As the new Mountain East Conference’s first athletic season turns to the baseball tournament, there are new wrinkles to that event.
But the teams at the top look like the old guard — the top three seeds in the six-team, double-elimination bracket are Shepherd, Concord and West Virginia State.
The power trio combined for 13 of the last 15 tournament titles in the old West Virginia Conference, with Concord winning the final championship.
Those teams and three others begin play today at the site of the last WVC tournament, Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley. Shepherd, the top-ranked team in the Atlantic Region of NCAA Division II, leads off at 11 a.m. against West Liberty.
The Rams (37-10) enter on a six-game winning streak, and have climbed to 19th in the Collegiate Baseball poll. They excel in all phases, hitting .334 as a team with 27 home runs and 138 stolen bases. Outfielder Michael Lott leads the way with a .423 average and 25 stolen bases. He has become the program’s all-time leader in the latter, but outfielder Kyle Porter is team’s season leader with 27.
How the Rams will use their pitching staff will be interesting. Leading the way is Paul Hvozdovic, the MEC leader in record (10-0) with a 1.42 earned-run average with eight complete games. His strikeout-walk ratio over 76 innings is superb, five walks and 87 whiffs.
One theory: Rams coach Matt McCarty will save Hvozdovic until at least Friday, when the Rams might face State. McCarty has other options against No. 6 seed West Liberty (26-23), including Ryan Pansch (6-3, 2.42).
No. 2 seed Concord (36-14), which takes on No. 5 Notre Dame (24-20) at 3 p.m., rides up the Turnpike on an 18-3 tear. Fifth in the Atlantic Region, the Mountain Lions need a single win to break the school’s single-season mark.
First baseman Joey Miller leads all of Division II with 68 RBIs, and is batting .393 with 12 home runs and 43 runs scored. The starting rotation is strong — Ryan Weatherholtz (7-4, 2.83), Tyler Coyle (7-2, 3.64) and Chris Kelly (7-2, 3.51).
State (30-16), unranked in the Atlantic Region, is looking to give outgoing coach Cal Bailey one more championship, and the Yellow Jackets have won six of their last seven. One trend to reverse: They went 7-9 against the tournament field.
But the Yellow Jackets have the usual hitting prowess to do it. Eight starters have batting averages of .312 or higher, led by Jack Hudson (.371, 14 doubles, three HR, 29 RBIs).
Pitching-wise, Bailey has a solid threesome of Tyler Hall (7-2, 2.76), Russell Thompson (6-4, 3.36) and Devin Bowles (4-1, 3.57), but there are five others with at least one start.
The Yellow Jackets take on No. 4 Urbana (23-19) at 7 p.m., with an added incentive — the loser probably faces Shepherd (and perhaps Hvozdovic) at 3 p.m. Friday with elimination on the line.
Urbana and No. 5 Notre Dame (24-20) are the two so-called “newcomers” from Ohio, and would make an even match (they did split their four-game series last weekend, with Urbana winning the final two to claim the No. 4 seed).
But that’s not how the tournament sets up. Urbana will take on State with a .303 team batting average, the league’s second-highest number of walks (168) and triples (nine), and the third-most doubles (68). Matt Paculan leads with a .388 average, while the Blue Knights could pitch Nick Bozman (6-4, 2.85) against State.
Notre Dame bats just .249 as a team, so pitching is critical, especially against Concord. Starters Matt Kastelic (7-4, 2.80), Jake Welch (7-3, 2.80) and Simon Davis (3-1, 3.22) form a solid rotation.
West Liberty (26-23) is led by pitcher Mark Smyth (5-3, 2.85) and shortstop and leadoff hitter DJ Busby (.349). The Hilltoppers could use a few more double plays to add to their 32, which is tied for the league lead.
As a new conference, the Mountain East does not have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The top six teams in the Atlantic receive an NCAA bid, so Shepherd appears safe and Concord needs to at least avoid a two-and-out. State and others would appear to be on the outside, even with a tournament title this weekend.
Shepherd will not host the Atlantic, even if it remains No. 1. The school has no lights at its field and will not make a bid.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.