January 27, 2009

Chieftain: World Series berth more realistic

Move to Central Region from West has created better opportunity for RMAC schools.

By JEFF LETOFSKY
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN

The opportunity to get back to the NCAA Division II World Series has changed dramatically for the Colorado State University-Pueblo baseball team and the entire Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

That's due to realignment.

No longer will the eight RMAC baseball-playing schools have to go through the West Region to reach the World Series. The teams have been moved into the Central Region that includes the 14-team Northern Sun Conference. That conference includes institutions from Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The West Region included teams from California, Oregon and Washington.

"The NCAA wanted to make sure everyone is in the same region in all sports," RMAC Commissioner J.R. Smith said. "For us (the move) in baseball is a good thing because it makes us the warm-weather site and gives us much better access to get our member schools into a regional." "It's a whole new dimension as far as getting back to the World Series," said CSU-Pueblo head baseball coach Stan Sanchez, who took his 1996 club to the national tournament. "All our coaches believe we have a stronger conference than the Northern Sun and believe we can get three or four teams into the regionals.

"All of a sudden everybody is excited because over the years it has been difficult just to get to a regional."

Since the RMAC joined NCAA Division II in the mid-90s, only two conference schools have managed to get through the regionals and reach the World Series - CSU-Pueblo in 1996 and Fort Hays (Kan.) State in 2000.

Sanchez added that weather has played a factor in regional play, giving the California schools a major advantage.

"What has happened is that the wealth of pitching is in California because of the weather and population base," he said. "Now, we go from being the coldest state in our region to the warmest state in our region.

"If you do well in your conference and get in position to host a regional or get to a regional, now you have a better chance to get to the World Series."

As before, the winner of the six-team RMAC Tournament gains an automatic berth into the Central regionals, which also will include six teams. The top team in the region according to the regional polls will host the regional tournament along with the next five highest rated teams.

While some RMAC schools have hosted regionals over the years, those opportunities have been few and far between. Now, that opportunity has been enhanced.

Another change that has been implemented this season is that the RMAC Tournament will be played at Rawlings Field on the CSU-Pueblo campus. In the past, the RMAC regular-season champion received the opportunity to host.

"We haven't been able to lock off hotel rooms at different places," Smith said. "We're better off to do some kind of rotation. We're starting this year in Pueblo and we'll probably rotate to Grand Junction and Kearney, Neb. Eventually, Colorado Mines may be in that mix."

Sanchez was elated to hear that his school would host the conference tournament.

"The conference voted to have us host the tournament this season," Sanchez said. "There have been hotel and field issues at many of the other RMAC schools. This is a one-year deal. Next year the conference will look to go to another site."