Miami, Ball State Favored Again To Win Divisions In Baseball

Updated 2/8/2001
CLEVELAND -- For the second consecutive year, Ball State and Miami have been tabbed to win their respective divisions of the baseball season in the Mid-American Conference, announced today by the league office. Voting for the team was conducted by the leagues head coaches. The Cardinals, who lost in the title game last year to the RedHawks, are favored to win the MAC tournament title again this year, capturing eight votes while Miami picked up three. Ohio and Western Michigan also received one vote each to win the conference tournament.

EAST DIVISION:
Defending MAC Tournament champions Miami, which is coming off a 40-23 campaign, is tabbed as the favorite to win the East Division crown but by the slimmest of margins. The RedHawks, who were favored by one point a year ago over Bowling Green, are again picked first by one point, this time over Kent State and three points over Ohio. Miami, which garnered five first-place votes, received 79 points, compared to KSUs 78 (three first-place votes) and Ohios 76 points (five first-place votes). Miami returns six starters and eight pitchers from last years third-place 16-12 MAC squad, led offensively by seniors Clark Mace (.346, 11 HR, 49 RBIs) and Jeremy Ison (.330, 15, 53).

Mace, who is one of only four first-team all-MAC players to return from the 2000 campaign, led the league in runs scored (65) and stolen bases (23), and is within reach of breaking the MAC records for career hits and runs scored. Entering his senior season, Mace, an outfielder, is 74 hits and 42 runs away from breaking both marks, which are occupied by former Kent State player Jess Bechard -- Mace enters the year with 231 hits and 168 runs scored. The teams top newcomer is junior catcher Justin Knoedler, who was the NJCAA Player of the Year for Lincoln Land CC a year ago. On the mound, the RedHawks are led by sophomore Chris Leonard (7-1, 2.79 ERA, 51K), a first-team all-MAC pitcher as a freshman, and juniors Russ Bayer (8-4, 5.24, 46K) and Billy Kieninger (6-2, 5.73, 46K).

Kent State (40-18, 20-6) is coming off its first 40-win season since 1995 and will be without three of its prime starters from a year ago -- second-baseman Bechard, catcher Alex Marconi and outfielder Ty Carpenter -- plus the MACs top reliever Dan Adams, who paced the league with 14 saves.

The Golden Flashes, the MACs regular season champion a year ago, have one of the conferences top all-around players back in junior John VanBenschoten. VanBenschoten, a second-team all-MAC utility selection as a sophomore, hit .356 with 10 home runs and 46 RBIs while also sporting a 7-2 mark on the mound with a team-tying ERA of 3.48. While Kent State did lose two first-team all-MAC players from last year, the Golden Flashes did place four on the second team, the most of any team in the league, and three return for 2001. In addition to VanBenschoten on the second team, KSU does return junior Dave Mattle (.368, 9, 49) in the outfield as well as pitcher Dirk Hayhurst (5-1, 3.75, 47K). Also returning to the mound for KSU are juniors Jason Biniker (6-2, 4.21, 43K) and Dustin Sampson (6-3, 4.75, 54K).

After a pair of fourth place finishes in each of its last two seasons, Ohio finished second a year ago and was one win away from advancing to the title game of the MAC tournament. The Bobcats (31-25-1, 18-10) welcome back two of the MACs top hitters from last year in Ryan Kyes (Jr., 2B) and Mike Arbinger (Jr., OF), plus the teams home run leader in Cory Keylor (Jr., OF). Kyes, the MACs top returning hitter with a .390 batting average, also had 12 home runs and 43 RBIs while pacing the conference in hits (82). Arbinger, meanwhile, was sixth a year ago in batting (.382) and also tied for sixth in hits (76). Keylor, who along with Kyes were second-team all-MAC choices in 2000, was second on the squad in home runs with 14, had a .339 batting average and led the team with a .684 slugging percentage. On the hill, the Bobcats lost MAC Pitcher of the Year Tony Schiml (9-2, 4.12, 69K) to graduation but return senior Denny McGee (5-5, 4.66, 72K) and sophomore Walt Novosel (5-4, 4.19, 53K). The two combined for 10 wins, 125 strikeouts and 150.1 innings of work.

