Tough new challenge

In first year of South Central region play, Mavs set to face some stiff competition

Longtime CMU coach Chris Hanks visits the mound at Suplizio


1) Texas A&M-Kingsville (39-16)

Automatic qualifier: Lone Star Conference tournament champion

Coach: Jason Gonzales, fifth season, 111-100.

Regional Appearances: 4.

World Series Appearances: 0.

Notes: The Javelinas won a school record 39 games this season. They won their fifth Lone Star Conference tournament title and are hosting their first regional tournament. They are led by junior utility player Taylor Taska, a Tino Martinez Award semifinalist. He is hitting .350 with 12 doubles, seven home runs and 49 RBI and is 9-2 with a 3.00 ERA on the mound.

2) Colorado Mesa (44-9)

At-large qualifier: Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference regular-season champion

Coach: Chris Hanks, 15th season, 599-279.

Regional Appearances: 13 (2009 region champion).

World Series Appearances: 1.

Notes: The Mavericks have won nine RMAC regular-season titles and qualified for the NCAA tournament 11 times under Hanks. This year’s squad set a single-season record in stolen bases (142). They are led by RMAC pitcher of the year Matt Williams (8-1, 2.25 ERA) and RMAC player of the year Nate Robertson (.396, 12 doubles, 24 stolen bases, 46 RBI).

3) St. Edward’s (38-15)

Automatic qualifier: Heartland Conference tournament champion

Coach: Rob Penders, seventh season, 254-130.

Regional Appearances: 3.

World Series Appearances: 0.

Notes: The Hilltoppers last week won the Heartland Conference tournament title for the first time in school history. They are led by senior second baseman Taylor Johnson (.356, 14 doubles, 30 stolen bases, 27 RBI), who received the Heartland tournament MVP award, and Texas Tech junior transfer Brannon Easterling (11-3, 2.28 ERA).

4) Angelo State (36-19)

At-large qualifier: Lone Star Conference runner-up

Coach: Kevin Brooks, ninth season, 339-184.

Regional Appearances: 4 (2007 region champion).

World Series Appearances: 1.

Notes: The Rams started their baseball program in 2005 and have won one Lone Star Conference title and two conference tournament titles. They are led by senior outfielder, Tino Martinez Award semifinalist and Lone Star co-player of the year Lee Neumann (.340, 12 doubles, six home runs, 21 stolen bases, 46 RBI).

5) St. Mary’s (37-15)

At-large qualifier: Heartland Conference regular-season champion

Coach: Charlie Migl, 27th season, 1,012-449.

Regional Appearances: 6 (2001, 2012 region champion).

World Series Appearances: 2 (2001 national champion).

Notes: The Rattlers dropped from third in the region to fifth in the final poll. They have six returning starters from last year’s Division II World Series team. They are led by a pitching staff with the nation’s third best ERA (2.48). Sophomore pitcher Matt McClain (8-4, 2.21 ERA, 101.2 IP, 103 K) is a Tino Martinez Award semifinalist, and Junior Rene Solis (8-1, 1.94 ERA, 83.2 IP, 49 K) was a finalist for the award last year.

6) CSU-Pueblo (32-20)

Automatic qualifier: RMAC tournament champion

Coach: Stan Sanchez, 19th season, 656-415-1.

Regional Appearances: 8 (1996 region champion).

World Series Appearances: 1.

Notes: The ThunderWolves are making their first regional tournament appearance since 2009 after winning their sixth RMAC tournament title in the program’s history. They are led by senior pitcher Jeremiah Struble (9-3, 2.77 ERA, four complete games), who won two games in three days for CSU-Pueblo in the RMAC tournament to receive tournament MVP honors.

Participating in the NCAA Division II regional baseball tournament is expected for Colorado Mesa University.

The sixth-ranked Mavericks (44-9) are in their fifth consecutive regional, 11th in the past 15 years and 13th in school history.

Mesa, though, is in a new region, the South Central, this year with schools from the Heartland Conference, Lone Star Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

The Mavericks were in the West Region for several years, then the NCAA moved the RMAC to the Central Region in 2009. That year, Mesa won the regional title and advanced to the Division II World Series. Mesa and the RMAC remained in the Central Region with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference until this year when the NCAA realigned the regions and put the RMAC in the South Central Region.

“I don’t know much about those clubs,” CMU coach Chris Hanks said. “When we were in the West, it was perennially one of the best in the nation.”

Hanks started picking up information on the Mavericks’ regional opponents, Texas A&M-Kingsville, St. Edward’s (Texas), Angelo State (Texas) and St. Mary’s (Texas) from junior college coaches.

Hanks and his coaching staff recruit players from Texas junior colleges and have established connections with the coaches. The Texas junior colleges scrimmage the Texas Division II programs in the fall.

“We go into this region expecting them to be good,” Hanks said. “Pitching and defense are their ultimate strengths.”

St. Mary’s (Texas), Mesa’s first-round opponent at 2 p.m. (MDT) today, has the most tradition and history.

The 11th-ranked Rattlers (37-15) have won four consecutive Heartland Conference regular-season titles and made two World Series appearances, winning the 2001 national title. They made it to the World Series last year.

“St. Mary’s is known for good pitching,” Hanks said. “Everything considered, we may have gotten the toughest draw. They’ve been the best team in Texas. They played in the World Series last year and have a lot of players back from that team.”

St. Mary’s has the third lowest team ERA in the nation (2.48). The Rattlers have a pitcher in the hunt for the Tino Martinez Award, given to the Division II player of the year, in Matt McClain (8-4, 2.21 ERA) and a finalist for the award last year, Rene Solis (8-1, 1.94).

The Mavericks could be the biggest challenge for the St. Mary’s pitching staff. Mesa is fourth in the nation with a .350 batting average and fifth in the country in stolen bases (142). Mesa is also the top fielding team in the region with a .970 fielding percentage.

The Rattlers will be aided by the heavy, wet humidity in the air, opposite of the thin, dry air in Colorado.

“I suspect the power side on offense will be neutralized by the humidity and good pitching,” Hanks said. “We started building to be a sea-level friendly team. That allows us a chance against good pitching. The other side of it is the RMAC is not known for pitching because of our elevation. The sea level can enhance our pitching.”

Mesa’s pitching staff is nothing to sneeze at. The Mavericks have the third best team ERA in the region (3.34). Opponents are batting .250 against Mesa pitching.

Even if the South Central Region is tougher, the Mavericks are excited to prove they are pretty good, too.

“We play good people,” Hanks said. “It comes down to readiness to play and who gets the timely hits.”

Hanks said he’ll pitch Matt Williams in the first game against St. Mary’s (Texas) University and go from there.


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