Campbell coach Justin Haire doesn’t have to look far to highlight the successes of mid-major college baseball programs this season.
Two of them — VCU and Samford — make up 50 percent of this weekend’s Starkville Regional, while the Camels form another quarter of the field. The three schools are just a few success stories in a 2021 season Haire said has often been called “the year of the mid-major.”
That’s mainly because the NCAA allowed players to seek a waiver for an extra season of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to seniors and other veteran players returning to the small schools from whence they came.
“Having some depth and experience at the top end, especially at the mid-major level, is a really big benefit,” Haire said.
The 2021 NCAA tournament features 28 teams not part of the Power Five conferences, Conference USA or the American Athletic Conference. That means nearly half the field is composed of teams that don’t often make it to this stage — especially in other sports. Haire noted even Group of Five teams never make the College Football Playoff; the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments rarely feature a mid-major Cinderella.
But it’s not so uncommon in baseball. Not this season, anyway.
“This year in the country, with so many kids coming back because of COVID, you’re seeing a lot of the mid-majors have great years,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said Monday.
VCU, Campbell and Samford are all among them. Each of the three teams has at least 35 wins (the Rams have 37) and has come on strong down the stretch. Samford won the Southern Conference championship, VCU has won 21 straight games — the longest streak in the country — and Campbell won 10 in a row before being eliminated by Presbyterian in the Big South tournament.
But the Camels still earned an at-large bid to NCAA Regionals, a rarity for a school and conference of that size. Four other mid-majors did the same: Liberty in the Atlantic Sun, UC Santa Barbara out of the Big West, Indiana State from the Missouri Valley and Fairfield from the Metro Atlantic. (The Stags finished No. 2 in RPI with a 37-3 record.)
The at-large selections are part of the reason why the 2021 NCAA tournament is filled with more mid-majors than usual. In 2019, only eight conferences received multiple bids, and the Missouri Valley was the only small conference to get more than one team into the field. Now, two years later, 12 leagues have at least two teams participating.
And with so many seniors and experienced players back, it’s hardly a surprise. With the MLB First-Year Player Draft shortened from 40 rounds to just five, only the top schools typically had several key players drafted. (Justin Foscue and Jordan Westburg both went in the top 30 picks for Mississippi State.) Small schools, meanwhile, saw the bulk of their talent go undrafted.
Most of those unselected players chose to come back. The day after the 2020 season shut down, a group of older players marched into VCU coach Shawn Stiffler’s office, telling him they were ready to return.
“When you have guys who want to come back and finish what they started, then you realize that your culture might be a bit stronger, a bit better than what even you think at times,” Stiffler said.
The Rams have proceeded to rattle off 21 consecutive victories, still riding what Stiffler called “the most boring win streak in the country.” He said he didn’t even realize the team was on a roll until win No. 16 as VCU merely stayed hot for a good reason — first clinching a berth in the Atlantic 10 tournament, then keeping its RPI afloat for a regional, then making sure it didn’t get upset in the conference tourney.
“It just got to the point where the next loss was going to be something that could really hamstring us,” Stiffler said.
That next loss still hasn’t happened. Instead, the Rams earned a regional bid and something they’d never had before: a chartered flight. A team used to flying out of Richmond in the middle of the night with two connecting flights adding up to an eight-hour trip instead made it to Starkville in just an hour and a half Wednesday.
Lemonis is used to shorter jaunts. As a No. 4 seed while playing for The Citadel in Charleston, he typically got sent to Clemson or South Carolina — one of the nearest regional hosts. Samford made the short trip from Birmingham, while Buies Creek, North Carolina-based Campbell had a longer excursion.
But when each team arrived in Starkville, all the travel time was worth it. Campbell star Zach Neto took note of the big LED board in right field; teammate Matthew Christian stared at the batter’s eye and the outfield rigs.
VCU’s Liam Hibbits said he “couldn’t be more pumped” to be playing at Dudy Noble Field.
“It’s going to be great,” Hibbits said. “I look forward to seeing everyone out there cheering, yelling. It’ll be a good time.”
Samford, the first team to face Mississippi State in the regional, already knows. The two squads of Bulldogs faced off March 16 in Starkville as MSU grabbed a 10-2 midweek win. This time around, coach Casey Dunn promised improvement.
“I do think you’re going to see a better Samford baseball team than you saw in March,” Dunn said.
Lemonis said he knows any of the Bulldogs’ three opponents is capable of coming out on top. Mississippi State was eliminated by Samford in the 2012 Tallahassee Regional, and Lemonis remembers being knocked out of one NCAA tournament by VCU early in his career.
So in the year of the mid-major, he and the Bulldogs know they have to watch their backs.
“They’re some really good programs, and they’re hot,” he said. “All these teams are coming in here after playing good ball, so we have to be ready to go.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.