While there are only three points separating the top three teams in the East Division, there is a sharp drop of 23 points to fourth place, where Bowling Green occupies. The Falcons, 29-24-1, 14-12 in the MAC in 2000, have four starters and seven pitchers back from last years team that finished fourth in the division but lost one of the leagues top pitchers in Tony Fontana to the Major League Draft. Fontana, a near unanimous first-team selection last year, led the league in ERA (2.69) and also had an 8-3 mark on the mound with eight complete games. BGSU returns a pair of senior outfielders -- Lee Morrison (.362, 8, 46) and Aric Christman (.337, 6, 25) -- who combined for 14 home runs and 71 RBIs in 2000 and were named Falcon co-MVPs. With hurlers Fontana and fellow starter Joe Cheney gone, the squads top returning pitcher is senior Craig Menke, who was 5-3 with a 5.28 ERA a season ago.

Tabbed for fifth place with 36 points in the East Division is Akron (26-30, 12-15), which is the lone MAC school to have a new head coach in Tim Berenyi. Berenyi will have his hands full in his first year as the Zips skipper as only one of seven Akron pitchers with three or more decisions are back from last years squad. Sophomore Justin Lucas (3-0, 4.78, 16) was limited in his time on the mound as a rookie as he tossed only 26.1 innings, while the majority of the innings was occupied by seniors John Wilkinson, Sean Wardle and Nate Saylor. Offensively, senior catcher/designated hitter Sean Manfredonia (.281, 6, 33), third baseman Jim Gemler (.271, 5, 34) and pitcher/designated hitter Steve Bowers (.293, 6, 16) will carry the load.

Though Marshall (21-33-1, 7-20) is picked for sixth with 29 points, there are many positives in favor of the Thundering Herd program. The Herd has 19 letterwinners back from a year ago, including two second-team all-MAC players in outfielder Marty Rini and third baseman Homer Renshaw. Rini, who led the league in homers with 20, also hit .367 and drove in 57 runs, while Renshaw batted .350. Also back for Marshall is senior outfielder Jason Brooks, who slammed 16 home runs and drove in 48 runs. Marshall, however, will have to find a replacement for the departed Eric Pinkerton, who was third in the MAC with a .392 average. On the hill, the Herd lost MAC innings leader Sean Reeder (7-10, 6.64, 94K) but returns sophomore Chris Wean (4-6, 6.39, 54K), who has a year of college baseball under his belt.

New to the league this year for baseball is Buffalo, which is picked for seventh (13 points). The Bulls competed last year as an independent after a 13-year absence of the sport on the UB campus. Buffalo had a 12-35 record in 2000, which included games with MAC members Bowling Green and Toledo. The Bulls squad is on the younger side as 19 members are either freshmen or sophomores. Sophomore Adrian Daniels paced the squad in hitting (.305) and was second in hits (43) a year ago, while classmate Bryan Sanchez hit a team-high 11 home runs and stroked 10 doubles. Tyler Balentine topped the teams pitching staff in wins (4).

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 (34-23, 18-8) were a unanimous choice two straight seasons, and this year received 11 first-place votes and 76 points. In addition, Ball State grabbed eight votes from the coaches to win the tournament title. Offensively, the Cardinals lost MAC Player of the Year Shayne Ridley (.434, 12, 42) along with brother Jeremy but return senior Matt Wood (.330, 14, 55) and junior Matt Deckman (.333, 8, 37). Wood, who has driven in 169 career runs, is closing in on the school record for career RBIs of 190, which is also the league record. After playing his first three seasons at first base, Wood will move to third and will be replaced at first by Deckman, who was primarily the teams designated hitter in each of his first two seasons.

With pitching at a premium this year as the MAC has switched to nine-inning games, the Cardinals boast two of the leagues premier pitchers in Bryan Bullington (9-4, 3.83, 99) and Justin Wechsler. Bullington, the 2000 MAC Freshman of the Year, led the league in strikeouts and also tied for the league high in wins. According to Baseball America, Bullington is rated as the fourth-best college sophomore that is eligible for the 2002 draft. Wechsler was the MACs Freshman of the Year in 1999 but arm problems slowed the junior down as he tossed only 52.1 innings but fanned 59 batters. Baseball America has Wechsler ranked as the 28th ranked junior and the 36th overall rated player for the upcoming Major League Draft.

