26. SOUTHERN ARKANSAS MULERIDERS (42-17)

SOUTHERN ARKANSAS MULERIDERS (42-17)
The Muleriders mauled opposition much of last season, spending most of the season in the thick of the national rankings and atop the Great American Conference standings. After SAU won their third consecutive conference championship and fourth in the last five seasons, their prospects of heading to Cary were looking good.  SAU started 2-1 in the Central Region and were rallying late with an opportunity to advance to the championship game, but a play at the plate for the final out of the game and the season stopped the team short of advancing to the final eight. While similar success is anticipated in Magnolia in 2014, earning wins may be a little harder as a number of top hitters and arms won’t be back on campus this spring. Head Coach Steve Browning will once again field a top shelf team, but more than one player will have to elevate their game if the big blue is going to reach 40 wins for the third time since 2010.

The offense will be without the unanimous GAC Player of the Year David Harris who was DII baseball statistical leader in total bases last season, as well as the other top five batters percentage-wise from last season. Nonetheless there is still plenty of pop in the SAU batting order. Jackson McCurdy will yield the most potent bat for the Muleriders. Last season McCurdy hit .304, tied for second on the team with five home runs and had a team leading 37 walks to amass a .473 on base percentage. Tyler Cameron hit .293 last season, primarily in the middle of the order as the club’s second baseman. Ryan Dardenne will once again be behind the plate.  He hit .294 in 2013 and tied for second on the team with five homeruns. Unlike Dardenne, who was 0-2 in stolen base attempts, returning first baseman William Townsend give the Muleriders some speed in lineup. Townsend stole 15 bases in 17 attempts as a freshman and batted .309. New additions to the ‘Riders’ lineup include transfer Korey Keith who hit a team leading .435 at Connors State and incoming freshman Trevor Rucker from nearby Prescott, Arkansas. Rucker hit over. 500 his last two years as a prep.

Like the offense, the pitching staff lost many of its top performers from last season. James Baune and Justin Thomas who were each selected in MLB draft and another pair of starters who won sixteen games and combined to throw 13 complete games also need to be replaced. Timothy Buchanan, who won ten games with a 3.31 ERA will be back on the diamond and will take over as the ace of the staff. Janson Carr was limited to just nine innings of work last season, but coaches predict he could be in for a big season. In 2012 Carr was the Valley Baseball League Pitcher of the Year and was named the fourth best pro prospect in the league by Baseball America. Blake Sullivan and Cory Roper are two other top returning pitchers. Sullivan appeared in 20 games last year and posted a 3.48 ERA. Roper won a pair of games without a loss and had a 4.15 ERA in 17.1 innings. Paris Junior College transfer Jared Fielden led his conference in saves and will be a welcome addition to the staff.