The Nova Southeastern University Sharks are being given a good chance to repeat after the NCAA Division II program won its first national baseball title last season.
Ranked No. 1 in the nation to start this season, the Sharks return left fielder Brandon Gomez, who hit .333 last year and led the team in homers (21) and RBI (75).
He was named a 2017 preseason first-team All-American.
Reigning ABCA National Coach of the Year Greg Brown returns all four of his up-the-middle starters in catcher Michael Hernandez, shortstop Dylan Woods, second baseman Jancarlos Cintron and center fielder Kevin Suarez.
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Gomez, starting third baseman Sebastian Diaz and the four up-the-middle starters are all seniors.
Matt Hardy, one of the team’s top starting pitchers, is also a senior, giving NSU plenty of experience.
Here’s a closer look at the team:
▪ Rotation: Hardy, who went 8-2 with a 4.55 ERA last year, has “electric stuff,” according to Brown. Sophomore Devin Meyer, a transfer from the University of Miami, is the other key starter.
Senior left-hander Joe DiBenedetto, who had a 6.35 ERA as a reliever last year, is “lighting up the radar guns,” Brown said.
Junior-college transfer Ronny Orta and senior lefty Jonny Ortiz fill out the rotation.
▪ Bullpen: Devin Raftery graduated, and he will be impossible to replace. He had a 1.14 ERA and 17 saves last season, averaging nearly two innings per appearance. He struck out 90 batters in 55 innings.
When asked about his 2017 bullpen, Brown mentioned several candidates, including senior Josh Glick, who is coming off elbow surgery.
Glick has a submarine delivery and is tough to hit.
In addition, junior Cameron Churchill “looks like Drago [of Rocky fame] and pounds the zone,” Brown said.
Redshirt sophomore Gilberto Torres, who missed last season because of injury, could emerge. He was throwing 94 mph as a freshman, producing a 4-0 record, 1.19 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 19 innings.
▪ Catcher: The Sharks are overstocked here, with Hernandez and backup Jake Ancia. Hernandez hit .271 with seven homers and a .882 OPS last year.
Brown calls Ancia “one of the most talented players we’ve ever had.” Ancia hit .355 with a .914 OPS last season.
▪ Infield: Diaz (18 steals), Woods (.344 batting average) and Cintron (.297 batting average) will be joined by lefty-hitting Jeremy Vasquez, who plays first and bats cleanup. He started 52 games in right field last season for the University of Florida, batting .291.
▪ Outfield: Gomez, who will bat third, “is an RBI machine,” Brown said.
Suarez hit .333 last year, stealing 23 bases in 26 tries and getting on base in a program-record 42 consecutive games.
Junior Andrew Liberty, sophomore Ryan Alvarez, a lefty hitter and another former Hurricane, and redshirt freshman Ian Valenzuela, who was NSU’s top power hitter in the fall, are competing for the job in right.
College baseball capsules
ASA MIAMI: Coach: Jonathan Hernandez; Last year: 20-23; Top players: 1B Orlando Ribalta (fr.); OF Kenny Moreno-Costa (fr.); OF Juan Teixera (fr.); Noteworthy: Ribalta, who is 6-foot-8 and has power, is drawing attention from MLB scouts.
BARRY: Coach: Juan Ranero; Last year: 24-25; Top players: OF Ryan Baldwin (jr.); RHP Alex Lavandero (jr.); OF Jonathan Quintana (jr.); Noteworthy: The Bucs went 5-13 on the road last year and had a 6.20 overall team ERA. Baldwin hit .369 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs in 49 games. Lavandero (7-4) led the team in wins and strikeouts.
BROWARD: Coach: Ben Bizier; Last year: 33-19; Top players: OF Danny Reyes (so.); OF Alex Carballo (fr.); Noteworthy: The Seahawks are the two-time defending Southern Conference champions. Reyes, a Florida Gators transfer, was drafted in the 39th round by the Red Sox in 2015. Carballo, a lefty hitter, helped Archbishop McCarthy win state last year.
FLORIDA MEMORIAL: Coach: Florentino Burgos; Last season: 8-40; Top players: OF Brian Gonzalez (jr.); OF Lance Mansfield (sr.); Noteworthy: The Lions hit just .229, pitched to an 8.64 ERA and therefore lost 40 games. Enter new coach Burgos, who will be banking on a strong outfield.
MIAMI DADE COLLEGE: Coach: Danny Price; Last year: 27-20; Top players: C Danny Mondejar (so.); RHP Ernesto Pino (so.); OF Ramon Varela (so.); Noteworthy: Sophomore infielder Jackie Urbaez is the leadoff batter who led the nation in hit-by-pitches. Eddy Demurias is a pitcher/infielder who transferred from the University of Florida after an All-State career at Miami Killian.
NOVA SOUTHEASTERN: Coach: Greg Brown: Last year: 44-16; Top players: LF Brandon Gomez (sr.); C Michael Hernandez (sr.); 2B Jancarlos Cintron-Torres (sr.); Noteworthy: The NCAA Division II national champs return six of nine starters.
ST. THOMAS: Coach: Jorge Perez; Last year: 38-22; Top players: RHP Chris Rodriguez (so.); CF Oscar Rodriguez (jr.); 1B Kendrick Gutierrez (sr.); Noteworthy: The Bobcats have qualified for the NAIA national playoffs five of the past seven years, including the past two in a row. They were national runners-up in 2015 and finished one win shy of the World Series last year.