College baseball schedule release season is upon us, and that’s always exciting.
Some items on the schedules that have been released immediately stand out. There’s the MLB Collegiate Tournament over the first weekend of the season in Arizona that features the likes of Virginia, Vanderbilt, TCU, and Cal State Fullerton. There’s the gauntlet non-conference slates in front of UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, and Long Beach State, continuing each program’s annual tradition of putting together demanding schedules.
Then there are some of the familiar tournaments we’ve come to know and love, like the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston, the Frisco College Baseball Classic, the Tony Gwynn Legacy tournament in San Diego, and the Dodgertown Classic in Los Angeles.
But today, we’re talking deep cuts on the schedules we’ve seen so far. Just like those hidden gem great songs you find on an album filled with radio hits, we’re going to discuss some series and tournaments that are flying under the radar, but should prove to be a whole lot of fun once the season rolls around.
To make these truly deep cuts, you’re not going to see much SEC, ACC, Big 12, and Pac 12 representation here. There can be overlooked series involving these teams, sure, but those don’t really qualify as deep cuts. You will see, however, plenty of teams from multi-bid leagues like the Big Ten, Conference USA, and the Sun Belt, along with a plethora of annual regional contenders from a number of leagues across the country.
Let’s get started.
Illinois at FAU (2/22-2/24)
This series is just about all you can ask for in an early-season non-conference matchup. It’s a cross-regional series between two teams that don’t play each other very often (FAU took two of three at home in 2017 in the only other series between these two programs), it’s going to be a resume-building series win for whichever team ends up winning it, and both teams should be quite good in 2019.
FAU continues to roll along as one of the most consistent programs in college baseball outside of the top conferences. They’ve been to a regional in four of the last six years, including in 2018, when they won 43 games overall and pushed Florida to a deciding seventh game of the Gainesville Regional before bowing out.
They’ll have some holes to fill in 2019, including the one left by second-round pick Tyler Frank, who served as the Owls’ shortstop, but recent results suggest they’ll be back in regional contention again.
With their entire weekend rotation, several key bullpen pieces, and most of their starting lineup returning from a year ago, Illinois looks the part of a team ready to compete at the top of the Big Ten. For good measure, after narrowly missing out on a regional appearance in 2018, they’re also going to be a team eager to do everything they can to leave no doubt about their postseason worthiness.
Kent State at Dallas Baptist (2/15-2/17)
Here’s a series between two programs that serve as models for others at their level to follow.
In Kent State, you have the most consistent mid-major program in the Midwest. With MAC regular season titles in eight of the last nine seasons and an impressive pipeline of pitchers now in the big leagues, the Golden Flashes annually prove that being in a smaller conference doesn’t mean you can’t have big results.
Dallas Baptist, on the other hand, is a great example of a program getting competitive and staying competitive quickly after a move up to the Division I level. They moved up to this level in time for the 2004 season, but as recently as 2012, they didn’t have a conference to call home. That didn’t stop them from being competitive nationally, however, as they got into three regionals (2008, 2011, and 2012) and one super regional (2011) as an independent, no easy task when you consider that they had no automatic bid to play for during those seasons. After a one-year stopover in the WAC, they moved to their current home in the Missouri Valley Conference, and they haven’t missed a regional since.
To top it off, these two teams should provide a nice stylistic contrast. Kent State always has quality pitching, and DBU is often known for their explosive offenses that can score runs in bunches.
Purdue at Southern Miss (2/15-2/17)
This series won’t be a headliner series in the same way that USM’s season-opening series against Mississippi State was last season, but it could be every bit as fun.
Southern Miss will bring some serious talent to the proceedings, most notably elite power-hitting prospect Matt Wallner, and plenty of other veteran talent from a team that went 44-18 in 2018.
Purdue is coming off of just the third regional appearance in program history, and just as importantly from a neutral observer’s perspective, they’re coming off a season where they proved to be one of the most fun teams to watch in college baseball. This was a group that took every extra base, looked to make things happen at all times in the batter’s box and on the base paths, and just generally looked to apply pressure in all situations.
The combination of a very talented USM team, a Purdue team looking to continue their winning ways all while keeping their foot firmly on the gas pedal, and the always-raucous crowds in Hattiesburg should make for a fun weekend.
Stetson Tournament – Stetson, Virginia Tech, Sam Houston State, Manhattan (2/15-2/17)
It’s far from the most star-studded tournament early in the college baseball season, but this is a really solid grouping that will tell us a lot about these four teams.
Stetson is coming off of a program-best season in 2018, and based on what they have returning for 2019, there’s little evidence that last year’s successes were an aberration. Instead, it looks like they’ve found another gear as a program.
Virginia Tech has had some tough seasons of late, but perhaps they’ve got the wind at their back a little bit now. They’ll be going into their second year under head coach John Szefc, a proven winner in his previous stops as a head coach at Marist and Maryland, and a completely finished new facility can only help improve talent acquisition and development in Blacksburg. Games against presumed regional contenders Stetson and Sam Houston State will provide the Hokies with a good measuring stick for their team early on.
Sam Houston State has been to a regional in five of the last seven seasons, and just two seasons ago, they were in the program’s first super regional. They may have missed a regional in 2018 despite a 39-20 record, but they will likely be right back in the postseason mix in 2019.
Manhattan showed significant improvement in their first year under head coach Mike Cole in 2018, jumping from 18 wins overall to 25 wins and finishing with a league record above .500 for just the second time since 2012. This tournament could go a long way toward judging their readiness to take another big step forward in 2019.
