Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 04, 2006
College Baseball Preview: Best of the Rest
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

The College Baseball Preview sticks to its regularly scheduled programming with the Best of the Rest. We take a look at 11 of the top teams outside the Pac-10, Big West, Big 12, SEC, and ACC.

We set out to cover all of the baseball programs that have a legitimate shot at hosting a Regional and/or playing in a Super Regional. Although mindful of missing a team or two along the way, we hope that our series winds up capturing the vast majority of the Regional hosts and Super Regional participants, as well as all of the College World Series teams.

With the addition of Rice this year, Conference USA is without a doubt one of the top half dozen leagues in college baseball. Our series, in fact, would have been incomplete had we not covered Rice, Tulane, and Southern Mississippi. It would have also been lacking had we bypassed many of the other teams below.

RICE had a 45-19 record last year in the Western Athletic Conference, ranking 13th in Baseball America's final poll and 14th in RPI. The Owls, coached by Wayne Graham, are among the top ten in all the preseason rankings. The move to the stronger C-USA may make it more difficult to save a weekend starter for weeknight games vs. the likes of Texas and Texas A&M. Freshman of the Year Joe Savery, a two-way player, is a first-team preseason All-American. Savery went 8-5 last year with a 2.43 ERA and a league-leading 129 strikeouts in 119 innings. A 1B/DH on days he's not pitching, the left-handed Savery hit .382 with a .471 OBP and .559 SLG. Rice also returns Josh Rodriguez, a junior shortstop who has been named to Baseball America's third-team preseason All-America team. Rodriguez (.345/.411/.555) led the Owls in HR (11) and RBI (54) last year. [Posted by Rich Lederer]

TULANE finished the 2005 season with a 56-12 record and a trip to Omaha. Following the tragic hurricane hit to New Orleans, the Green Wave will be playing their home games at Zephyr Field (AAA home of the Nationals). The team was displaced to Lubbock with Texas Tech in the fall. Certainly they'll feel the feel the loss of All-Americans Brian Bogusevic and Micah Owings at the plate but not as much as one would think. They return three preseason All-Americans in CF Nathan Southard (.341/.429/.563, 12 HRs, 3B Brad Emaus (.321/.424/.542, 13 HRs), and 1B Mark Hamilton (.318/.452/.599, 11 HRs). They will feel the loss of their big two draft picks more on the mound as their lone returning starter is Brandon Gomes (4.42 ERA, 89.2 IP, .278 BAA, 82/17 SO/BB). They would have had senior J.R. Crowel returning to the rotation but he will have to take a medical redshirt following mid-January surgery on his throwing shoulder (labrum). Luckily, they pickup sophomore John Michael Vidic (3.24/8.1/.188/5/3) as another transfer from Georgia Tech (Owings being the first) who might be able to fill that void. [Posted by Ryan Levy]

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI heads into this season off the heels of a school record third-straight NCAA Regionals appearance. Coach Corky Palmer will have his hands full though with perennial baseball powerhouse Rice joining Conference USA for the first time. The Golden Eagles had a record of 41-21 last year, their third-straight season with 40+ wins, also a school record. Southern Miss' best player is senior 1B Marc Maddox (.359-14-59), who was a first-team All-Conference USA selection last season. Sophomore shortstop Trey Sutton will look to build on his impressive freshman season in which he hit .346 with 6 homeruns and 41 RBI. The pitching will be held down by closer Daniel Best. In 2005, Best tallied 11 saves and a 3-0 record to go with his 0.46 ERA. The senior submariner is on the Roger Clemens Award watch list. [Posted by Joe Lederer]

The TEXAS CHRISTIAN Horned Frogs are making a leap from C-USA into the Mountain West Conference this season. TCU finished the '05 campaign with a 41-20 record and a trip to a very difficult Regional in Waco (vs. Stanford and Baylor). The Horned Frogs will be led by utility man Chad Huffman (.353/.437/.573, 12 HRs), who was named to NCBWA's preseason All-American squad. On the mound they lost a ton of talent (mainly, Lance Broadway) and return only three pitchers with a sub-5.00 ERA, although none were below 4.00. Sophomore Sam Demel was a big name from Spring HS (Josh Beckett's alma mater). His ERA was 4.64 but the righty struck out 100 batters in 95 innings in what was only his freshman season. [Ryan Levy]

