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Baseball - Sun, May 14, 2017

ST. LOUIS – [OPENING ROUND SCHEDULE] [HUTCHINSON BRACKET WEBSITE] Heading into another championship season, Missouri Baptist will begin play in Hutchinson, Kan., on Monday, looking for its first berth to the Avista NAIA World Series since 2013. Missouri Baptist earned the No. 2-seed in the Hutchinson, Kan., bracket in the 2017 NAIA Baseball National Championship Opening Round on Thursday. 

The Spartans will be joined by No. 1-seed Clarke (Iowa), who the Spartans dropped a pair of games to early in the season. The Crusaders are the lone team the Spartans have faced in 2017.

Host institution Tabor (Kan.) earned the No. 3-seed after a big season which placed the team in the NAIA Top 10 for much of the year. The Blue Jays finished the season 41-15.

Another team will be recognizable to Missouri Baptist in No. 4-seed Jamestown (N.D.) The Jimmies played host to the Spartans in last season's precursor to the Spring Classic and will travel to Hutchinson with a stellar 40-19 record.

Rounding out the field is Concordia (Neb.), who will be making its first appearance in the Opening Round. The Bulldogs finished 13 games above .500 with a record of 33-20.

The 2017 NAIA National Championship Opening Round will have free audio coverage of every game courtesy of the Spartan Digital Network beginning on Monday at 2:30 p.m. when the Spartans take-on the Tabor Blue Jays. A pay-per-view video broadcast will be provided for $10 per game courtesy of the Tabor Department of Athletics. Both broadcasts can be picked-up at www.spartandigitalnetwork.com.

 

CLARKE UNIVERSITY CRUSADERS

Opening Round Seed: 1

Conference: HAAC

Record: 45-12

Location: Dubuque, Iowa

Rank in Final Poll: 6

Opening Round Bid: Heart of America Athletic Conference Tournament Runner-Up

The Crusaders are the epitome of the gritty, hard working team with several players that can hit the long ball. It is this attitude and playing style that have guided a relative unknown in past years to become one of the top teams in the nation in 2017. Clarke made their stamp early in the season with a pair of wins over a No. 9-ranked Missouri Baptist squad. They are currently ranked No. 13 in the NAIA in Home Runs per game (1.193)

HOW THEY GOT HERE

The Crusaders ran away with the season from the outset and in a conference with two, Top 10 teams at one point during the season, the Heart of America was no slouch in terms of baseball in the NAIA. Clarke went 26-6 in HAAC play, including three wins over a powerful Central Methodist (Mo.) team. Though they were impressive through the season, they, like the Spartans, were not able to finish the job in the conference tournament. The Crusaders lost to a surprise MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) team in the Championship game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Michael Lopez leads the starting staff with 12 wins, which ranks him third in the NAIA in that category. Lopez got his first win of the season against Missouri Baptist back in February.

Jacob Blunt is one of the top hitters in the NAIA. The junior from La Verne, Calif., is hitting .400 heading into Opening Round play. Kevin Hunley leads the team in home runs with 16 on a team that features three hitters that have 10 or more long balls. Along with Evan Faccenda and Stephen Zanoni, the trio accounted for over half of the home runs for Clarke this season. Six regular starters are hitting above .300 in 2017.

 

TABOR BLUE JAYS

Opening Round Seed: 3

Conference: KCAC

Record: 41-15

Location: Hillsboro, Kan.

Rank in Final Poll: 13

Opening Round Bid: Kansas Collegiate Athletics Association Tournament Runner-Up

Statistically speaking, there is no one better in the nation at the plate than the Tabor Blue Jays. They rank No. 1 in the NAIA in Batting Average (.382), Total Hits (709) and Hits per Game (12.661). They also rank No. 2 in Slugging Percentage (.592), Total Runs Scored (526), Total RBI (476), Runs Scored per Game (9.393) and RBI per Game (8.500). The Blue Jays have qualified for the World Series as the winner of the Opening Round twice in their five appearances.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

The Blue Jays spent portions of the season in the Top 10 and have put together some big wins, including taking two out of three over Oklahoma Wesleyan in early March. Tabor's longest winning streak in 2017 was eight games, but have outscored opponents by just under four runs per game. They, like the Spartans, dropped the first game of the conference tournament and won their way back into the championship game, where they lost 11-3 to Oklahoma Wesleyan.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Tabor's Jordan Harris is likely the top player in the NAIA this season at the plate and will likely be drafted in the forthcoming 2017 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. The junior hit .463, slugged an astounding .793 and hit 15 home runs over the course of the year. He ranks in the top 10 in Hits per Game, Total Hits and Batting Average.

In addition to Harris, the Blue Jays feature two more players with a .400-plus batting average. Jacob Jones (.417) and Haydon Mahe-Liessmann (.403). Tabor is hitting .382 as a team.

Pitching may be where the Blue Jays are suspect, with a total staff Earned Run Average of 5.71. Jagger Harjo leads the starting staff with a 9-2 record.

 

JAMESTOWN JIMMIES

Opening Round Seed: 4

Conference: North Star

Record: 40-19

Location: Jamestown, N.D.

Rank in Final Poll: N/A

Opening Round Bid: At Large

While the Jimmies did not have as much success as they did a year ago, they may be as dangerous a team as there is in the nation as a No. 4-seed. A team that will feature solid pitching throughout its staff, Jamestown will be a tough out.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

The Jimmies won six of their final eight games heading into the Opening Round, including a 7-6, 10-inning win over No. 2 Bellevue (Neb.). They also snagged three of four from No. 22 Mayville State (N.D.). The team recorded two season-high winning streaks of seven games.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jerome Byndloss ranks No. 3 in the NAIA with a 12-2 record as the ace of the starting staff. He features a 3.16 ERA in 94 innings pitched this season. Though Brad Bennett has just a 5-3 record, he has been remarkably consistent with just nine walks in 75.1 innings in 2017. Eric Evans is the closer and has recorded five saves with an impressive 0.96 ERA in 28 innings pitched.

Landon Uetz started every game in 2017 for the Jimmies and hit .356 in the process. The third baseman led the team in slugging (.629) as well.

 

CONCORDIA BULLDOGS

Opening Round Seed: 5

Conference: GPAC

Record: 33-20

Location: Seward, Neb.

Rank in Final Poll: N/A

Opening Round Bid: Great Plains Athletic Conference Regular Season Champion

HOW THEY GOT HERE

The Bulldogs were the winner of the Great Plains Athletic Conference Regular Season, which gained them a bid to the Opening Round. Concordia went 2-2 against No. 4-seed Jamestown in 2017. The team won 10 of its last 12 games on the way to the regular season title with a 19-9 GPAC record.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Third baseman Casey Berg leads the offense after finishing the season hitting .338 with seven home runs (which also leads the team). Berg was named one of three GPAC First-Team All Conference Selections from Concordia (along with pitcher Jason Munsch and designated hitter Jason Galeano). The pitching staff, as a whole, finished with a 4.04 ERA as both Nick Little and Wade Council led the staff with six wins a piece. Jason Munsch may have been the most effective pitcher, however. The 6-2 freshman held opponents to a .172 batting average as he finished with a 5-1 record as a starter.

Play begins on Monday at 11:00 a.m. as Concordia will take-on Jamestown. Missouri Baptist will get underway in the second game of the day against Tabor before No. 1-seeded Clarke will play the winner of game one.