Miami, Ball State Picked To Win Baseball Divisions

Updated 2/10/2000
CLEVELAND (Feb. 10) -- Ball State and Miami have been tabbed to win their respective divisions of the baseball season in the Mid-American Conference, announced Feb. 10 by the league office. Voting for the team was conducted by the league's head coaches.

EAST DIVISION:
Despite receiving fewer first-place votes for the top spot in the East Division, the Miami RedHawks edged two-time defending MAC Tournament champion Bowling Green for first-place by one-point, 63-62. Miami (34-27, 20-12 in 1999) returns seven starters and five pitchers from last year's team that tied a school record with 20 league wins and finished runner-up to the Falcons in the league tournament. Junior Clark Mace, a second-team all-MAC choice last season, is the team's top returning hitter after batting .371 last season with a school-record 83 hits, while designated hitter Tom Yost hit .406 as a sophomore but didn't make enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Pitcher Nate Tekavec is the team's top returning hurler. Tekavec led the team last year in wins (9), innings pitched (101.2) and strikeouts (88), and was second in complete games (7).

Bowling Green (36-24, 21-10) has seven starters and six pitchers coming back, but did lose the team's top hitter in Rob Niemet and its No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers in the rotation in Jason Kelley and Chris Vaught. The Falcons do, however, return second-team all-conference outfielder Len Elias. Elias, who batted .381 as a freshman, is the MAC's third-leading hitter. On the hill, the Falcons will look to seniors Joe Chaney (6-6, 4.64) and Mike Muzi (3-3, five saves, 5.32) to fill a void in the 200-plus innings that Kelley and Vaught threw last season.

Kent (33-25, 19-12), which is picked third, is coming off its first 30-plus win season in three years. The Golden Flashes welcome back five position starters, including senior second baseman Jess Bechard, who is the MAC's top returning hitter (.406) from 1999 and was also a first-team all-conference choice a year ago. In addition to Bechard, outfielder Ty Carpenter (.377) and first-team All-MAC catcher Alex Marconi (.371) provides Kent with one of the top offensive squads in the conference. The team's weakness could be in the starting rotation, where it returns only one pitcher who threw for over 75 innings and lost a trio of hurlers that accounted for 16 of the team's wins. However, Kent does have one of the top relief pitchers in the country in Dan Adams (3-1, 15 saves, 1.99), who was named a third-team preseason Louisville Slugger All-American.

Ohio (26-28, 17-13), which finished in fourth place behind Kent last year, is tabbed for the same spot this season. The Bobcats' offensive arsenal is led by senior first baseman Jeff Rook, who hit .367 last season with 16 home runs and 48 RBIs. In addition to Rook, junior designated hitter Chuck Lombardy, a first-team all-MAC selection last season, hit .375 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs. Ohio's pitching staff is a more seasoned group of veterans, led by senior Tony Schiml (5-2, 6.09), and juniors Lombardy (3-5, 6.71) and Andrew See (6-4, 6.45).

Akron (20-36, 10-22), picked to finish fifth this season, has 15 letterwinners returning from a year ago, including six starters and three pitchers. Outfielders Mark Malaska (.318, 6, 41) and Brian Roberts (.310, 4, 35) are the Zips' top returning hitters, while John Wilkinson (5-4, 3.07), a second-team all-conference pick last season, heads the group of pitchers.

While Marshall is coming off a 12-43-1 overall record and a 4-26-1 mark in league play, there is a feeling of optimism among the players and staff. Six starters and 12 letterwinners return from last year's team, including first baseman Eric Pinkerton, who hit .347 last year and is the team's top returning hitter. The Thundering Herd should be a more experienced team up the middle as second baseman Aaron Amburgey (.285) and shortstop Matt White (.214) return, while the team will search for replacements behind the plate and at third. The pitching staff is led by Sean Reeder (6-7, 5.08), who led the MAC last year in strikeouts (107).