NOTRE DAME (Big East) went 38-24-1 enroute to their 4th consecutive Big East Tournament Championship and a Regional berth falling at the hands of national runner-up Florida. The Fightin' Irish return 10 of their top 11 hitters (losing only their top hitter, Matt Edwards), including their corner infielders Craig Cooper (.325/.446/.502), and Brett Lilley (.355/.502/.379). On the mound they return six of their top eight pitchers, including their entire starting rotation--most famous of the group being All-American wide out, Jeff Samardzija (3.89/78.2/.272/56/30). Things should certainly be looking up for the Golden Domers. [Ryan Levy]

FLORIDA ATLANTIC will look to close out its Atlantic Sun Conference history in style, as the team will move into the Sun Belt Conference next season. The Owls finished 37-24 last year (19-11 in conference play) and advanced to its sixth NCAA Regional in the past seven seasons. Coach Kevin Cooney, who will notch his 800th career victory this season, will rely on sophomore RHP Mickey Storey and junior RHP/OF Mike McBryde. Storey recorded seven saves before being moved into the rotation in April. At the end of the season, he was named to Baseball America's All-Freshman Team after posting a 10-1 record and 1.70 ERA. Closing for FAU will be two-way stud McBryde, who went 2-2 last year with a 3.11 ERA to go along with 11 saves and 49 strikeouts in 35 innings. As an outfielder, McBryde hit .370 with 5 homeruns and 35 stolen bases. Transfer Ovy Ramirez (.350-13-62 at St. Petersburg JC) will play second and add pop to the middle of the Owls' lineup. [Joe Lederer]

In 2006, WICHITA STATE (Missouri Valley Conference) returns all but three starters and a starting pitcher. Of course, that pitcher was All-American Mike Pelfrey, regarded by some as the best pitching prospect in the 2005 draft. Gene Stephenson, who pulled a Shocker in the offseason when he accepted the Oklahoma job but changed his mind hours later, returns for his 29th season and is seeking to extend a streak of never winning fewer than 40 games. Junior 3B Derek Schermerhorn (.329-2-60, 34 SB) had a 34-game hitting streak last year and will lead the Shockers' offense. Wichita State's strength is its pitching, where the team was 9th in the nation in team ERA (3.16) last season. The team's best pitcher is junior LHP Kris Johnson, who will be out until March as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. As a freshman, Johnson went 7-0 and started last season 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. Sophomore RHP Travis Banwart (8-1, 2.09) and senior RHP Jereme Foster (7-5, 3.63) will anchor the rotation and freshman Aaron Shafer, a 16th round selection last year by Cleveland, will also pitch meaningful innings. [Joe Lederer]

We turn westward...

FRESNO STATE baseball history can be broken down in two eras: Before Rice and After Rice. The Bulldogs made 15 straight NCAA appearances from 1979 to 1995, including 12 Western Athletic Conference titles. Then Rice joined the WAC and won the title every year from 1996-2005. During Rice's reign, Fresno State made only four NCAA appearances. Now with Rice leaving the Western Athletic Conference, Fresno State again becomes the best program. Coach Mike Batesole's team was ranked #21 in Baseball America's preseason poll. Fresno State will look to improve on its 30-29 record last year behind the bat of sophomore 3B Beau Mills, son of Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills. Mills (.319/.424/.699) earned Freshman All-American honors after leading all freshmen with 22 home runs. Senior RHP Doug Fister was drafted in the 6th round last year by the Yankees but chose to return to school and will fill the shoes of last year's ace, first-round pick Matt Garza. Fister (7-6, 4.32 ERA) features an 88-to-91 MPH fastball but scouts believe he'll add velocity once he fills out his frame (6-foot-8, 195). The Bulldogs also return junior outfielder Nick Moresi, an All-WAC selection after hitting .352-11-54 and 13 SB in 13 attempts. [Joe Lederer]

PEPPERDINE (West Coast) went 41-23, 32nd in RPI, and ranked #24 in Baseball America's final poll last season. The Waves came within one win of advancing to the Super Regional round. They enter this season with most key players back, and their highest pre-season ranking in years - #11 in Baseball America. Those players will include senior LHP Paul Coleman (9-3, 3.35), WCC Pitcher of the Year, despite his 9th round selection by the Tigers. RHP Kea Kometani (10-5, 3.17) is gone, but sophomore RHP Barry Enright (10-1, 4.62) returns. Enright was WCC Freshman of the Year. To complete the trifecta, junior catcher Chad Tracy (.367/.428/.609, 22 doubles, 12 HR), the son of Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Jim Tracy, comes back after his WCC Player of the Year season. Last season Head Coach Steve Rodriguez' Waves hit .295/.366/.409 as a team, and posted a 3.84 team ERA. They outscored opponents 368-290. With another year of experience, Pepperdine has a great shot at playing in Omaha in June. [Posted by Jeff Agnew]

