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UMAC coaches rate baseball teams

If last year's conference tournament finish was any indication to what to expect out of the 2011 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) baseball season, teams and fans have a lot to look forward to. 

Behind 47 points and five first-place votes, the College of St. Scholastica was tabbed as the UMAC's team to beat in a poll of the league's coaches. The Saints nipped Bethany Lutheran College, who lost to St. Scholastica in extra innings in last year's UMAC Tournament finale, by two points in the poll. A UMAC Tournament championship in 2011 will earn one team a guaranteed trip to the NCAA Tournament.

1. College of St. Scholastica Saints

2010 Overall Record: 38-8

2010 UMAC Record: 19-1

2010 UMAC Finish: 1st

Starters Returning: 11

Starters Lost: 4

St. Scholastica has been the team to beat in the UMAC for several years, and 2011 is no different. The Saints, who have won 14 consecutive conference titles, were ranked 16th in the nation according to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association/ poll. CSS lost some key offensive cogs that have been integral the past few seasons, but the Saints return a majority of their pitching staff and experienced fielders remain. Also, last year's record-breaking recruiting class may pay dividends this upcoming season. The Saints return just two first team All-UMAC selections from last season in pitcher Matt Lewis and outfielder Scott Greening. Lewis went 4-0 in five starts and had a 2.49 earned run average in league games. The 2.49 ERA was third-best in the conference. He struck out 21 in 21.2 innings pitched. Greening had a .400 batting average in 16 conference games. He had a .516 on-base percentage and was 5-for-5 stealing bases. Greening was perfect in center field with 19 putouts in 19 chances. 

2. Bethany Lutheran College Vikings

2010 Overall Record: 29-11

2010 UMAC Record: 16-4

2010 UMAC Finish: 2nd

Starters Returning: 6

Starters Lost: 5

Bethany Lutheran is once again packed with talent in 2011. Although the Vikings graduated a number of seniors, including two-time UMAC Player of the Year Justin Schwecke, coach Ryan Kragh has recruited a number of players poised to make an immediate impact.  Aaron Siefken, a transfer from Iowa Central went 8-1 last season. Not only did the left hander go on to the NJCAA JUCO World Series, but will also be hitting in the middle of the Bethany Lutheran lineup. Other difference makers include Casey Woodside (catcher), Tommy Kramer (infield), and Benji Hager (outfield), all transfers with the experience and statistics to improve the Vikings squad. Cody Hallahan will be back for his senior campaign after being named UMAC Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and a Preseason All-American in 2011. Other returners from last year's lineup include UMAC All-Conference Honorable Mention winners Trent Sonnicksen and Darin Hendley. Hendley led the UMAC in home runs last season.

3. Presentation College Saints

2010 Overall Record: 18-19

2010 UMAC Record: 14-6

2010 UMAC Finish: 3rd

Starters Returning: 9

Starters Lost: 2

Earning 34 points from the coaches was Presentation College, who is coming off of a strong 2010 season that included the team's second straight UMAC Tournament appearance. Nine players return to the Saints team that combined for 361 hits, 16 home runs, 72 doubles and a .320 team batting average a year ago. One of the strengths of the 2011 Saints squad will be the pitching staff, which returns all but one starter. Spencer Sudbeck, Presentation's most consistent starter in 2010, leads the rotation while Tyson Paulson and Dustin Pickrel will return to the mound again this spring. The Saints will be strong behind the plate as they welcome in transfer Justin Kline, who started for two years at North Dakota State. Kline was an All-American at NDSU in 2009 as a freshman and was having a solid sophomore season before an injury ended his season early. In his freshman campaign, Kline finished seventh amongst all NCAA Division I players with a .432 batting average.

4. Northwestern College Eagles

2010 Overall Record: 16-24

2010 UMAC Record: 9-12

2010 UMAC Finish: T-4th

Starters Returning: 8

Starters Lost: 6

Northwestern College rounded out the poll's top four teams in the same way that the Eagles were the fourth team to advance to last year's UMAC Tournament. Despite losing three of its top four hitters from a year ago, this year's Eagles squad is more athletic than in years past and has some new players that will turn a few faces. After an injury-shortened season in 2010, second baseman Mike Sharp returns to the lineup after posting a .362 batting average that included a .466 on-base percentage. Sharp is happy to welcome UMAC Rookie of the Year Zach Markwith back to the lineup. Markwith, who split time between center field and the pitcher's mound last season, hit .336 while being one of two players on the team to record 50 or more hits a year ago. Junior Mark Meredith and sophomore Josh Balzer will return to the hill this year for Northwestern.  Head coach Dave Hieb very well may have a rookie at the top of his rotation with freshman Andy Peterson. Peterson was a two-time all-conference selection at Rogers High School and was one of the best pitchers in class AAA last year.

