen that could see a lot of early playing time are infielder Jeff Digati and pitcher Devan Kline, who both played well in fall ball. CMU is definitely a team that could cause some damage if they get into the postseason.

McNeese State

The Cowboys won 18 of their last 21 conference games to win the Southland regular season title last year, but exited the tournament after two days. This year's team has the potential to erase last year's disappointment, with nearly nearly every contributor from last year returning on offense, led by Charlie Kingrey (.338/9/51). All three starters return on the mound, and so does star closer Danny Davis (8-0, 2.43, 7 saves). The SLC was a multiple bid league two years ago, so if the Cowboys have an excellent regular season, they could be rewarded with an at-large bid if they fall short in the league tourney. With their experience and talent, they could cause some trouble in a regional.

Others to Watch

Could this be the year that San Diego State finally turns the corner and makes the postseason? The Aztecs have posted winning records in the Mountain West in all four seasons since soon-to-be Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn became head coach in 2003, but have only one overall winning record in that time. Only one full-time position starter returns in Nick Romero, but talented transfers Joe Spiers (Hawaii), Frank LoNigro (Fresno State), Brandon Glover (Texas A&M), and Brandon Decker (Long Beach State) will all likely slot right in as starters. Ace pitcher Justin Masterson is gone, but Bruce Billings (6-3, 3.41, 85 Ks) is back, and Donnie Hume, another Long Beach State transfer and 2006 Cape Cod All-Star, looks like a second quality starter. The Aztecs had some serious issues in the bullpen last season, and that's where progress will need to be made if they hope to challenge TCU for the Mountain West title and contend for a regional spot that's long overdue. Gwynn has been an excellent recruiter in his tenure, and besides the four-year transfers, he has a large group of freshmen and JC transfers who will have a hand in the efforts.

Fresno State and Hawaii were the top two in the WAC last season, and both won 45 games. Rice who? Not exactly, but they both proved that the league can survive without the Owls. But both teams are in reload mode this year, having endured many significant losses. The Bulldogs and Rainbows are still the two best teams in the WAC though, and could both end up in the regionals again this season.

Liberty was one of the hottest teams in the country for the better part of '06, but fell off at the end. Still, the Flames won 39 games. The year finished on a sour note, however, as they blew a 10-run lead in the Big South title game against UNC-Asheville to fall short of 40 wins and an automatic bid. Winthrop is the class of the conference, but the Flames have what it takes to challenge them and be in the running for at least an at-large spot. Five position starters return, led by Aaron Grijalva (.347/7/51/23-24 SB). Two of their primary starting pitchers return as well, in Michael Solbach and Dustin Umberger, and Ryan Page (9-2, 3.59) and Tim John (7-3, 3.67) are two standout relievers. Auburn transfer Clarence Nicely will make an immediate impact on the mound as well. To bolster their at-large hopes, the Flames have a non-conference schedule with three game series against potential tournament teams East Carolina and Arizona, and a contest against SEC powerhouse South Carolina.

In the Big East, Notre Dame has a new coach in Dave Schrage (formerly of Evansville) who will be in charge of keeping the standard set by Paul Mainieri, who's now at LSU. The Irish do return five position starters, and despite losing Tom Thornton, Jeff Manship, and Mr. Two-Sport Jeff Samardzija from their rotation, they do return seven-game winner Wade Korpi. An excellent bullpen is already in place, with Mike Dury, Jess Stewart, and closer Kyle Weiland, who recorded 16 saves last season. The Irish have been the team to beat in the Big East for several years now, and even though St. John's appears to be the favorite for now, the Irish should be right there at the end. [As a side note: Condolences to Coach Schrage, whose wife Jody died of cancer on the 9th.]

Even more to keep an eye on:

Louisville, James Madison, Miami (Ohio), Lamar, Stetson, Missouri State, Rhode Island, UNC-Charlotte, Maine.

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