SAN FRANCISCO (West Coast) was 38-18 in 2005, coming in 58th in RPI. The Dons return one of the best two-way players in the country in junior outfielder/LHP Scott Cousins (.309/.398/.457; 8-5, 2.64, .229 OBA, 76K, 30 BB, 95.1 IP). Senior RHP Patrick McGuigan (5-2, 1.66, 7 saves, .206, 50K, 13 BB, 54.1 IP, 25 appearances, 1 start) moves from the closer role to starter. Senior outfielder/catcher Stefan Gartrell (.364/.409/.552) is back, but infielder/DH Cy Donald's (.368/.419/.412) bat will be missed. Now in his 8th year, Head Coach Nino Giarratano's team set a school record with 38 wins last year. But it wasn't enough to get the Dons into the post-season. But it was close. Will this be the year the WCC sends 3 teams to Regionals? [Jeff Agnew]

SAN DIEGO (West Coast) was 30-27-1 last season, coming in 130th in RPI. 8th year Head Coach Rich Hill's Toreros go in ranked 36th pre-season by Collegiate Baseball. USD returns two of three starters in junior RHP Josh Butler (7-7, 3.42) and sophomore RHP Matt Couch (5-3, 3.65), with LHP Justin Blaine (8-5, 3.55) going in the 6th round to the Phillies. Most of the key position players are back, led by junior outfielder Shane Buschini (.352/.450/.538) and junior infielder Keoni Ruth (.338/.380/.431). But the big story with the Toreros is the recruiting class, ranked 12th in Division I by Baseball America. Freshman LHP Brian Matusz passed on signing after his 4th round selection by the Angels. Freshman LHP Josh Romanski did the same, despite being picked in the 15th by the Padres. These guys aren't "crafty lefties," each throws in the low 90s. Depending upon how quickly this crop of HS and JUCO recruits adjusts to the D-I level, San Diego may land its first bid since 2003. Any way you look at it, the future looks bright. [Jeff Agnew]

While we're in San Diego, let's take a look at SAN DIEGO STATE's (Mountain West; 26-35, #170 RPI) progress in the Head Coach Tony Gwynn era (90-96 in his 1st 3 years). Although the Aztecs don't make the "Best of the Rest" list, there are signs that the future Hall of Famer's team is making progress. Junior outfielder Quintin Berry (.419/.569/.550) returns. More importantly, recruiting - including the most important part, getting them to enroll - seems to be getting better. Freshman 2B Nick Romero passed on his 40th round pick by the Royals. And junior RHP Justin Masterson makes the transfer from independent Bethel College, where he was 20-8, 1.85, over 2 years. In the Northwoods League last summer, Masterson was 3-1, 1.15, and posted 10 saves. Skeptics have questioned Gwynn's commitment to college baseball. Each passing year, he quiets a few more. [Jeff Agnew]

Gwynn and bear it.

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Be sure to return on Sunday to catch our Baseball Analysts' Preseason All-American team and who we believe will make it to the finals of the College World Series in June.


Thanks for the coverage of the conference USA teams.

You're welcome. I wish we could have covered all the teams in C-USA, but we did our best to include the top 30 or 40 teams in the country. We will miss a few along the way but are hopeful of getting the vast majority.

Thanks for being a loyal reader.

With the addition of Rice and UCF would you not think that C-USA has surpassed the Big West and WCC in overall baseball quality. Even without Rice, the past two years C-USA has sent at least four teams to regionals. This year it's possible to see five C-USA teams in the Regionals.....I don't believe that the Big West can produce more than 3 regional bids.

We never claimed that the Big West or the WCC was better or worse than Conference USA. In fact, I believe I made a comment to the effect that C-USA was one of the top six in the nation. We didn't rank order them per se. Instead, we chose five conferences and a number of other teams (including several from C-USA) to spotlight, partly because we had originally planned to feature one league per day (M-F) and also owing to our limited resources and areas of interest/expertise.