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Johns Hopkins, Salisbury baseball lead off by taking top two spots in NCAA Division III preseason rankings

The epicenter of the NCAA Division III baseball landscape this spring will begin in Maryland.

Johns Hopkins and Salisbury occupy the top two spots in the D3baseball.com preseason poll. The Blue Jays, who were one win shy of their first NCAA Division III championship last spring, are ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, while the Sea Gulls, who also advanced to the College World Series, are one spot behind at No. 2 for their third top-two ranking in as many years.

“It is really cool for us, especially because it shows a lot of people from Maryland that you don’t really have to go far to find good baseball,” said Salisbury senior first baseman Danny Sheeler, a Towson resident and Loyola Blakefield graduate. “There’s the idea that if you go D-I, that’s where all of the good baseball is, and that’s great, but you don’t have to go far to find really good baseball.”

Added Johns Hopkins graduate student left fielder Matthew Cooper: “I think it’s pretty unique. It’s definitely cool to be a part of and definitely showcases the caliber of baseball that Maryland has at the collegiate level.”

It is unclear how often two programs from the same state have topped the preseason poll. D3baseball.com’s archives don’t extend beyond 2011. But the odds of two teams from the same state reaching the College World Series final are slim. Since the championship’s beginning in 1976, only Marietta and Otterbein of Ohio in 1983 and Texas-Tyler and Texas Lutheran in 2018 have represented the same state in the final.

That might explain why Sea Gulls coach Troy Brohawn isn’t overly enthusiastic about preseason rankings.

“Preseason obviously is preseason, and you like to see your name up there,” he said. “But it’s the end of the year where you want to see it up there at the top.”

Blue Jays coach Bob Babb echoed his counterpart’s sentiment, saying, “It doesn’t mean anything, but it’s nice for recognition, and it shows the respect our two programs have, particularly two programs in Maryland.”

Here’s a look at the two teams.

Johns Hopkins (2023 record: 48-8)

The Blue Jays set a school record for wins in a season and lost only twice in the regular season last spring. This year’s team might be even better, especially at the plate.

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Johns Hopkins returns eight of its top nine starting batters. Catcher Sam Frank (.310 batting average and team-leading 18 doubles) graduated, but Cooper (.405 average, program-record 25 home runs, team-best 71 RBIs), sophomore right fielder Alex Shane (team-leading .432 average) and junior third baseman Shawn Steuerer (.402 average, team-best 88 hits, 70 RBIs) are a few of the hitters who are back.

“At the end of the day, you can’t win if you can’t score any runs,” Cooper said. “We have a talented lineup, and we’re looking forward to getting out there and embracing the challenge.”

The Blue Jays did lose senior pitcher Pete Schaefer to a torn ACL in December, and he was expected to succeed Gabriel Romano (11-1 record, 1.56 ERA, 79 strikeouts in 98 innings) as the ace. Junior Matt Savedoff (10-0, 3.30 ERA, 70 Ks in 69 innings) and graduate student Kieren Collins (6-1, 3.25 ERA, 48 Ks in 69 1/3 innings) figure to bump up in the starting rotation, and graduate student transfers Quinn Rovner from Muhlenberg and Cole Eggleston from Vassar could get some starts.

“Pitching-wise, I think we will be deeper,” Babb said. “We just don’t have that one ace that we had last year and thought we would have this year. But other guys will step up, and we are deeper. So we will have more guys who will step up. They have an opportunity to show what they can do.”

Salisbury (36-8)

If the 2021 national champion Sea Gulls are going to qualify for their fourth consecutive College World Series, they’re going to have to overcome the toll caused by graduations and transfers.

Left fielder Scott Cameron (.375 average), shortstop Stephen Rice (.350 average, team-leading 17 doubles) and right fielder Cameron Hyder (.324 average, 61 hits) are gone. And catcher Jacob Ference (.364 average, team high-tying 14 home runs), center fielder Kavi Caster (.367 average, team-best 65 hits) and pitcher Jackson Balzan (8-2, 3.86 ERA, 65 Ks in 70 innings) transferred to Virginia, Georgetown and Seton Hall, respectively.

But Sheeler (team-leading .393 average, 55 RBIs) and junior catcher Ben Anderson (.345 average) join a pair of transfers in graduate student shortstop Kyle Brex (Widener) and graduate student center fielder Tim Petrucelli (Penn State Abington), and sophomore Tyler Villa (3-0, 2.78 ERA, 21 Ks in 32 1/3 innings) is projected to throw the first pitch Friday.

Sheeler said he and his teammates welcome the chance to prove they belong among the contenders.

“There are teams that I’ve heard that think we shouldn’t be ranked that high, and we’re going to prove that we should be,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys this year, and they’re ready to take their spots and earn it.”

Brohawn might not have to wait long to gauge his team’s progress. In Salisbury’s first 14 games, the team will face (in chronological order) No. 10 Cortland (twice), No. 6 and reigning NCAA champion Lynchburg, No. 16 Denison, No. 8 Marietta, No. 14 Rowan and No. 1 Johns Hopkins.

“They’re going to get battle-tested right away,” he said. “It’s always great to see where you are early and if you have to make some adjustments with players or positioning or lineup changes. You just want to see who can handle it and who can’t, and you make decisions based on that.”

Season opener

Rutgers-Newark at Johns Hopkins

Friday, 2:30 p.m.

Season opener

Cortland at Salisbury

Friday, Feb. 16, 2 p.m.