Long story short, each of these four teams has something to prove, and that should make for an interesting weekend in DeLand.
St. John’s at Saint Louis (3/29-3/31)
There are a handful of things that make this series particularly unique.
For one, it’s a series between teams that won their conferences last season. The Red Storm took home the Big East title with a 15-3 record, with the Billikens doing the same in the Atlantic 10 with a 19-4 mark. These were also the two teams that captured their league’s automatic bids by winning their corresponding conference tournaments, meaning this is a series between 2018 regional participants as well.
Beyond that, it’s also unique because it’s a non-conference series taking place in late-March, which is a little later than your typical non-conference series. SLU will be taking a break from A-10 play after getting their league slate underway against Dayton the weekend prior, while SJU, because the Big East has just seven members, doesn’t typically begin playing Big East contests until early-April.
Series like this, between consistently good programs that also both happen to be the regional participant from one-bid leagues the year prior, don’t come along all that often, but thanks to this matchup, one such series will in 2019.
Maryland at Louisiana (3/1-3/3)
Both of these teams will be looking for bounce back seasons in 2019, and that makes this early-March three-game set compelling.
A 2018 season that began with high hopes in College Park ended in the Terrapins not only missing regionals, but also missing the Big Ten Tournament after going 24-30 with a 9-14 record in Big Ten competition. That was a disappointing step back for the program, but there’s still more than enough talent present, including veteran pitchers Hunter Parsons, Tyler Blohm, and John Murphy, for Maryland to be right back in position to get to a regional in 2019.
After getting to four straight regionals (and two super regionals) between 2013 and 2016, the Ragin’ Cajuns have now missed regionals in back-to-back seasons, which has to be a tough pill to swallow for a very proud program. Both have been quality seasons, all things considered. In 2017, the Cajuns were 35-21 with a 19-10 record in the Sun Belt. In 2018, they were 34-25 with an 18-12 mark in conference play. But in both cases, they just didn’t quite have the metrics necessary to get an at-large bid into the field of 64. A series win against a quality opponent like this would certainly help get the program back in contention for a postseason run.
Simply put, this is a series between two programs used to making the postseason that were disappointed not to be involved in 2018, and that alone makes it interesting.
Corpus Christi Tournament – Ohio State, Oral Roberts, BYU, Texas A&M- Corpus Christi (2/22-2/24)
This is another under-the-radar early-season tournament.
You’ve got one team that’s always in regionals come June (Oral Roberts), one team coming off of a regional appearance (Ohio State), one team that was in a regional just two years ago (BYU), and a Texas A&M-Corpus Christi team that went 3-0 in this very event in 2018, with wins over Nicholls State, UC-Santa Barbara, and Mississippi State.
There’s also something interesting about it being four teams from four very different parts of the country. Only in an early-season tournament will you see this kind of regional diversity. These four teams seem like unlikely partners in non-conference play, but they’ve all come together in this event to put together a quality tournament field.
Louisiana Tech at Southeastern Louisiana (2/15-2/17)
The state of Louisiana loves their college baseball. That’s obviously most often expressed through the following LSU has earned, but that level of interest filters down through every program in the state, and that includes these two programs. You can expect Pat Kenelly Diamond at Alumni Field to be rocking over opening weekend for this series.
Louisiana Tech is a program with a clear upward trajectory. After getting to a regional under Greg Goff in 2016, they’ve won a combined 75 games in two seasons under Lane Burroughs. Getting back into a regional is the next hill for the Bulldogs to climb, and with just about everybody back from a 2018 team that went 39-20 with a 21-9 mark in Conference USA, they’ve got the pieces in place to do that in 2019.
Southeastern Louisiana might have missed out on a regional in 2018, but that doesn’t change what they are, which is one of the most consistent mid-major programs in the South. Prior to 2018, they’d been in regionals in three seasons out of four, and each year, they pride themselves on playing a tough schedule and beating some of the bigger programs in the region.
Taking a wider view, this series for both teams is just one in a whole host of series that could have made this list. Louisiana Tech follows up this series with a home series against Troy, a regional team in 2018. The Lions, meanwhile, have a home series against Stony Brook over the second weekend of the season before going on the road to take on Troy as well.
Saint Mary’s at Cal Poly (3/22-3/24)
Out on the West Coast, there are no shortage of marquee non-conference matchups. The aforementioned schedules of UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, and Long Beach State are full of them. But those games are all too notable to be considered deep cuts.
This series between Saint Mary’s and Cal Poly, however, qualifies.
Head coach Eric Valenzuela has done a tremendous job of turning around the Gaels. They’ve won 30 or more games in each of the last three seasons after not doing so in any single season in the previous 20 years, and in 2016, they broke through to a regional.
Cal Poly, under head coach Larry Lee, one of the most respected coaches in the region, has had some high highs. Most recently, they went 47-12 and hosted a regional for the first time in 2014. But in 2019, they’ll be looking to get back into the postseason for the first time since that 2014 campaign.
For the record, it’s not that these program don’t also have some marquee series on their schedules. Cal Poly, in fact, has a loaded non-conference schedule of their own. They begin their season with a series against Oklahoma before welcoming California for three games and then traveling to Washington for a series, all prior to hitting the road to take on Baylor two weeks later.
As of this writing, Saint Mary’s has not released their 2019 schedule, but last season, they kicked things off with series against Long Beach State and Arizona State, so it’s a safe assumption that they’re going to challenge themselves as well.