Picked second this year, Central Michigan (41-17, 18-8) came off its first losing campaign in 25 years to tie Ball State for the West Division title in 2000, but will have some question areas to address entering this years schedule. The Chippewas lost five pitchers from a year ago, including second-team all MAC selection Mike Steele (8-1, 3.82, 91K), as well as two first-team position players -- second baseman Scott Pieratt (.401, 12, 45) and outfielder Jake Sanborn (.348, 12, 45). CMU does return six position players and a pair of hurlers, led by sophomore designated hitter Mike Galloway (.376, 11, 47), a freshman Louisville Slugger All-America, and senior outfielder Matt Crowley (.372, 7, 30). While CMU did lose five pitchers that combined for 28 of the teams wins, the Chippewas do return junior Chad Pleiness (2-1, 5.46, 16) and sophomore Jeff Garner (6-4, 4/50, 45), though Pleiness will not be available until after the basketball season is complete.

Western Michigan (26-27, 10-18) is picked third, two points behind the Chippewas with 55 points. Like CMU, Western Michigan also received a first-place vote to win the division and the Broncos also garnered a vote to win the tournament. WMU returns seven position players and six pitchers, led by senior outfielder John Toner and senior infielder Ryan Kochen. Toner led the team and was fifth in the MAC in hitting with a .386 batting average and was also tied for fourth in the league in hits (78). Kochen, meanwhile, hit .354 and scored a team-best 54 runs. The Broncos pitching staff is anchored by junior Keith Perez, who led the team in wins (4) and strikeouts (69).

Northern Illinois (24-33, 11-15) surprised many last year after finishing third in the West Division after being picked sixth. This year, the Huskies are slated for fourth after receiving 39 points and return 19 letterwinners. NIUs top offensive weapon that is back for 2001 is junior outfielder Pat Kerrigan. Kerrigan led the Huskies in batting with a .377 average and also paced the team in hits (72) and RBIs (44). The Huskies top six hurlers are back for 2001, led by seniors Brad Gavelek (6-9, 5.17, 51K), Dan Badgley (4-7, 6.26, 61K) and Steve Hardman (4-6, 5.02, 41K).

Toledo, with 28 points, is picked fifth and will battle to secure a spot in the upper half of the division. The Rockets, however, will have to fill the holes of four position players, including first-team all-MAC third baseman Jason Stuecher (.352, 2, 32) and catcher Mike Ernst (.325, 15, 54). UT will look to junior outfielder Tony Miller (.315, 7, 32) to generate action on the basepaths for the Rockets. Miller led the team with 44 runs scored and 22 stolen bases, which was also tied for second in the MAC. Anchoring the pitching staff will be senior Shawn Wilson (4-3, 5.97, 55K) and junior Kris Barnswell (2-5, 5.49, 22K).

Slotted for sixth, according to the coaches, is Eastern Michigan with 18 points. The Eagles (20-36, 9-19) have 20 letterwinners returning and all eight positions in the field are occupied by a starter at one time or another from a year ago. EMUs top returnees are outfielders Greg Anglin (.337, 4, 27) and Dan Hoytt (.325, 6, 30). Junior Joe Linde (5-1, 5.05, 54) is back as the teams top starting pitcher, while junior Tom Gallus (3-2, 4.80, 17K) was the Eagles top reliever and will be slotted in as a starter this year. Gallus was second in the conference in saves (7) a year ago.

East Division
1. Miami (5) 79
2. Kent State (3) 78
3.  Ohio (5) 76
4. Bowling Green 53
5. Akron 36
6. Marshall 29
7. Buffalo 13

West Division
1. Ball State (11) 76
2. Central Michigan (1) 57
3. Western Michigan (1) 55
4. Northern Illinois 39
5. Toledo 28
6. Eastern Michigan 18

Tournament Winner
 Ball State 8
 Miami 3
 Ohio 1
 Western Michigan 1

Note: First-place votes in parentheses

East Voting was done on a 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis
West Voting was done on a 6-5-4-3-2-1 basis