State Colleges

Barry, Nova look to match conference rivals with baseball titles

Imagine playing in a baseball conference in which three of your league rivals have combined to win five of the past 10 Division II national championships.

That’s the reality for Barry University and Nova Southeastern, two local schools that are still looking for their first national title in the sport.

Part of the reason why that drought exists is because the competition in the Sunshine State Conference is fierce, especially with the top teams in the league: Tampa, ranked No. 1 in the nation, No. 16 Florida Southern and No. 22 Lynn.

But Greg Brown, in his fifth year as the NSU coach, is confident his program is close.

“We’re in a position right now to compete for the conference title,” said Brown, whose Sharks were picked to finish fifth in the SSC this season. “When Lynn won its national title in 2009, it was fourth in the conference.

“I think that if you can be in the top three or four in this league, that makes you a contender for a national title.”

Florida Southern has won 10 national titles, more than any other Division II baseball program in the country. Its most recent title came in 2005. Last year, Florida Southern lost to Tampa in a regional final.

Tampa has won six national titles, all of them since 1992. In fact, since then, Tampa has three times as many championships as Florida Southern (6-2).

Tampa, which made it to the Division II World Series last season and finished with an incredible 54-4 record, has two preseason first-team All-Americans this year.

Meanwhile, Barry, which is predicted to finish next-to-last in an eight-team league, won the conference in 2009 and 2011. In 2011, Barry was one win away from qualifying for the World Series.

“Winning our league is not an easy task,” said Marc Pavao, who is in his 16th season at Barry, including his ninth season as the head coach.

“I think we are better than seventh in the conference this year. But, good — let it be a motivator to our guys.”

When it comes to sending players to the majors, Tampa has the most famous baseball alumni in the conference with former big-league hitters Lou Piniella and Tino Martinez.

Barry currently has one player in the majors: catcher Yan Gomes.

NSU actually leads the league with three of its former players now in the majors — pitchers Mike Fiers and Miles Mikolas, and outfielder J.D. Martinez.

“That’s a testament to the coaches here before me and to the resources we have and the types of players we are attracting,” Brown said. “Guys understand that NSU is dedicated to developing them all the way around.

“The level is being raised by the recruiting [throughout the league’. The challenge is greater than ever before.”

When the eight-team Division II World Series begins May 23 in Cary, North Carolina, there’s a strong chance the Sunshine State Conference will be represented.

“The key is getting to regionals,” Pavao said, “and playing your best baseball in the postseason

Season outlook

Barry

Coach: Marc Pavao. Last season: 29-19 (Division II). Top players: Greg Brodzinski (Sr. C/1B); Ramon Valdez (Jr. C/DH); Adrian Benitez (Jr. RHP). Noteworthy: Barry, with 11 new players, is ranked seventh in the Sunshine State Conference entering the season. As many as nine redshirt or true freshmen are expected to play key roles.

Broward College

Coach: Ben Bizier. Last season: 22-24 (junior college). Top players: Austin Langham (So. 3B); Tyler Fichter (So. OF); Ryan Guerra (So. RHP). Noteworthy: Guerra, who is committed to UM, is the closer and had a 1.55 ERA last season. Fichter made first team all-league.

Florida Memorial

Coach: Luis Zarzabal. Last season: 9-41 (NAIA). Top players: Blake Martinez (Sr. SS); Lance Mansfield (Fr. OF); Christopher Wydler (So. OF). Noteworthy: Senior pitcher Luis Suarez and sophomore pitcher Kevin Gonzalez — both right-handers — are keys to improvement.

Miami Dade College

Coach: Danny Price. Last season: 38-17 (junior college). Top players: David Palenzuela (So. 1B); Bryan Colon (So. SS); Colyn O’Connell (So. RHP). Noteworthy: Price said MDC has much talent as last year, when the Sharks made it all the way to the Junior College World Series.

Nova Southeastern

Coach: Greg Brown. Last season: 29-17 (Division II). Top players: Mario Urdaneta (Sr. OF/DH); Roberto Baroniel (Sr. RHP); Alex Fernandez (Sr. UT). Noteworthy: NSU, which has a deep pitching staff, is ranked fifth in the Sunshine State Conference entering the season.

St. Thomas

Coach: Jorge Perez. Last season: 32-21 (NAIA). Top players: Jerry Downs (Jr. 1B); Adam Duarte (Jr. OF); Marcos Barrios (Jr. RHP). Noteworthy: The Bobcats, picked third in the Sun Conference preseason poll, have a strong pitching staff, led by Miami Dade College transfer Barrios. Downs is reportedly on the radar of MLB scouts.

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