WEST DIVISION:
Since the MAC went to divisional play beginning in the 1998 season, Ball State has been tabbed as the favorite in the West Division, and this year is no different. The Cardinals (42-18, 25-6) were a unanimous choice for the second straight year with 12 first-place votes and 72 points. Offensively, BSU is paced by three of the league's top 15 hitters from 1999 in Jeremy Ridley, Matt Wood and Shayne Ridley. Jeremy Ridley who was named a first-team All-MAC choice and a third-team All-American from the American Baseball Coaches Association last year, ranked in the top five in seven offensive statistical categories, including a .383 batting average. His identical twin, Shayne, was also a first-team pick at shortstop after hitting .342 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs. A second-team all-conference choice as a sophomore, Wood set a MAC and school record with 71 RBIs, in addition to 16 home runs and a .364 average. The Cardinals' pitching staff is highlighted by the return of sophomore Justin Wechsler, last year's MAC Freshman of the Year. Wechsler, who was also a second-team All-MAC pick, finished his rookie campaign with a 10-3 record and a 3.39 ERA, which was fifth in the league.

Western Michigan, which is slated for second with 58 points, is coming off the program's first 30 win season since 1995. The Broncos hit 60 home runs in 1999, which was third in the league, but 40 of those came from the trio of Frank Alfieri (18), Kris Gundrum (12) and Derek Lindsay (10), who all graduated. WMU has a solid tandem on the mound in Angelo Palazeti (10-6, 3.92) and Keith Perez (3-8, 4.57), and will have to find replacements in the infield for every position, except for shortstop.

Central Michigan (24-32, 15-15) is picked for third with 42 points, and is coming off its first losing season in 35 seasons. The Chippewas, however, have five position starters back as well as three of their top four pitchers. CMU, which led the league in pitching with a 4.14 ERA, returns hurlers Adam Bolthouse (2-3, 3.38), Mike Fawcett (5-6, 4.24) and Dan Schell (5-5, 4.44), along with the Chippewas' top two hitters -- Jake Sanborn (.354, 11, 49) and Scott Pieratt (.325, 12, 52).

Toledo, with 37 points, is picked for a close fourth behind Central Michigan, but the Rockets will have a battle ahead of them in an attempt to replace last year's Pitcher of the Year, Jeremy Griffiths (11-4, 2.50). UT does return All-MAC hurler Junie Melendez (9-5, 3.10), as well as Brad Webb, who was 7-3 with a 4.76 ERA last season. The team must also find replacements for four starters but do return senior catcher Mike Ernst (.283, 7, 29), senior third baseman Jason Stuecher (.322, 2, 27) and sophomore outfielder Tony Miller (.333, 1, 10).

One of the most inexperienced teams in the MAC this spring is Eastern Michigan, which returns only four starters from last season's 21-32-1 squad that also was 12-19-1 in league play. Picked to finish fifth, the Eagles will have a solid nucleus up the middle as they return senior catcher Warren Jacks (.226, 0, 7), sophomore second baseman Todd Moore (.303, 1, 17), junior shortstop Nick Soliz (.297, 2, 27) and junior centerfielder Vince Thomas (.284, 5, 27). In addition, the EMU pitching staff does return two of its top three pitchers in seniors Jeff Mull (3-5, 5.28) and Ryan Janis (7-2, 5.50).

Northern Illinois, which is picked for sixth in the West, has the league's only new head coach in former Northern Iowa skipper Dave Schrage. Schrage, who spent nine years with the Panthers, inherits a team that completed the 1999 campaign with a 4-51-1 overall record and a 1-31 mark in conference action. Seventeen new players dot the Huskie roster, including 10 freshmen. Senior Joe Milroy led the team last year with a .307 average, and captured the team's Triple Crown after pacing the squad in home runs (6) and RBIs (36). Along with Milroy, NIU returns sophomore outfielder Pat Kerrigan, who made 51 starts as a freshman and hit .294. The Huskies' pitching staff has six hurlers back that made at least 10 appearances, including junior Brian Miller, who tossed a team-high 77.2 innings and hurled four complete games.

2000 MAC Preseason Baseball Coaches Poll

East Division
1. Miami (5) 63
2. Bowling Green (7) 62
3. Kent 49
4. Ohio 40
5. Akron 24
6. Marshall 14

West Division
1. Ball State (12) 72
2. Western Michigan 58
3. Central Michigan 42 4. Toledo 37
5. Eastern Michigan 28
6. Northern Illinois 15

Tournament Winner
Ball State 7
Bowling Green 3
Miami 2

Note: First-place votes in parentheses

Voting was done on a 6-5-4-3-2-1 basis