The 2010 Division III baseball season is officially underway, and 25 programs are ranked as the nation’s elite.
The University of St. Thomas, the 2009 national championship runner-up, sits atop the current poll posted by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. The Tommies opened up their season with two wins against the College of Scholastica, the defending national champions.
However, trouble lurks ahead for these two programs as the season progresses. I’m not talking about Midwestern schools that always seem to sneak into the top 10. I’m talking about two teams that have the potential to climb the polls faster than the decline of North Carolina basketball, and they hail from the Northwest Conference.
Pacific Lutheran University and Linfield College have finished at or within the top three of the conference since 2004. NWC coaches predicted the No. 14 Lutes to win the 2010 conference crown, while Linfield, which just fell out of the top 25, was projected to take second place.
Both programs are highly touted in the Northwest, and why not?
PLU opened the season with eight consecutive wins, during which it toppled then-No. 20 California Lutheran University, and the Lutes now hold an 11-2 record.
The Lute lineup provides conference-leading production in batting average (.359) and hits per game (13.31). With players such as sophomore infielder Ryan Frost, who is batting a solid .429, and senior pitcher Trey Watt, who leads the league with 23 strikeouts, PLU can’t go wrong.
The Linfield offense isn’t too shabby, either, as it sits atop almost every major offensive category in the NWC. The ’Cats’ all-around play shows in runs scored (114), hits (177), RBIs (107) and stolen bases (33).
Seniors shortstop Kelson Brown and first baseman Rhett Fenton lead the offensive attack with batting averages of .475 and .431, respectively. Brown also leads the conference with 49 total bases and 20 runs scored. The Wildcat pitching staff has a combined ERA of 4.5 and leads the NWC with 105 strikeouts.
Now compare these numbers to those of St. Thomas and Scholastica. Although the Tommies have only played two games, they have compiled a .302 batting average and nine runs scored. At this pace, the Lutes alone would outscore the No. 1 program by more than 52 runs.
Scholastica ranks No. 25 in the nation with a 2-2 record, plating 27 runs and holding a .282 batting average with 31 hits. Fast-forward the Saints’ season 11 games, and they will be outscored and outhit by three runs and more than 60 hits, respectively.
It’s not only that PLU and Linfield are winning; they’re dominating. The Lutes have averaged four runs per game more than their opponents, while Linfield has outscored teams 114-80.
The best part about all of this: It’s only the fourth week of the season. The Lutes and ’Cats are still tying up loose ends, which is not only a problem for the NWC, but for the nation, as well.
Keep an eye on these two programs. We could be seeing one of them holding up some national championship hardware in June.
Sports editor Grant Lucas can be reached at email@example.com