Florida International U

FIU baseball could be sleeper team in Conference USA

Mervyl Melendez, hired June 28 after previous coach Turtle Thomas was dismissed, comes to FIU with 17 years of experience as a college head coach, including 13 qualifying for NCAA regionals.
Mervyl Melendez, hired June 28 after previous coach Turtle Thomas was dismissed, comes to FIU with 17 years of experience as a college head coach, including 13 qualifying for NCAA regionals. FIU

Esteemed writer Aaron Fitt of D1Baseball.com told the Miami Herald recently that he thinks FIU “has a chance to sneak up on people this year.”

The Panthers, who opened their 2017 season on Friday night under new coach Mervyl Melendez and face the University of Miami on Wednesday, are “an interesting sleeper team” in Conference USA, Fitt said.

“I don’t get the feeling that too many people outside the program are expecting much from FIU,” Fitt said. “But you can detect a quiet confidence when you talk to their coaching staff.

“They have some nice veteran hitters to build around, led by JC Escarra, Jack Schaaf, Irving Lopez and Nick Day.”

Despite that, the Panthers didn’t place any players on the preseason All-Conference USA team.

It’s a solid league. Last season, C-USA placed four teams in the NCAA regionals: Rice, regular-season champion FAU, postseason champ Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech.

All four teams won games in their regional, although none of them advanced. Rice went 3-2, beating host LSU 10-6 before blowing a late lead to the Tigers in the title game. Louisiana Tech went 2-2, and FAU and Southern Miss each went 1-2.

With this year’s conference tournament set for May 24-28 in Biloxi, Mississippi, FIU is hoping to do damage. But a lot will depend on its pitching.

“I think Chris Mourelle and Dominic LoBrutto have a chance to be a good one-two punch,” Fitt said of FIU’s top starters. “I like [closer] Chandler Raiden and Tyler Myrick in the bullpen. I think it’s a deeper staff than it’s been in recent years.”

NOVA SOUTHEASTERN

The NSU baseball team, ranked No. 1 in the nation in Division II, is off to a great start in a season the team is dedicating to ex-Sharks outfielder Dallas Perez, who died in a December car crash.

Kevin Suarez, a close friend who is wearing Perez’s No. 21 this year as a tribute, hit a bases-clearing double in the first inning of NSU’s opener, a moment that gave chills to many in the crowd of about 1,000.

“It was surreal,” Suarez said. “I’ve never played in a game with that many people, and the energy they brought was awesome.

“Having the Perez family there supporting me and cheering for me made it easier. But when I got up in the first inning, it felt like it was my first at-bat in high school. The butterflies were crazy.

“I took a deep breath, and I knew Dallas was with me. When I hit the double, all I was thinking about was Dallas waving to me with that smile of his.”

▪ The Barry men’s basketball team, which was ranked sixth in the nation in Division II before its 31-game home win streak was snapped last week, still has a great shot at making a deep run this season. The Sunshine State Conference playoffs begin March 1.

▪ The FIU men’s basketball team and Barry women’s basketball team are winning in the community despite having losing seasons on the court. FIU recently hosted 21 children ages 5 to 12 from the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. Barry served food at the Miami Rescue Mission, which helps the homeless and the needy.

As for an on-court highlight, FIU’s Elmo Stephens last week had career highs in points (34) and rebounds (12), leading the Panthers to just their second conference win of the season.

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