T-5. Martin Luther College Knights

2010 Overall Record: 9-30

2010 UMAC Record: 9-12

2010 UMAC Finish: T-4th

Starters Returning: 5

Starters Lost: 4

The Martin Luther College baseball season started slow in 2010, but ended better as the Knights finished in a tie for fourth place in the conference standings. Five starters in the everyday lineup return this season for head coach Randy Cox, led by 2010 All-UMAC honoree Joe Janke. Janke led the Knights in batting average (.355), on-base percentage (.415), hits (43) and slugging percentage (.446) in 2010. Janke will be joined by senior shortstop Greg Holzhueter and sophomore third baseman Brad Essig, while sophomore Joel Hering moves from the outfield to first base and catcher in 2011. Josh Schultz leads an outfield group with several young players looking to establish themselves as everyday players. On the mound, Janke and Joe Blum headline the rotation. Blum led the Knights' returning pitchers in strikeouts (31) and wins in 2010, while Janke led the team in innings pitched. First-year player Jacob Ziel will be counted on early to be a solid starter, while Ryan Schmeling heads a group of pitchers who will provide depth in the rotation and the bullpen. Martin Luther tied with the University of Minnesota, Morris for fifth in the poll with 23 points.

T-5. University of Minnesota, Morris Cougars

2010 Overall Record: 10-24

2010 UMAC Record: 8-13

2010 UMAC Finish: 6th

Starters Returning: 5

Starters Lost: 4

After posting its highest UMAC win total since joining the conference, the Cougars' baseball team welcomes back five starters in 2011. Ian Olson leads the way after earning All-UMAC honors in 2010 while starting all 34 games and finishing second on the team in batting average at .379. The leader at the plate last year, Drew Lundquist, also returns after starting 27 games and hitting .390, while striking out just seven times. Jordan Gegan also finished over .300 at the plate in 2010, and leads the crop of returning pitchers after a 4.54 ERA, six starts and 39.2 innings. The Cougars return six players who started on the hill last season, including innings leader Lee Arvold who started 10 games and racked up 51.1 innings with a team high 38 strikeouts. Left-handed pitcher Nick Perrotte is the team's featured newcomer, and will see time on the hill.

7. Northland College LumberJacks

2010 Overall Record: 12-17

2010 UMAC Record: 6-15

2010 UMAC Finish: 7th

Starters Returning: 2

Starters Lost: 10

Northland College returns just 16 percent of its innings pitched from 2010 and will rely heavily on newcomers Cody Leland, Travis Hendrickson, Brandon Bodart, Shane Ellias and Colin Moberly to provide the pitching staff with some form of stability. Returners Alex Tsomaya and Will Mueller look to rebound from arm injuries that cost them most of last year's season. On the offensive side Northland returns only 25 percent of its at bats from last season. Returners Ryan Johnson, Dan Salewski and Chad Moore (who missed 2010 due to injury) will look to play the leading role for the Jacks. Freshman Casey Herr, along with newcomers Leland, Hendrickson, Bodart and Moberly, will also have to contribute on the offensive side of the ball. Stein Rear takes over for the LumberJacks after last serving as an assistant coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

8. Crown College Storm

2010 Overall Record: 3-25

2010 UMAC Record: 1-19

2010 UMAC Finish: 8th

Starters Returning: 7

Starters Lost: 4

Rounding out the UMAC's eight institutions is Crown College, who will look to improve upon last year's 3-25 record with nearly all of its squad returning from 2010. Seven new first-year players will see opportunities to fill some of the holes in the Storm's lineup from last year. Steve Boger, Nick Garrard, and Isaiah Jensen are a few of the key returners posting batting averages between .304 and .356 last season. Their leadership and past performances will be instrumental in the growth and success of the team this year. Brian Kern, Matt Bailey, and Nick Gillette are three freshmen who hope to become impact players contributing their abilities to the season, as well.

All eight UMAC teams will play their respective nonconference schedules before beginning league action on April 1. The conference's top four teams will make the conference postseason tournament on May 12-14 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Duluth, with the winner earning a berth into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in UMAC history.