PADUCAH, Ky. – The 2011 NAIA Championship Opening Round begins Thursday at historic Brooks Stadium at 10 a.m. with William Jewell College facing Bellevue University in one of nine five-team tournaments taking place around the country to determine the participants in the 55th Annual Avista-NAIA World Series set for May 27-June 3 in Lewiston, Idaho.
Cumberland University, Southern Poly and Tennessee Wesleyan make up the rest of the five-team Paducah Bracket. The teams are no strangers to the postseason, with the five clubs combining for 36 trips to the NAIA World Series and four national titles. It is the only bracket in the 45-team field in which every team has at least one appearance in the NAIA World Series.
William Jewell has made 10 World Series appearances, though none since 1983, while Bellevue University has 12 World Series trips the Cumberland has 11. Southern Poly (2009) and Tennessee Wesleyan (2010) each have one trip to the NAIA World Series.
WJC, BU and CU have combined for four NAIA World Series championships – William Jewell in 1968, Bellevue in 1995, and Cumberland in 2004 and 2010. The other eight sites have combined for 82 trips to the World Series and seven World Series titles.
Cumberland, Southern Poly, Tennessee Wesleyan and William Jewell have participated all three years in the NAIA Championship Opening Round, with Bellevue making their second appearance.
Cumberland, the No. 1 seed in the bracket, has won has won 23 of its last 26 contests overall since March 22 and posted a 20-4 mark in the TranSouth Athletic Conference, winning the league title for the third straight season. The Bulldogs struggled in the conference tournament, going 1-2, including an 8-5 loss to Union University in an elimination contest. CU is 43-14 overall this season.
CU’s Aaron Wilkerson has won 26 consecutive decisions on the mound, tying the second longest streak in collegiate baseball history. Mike Mandarino ranks in the Top 10 nationally in several offensive categories with 17 doubles, 17 home runs and 61 RBIs.
Southern Poly enters the tournament 40-15 this season after finishing third in the East Division of the Southern States Athletic Conference, arguably the nation’s toughest league in 2011. The Hornets took 2-of-3 on the final weekend of the regular season from league champion Lee University and defeated the Flames again in the conference tournament, but dropped their other two contests in the SSAC Tournament.
SPSU leads the nation with a 2.25 team earned-run-average, led by Will Rankins, who is 9-2 with a 1.94 ERA in 83.2 innings of work this season.
Tennessee Wesleyan finished second in the Appalachian Athletic Conference before sweeping through the conference tournament with four straight victories, outscoring its opponents, 46-10. The Bulldogs have posted a 20-6 record since March 20 and have won seven straight contests entering play this week.
David Bergin leads the nation in slugging percentage (.921) and has 10 doubles, 19 homers and 54 RBIs while batting .394 this season.
Bellevue returns to the postseason under first-year head coach Duane Monlux after missing the 2010 Opening Round. The Bruins finished second in the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference but defeated league champion York University on the road in the finals of the conference tournament. Bellevue is 17-4 since April 8.
The Bruins like to steal, with three players posting more than 29 stolen bases this season. Junior Martinez ranks second in the nation with 42 thefts, while Anthony Bazant has 29 steals and leads Bellevue at the plate with a .446 batting average.
The biggest surprise in the entire 45-team field may be William Jewell, which finished sixth in the Heart of America Athletic Conference before reeling off four straight wins in the conference tourney, defeating top-seed Culver-Stockton, No. 4 seed Avila University, third-seeded Lindenwood University and No. 2 seed MidAmerica Nazarene.
David Smith leads the Cardinals at the plate with a .347 average while also leading the club with 23 stolen bases. WJC has five players with double-figure stolen bases and another with nine thefts. Drew Mitrisin is the club’s top hurler, posting a 9-1 record with a 2.09 ERA in 73.1 innings of work this season.