Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Six Bold Predictions for the 2016 Season

We've made lots of predictions over the last month. Some were a little out there, some a bit more sane. But as we continue counting down the last few days to the Division 1 regular-season's start, here are a sextet of bold predictions for the season to come:

1. There will be no more than one PAC-12 team in the Women's College World Series.
The nation's traditionally-dominant conference has slipped of late, thanks in no small part to the emergence and depth of the SEC's softball contingent. Though I expect several PAC teams to make the NCAA tournament, we will not see any more than one of them in Oklahoma City.

2. At least six Power Five schools will see coaching changes at season's end.
The coaching carousel never stops - and it will hit the Power Five group of schools in a big way after this season. Barring disaster, I do not expect any midseason firings, but at least six of the fifty-four P5 schools will see change at the head coaching position before 2017, and that number could grow.

3. A pitcher will not be named Player of the Year for only the third time ever.
Not since 2011 has a non-pitcher won the National Player of the Year award and only two field players in history (namely Stacey Nuveman and Ashley Hansen) have taken home the trophy. In recent years, the award has been predominantly bestowed upon "dual-threat" players who pitch and swing the bat, but with so many talented offensive stars at the top of the game, 2016 will see a full-time position player add the POTY trophy to their mantlepiece.

4. 30% of the top ten Player of the Year finalists will come from mid-majors.
Several mid-major schools have come on strong over the last several seasons. Postseason stalwart Louisiana-Lafayette remains a highly-ranked team year-in and year-out. James Madison has made a strong push over the last few years. UCF, part of the American and just outside the Power Five, has become a postseason regular. Several schools have ace pitchers or offensive stars that have challenged for all-American awards and at least a handful of those same stars will be named among the ten best in the country at season's end.

5. Florida State will relinquish their position as the second-best team in the Sunshine State.
Second-best is not exactly a sought-after title, but with the twice-defending champion Gators firmly entrenched at #1, second is not a bad place to be. The Seminoles have had a lock on the spot and have challenged the Gators for #1 at times, but with a pitching staff firmly in "TBD" status and other questions abounding, coupled with the success of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic especially, this will be the year that the 'Noles are not a sure-fire second-best.

6. A Division 2 player will be drafted to the professional level for the first time ever.
As far as my research shows and sources can recall, no Division 2 player has ever been drafted to play in the NPF. That will change this year. Two players I specifically have my eye on - and both of whom make appearances on my Big Board, to be released shortly - are UIndy pitcher Morgan Foley and UMSL pitcher Hannah Perryman. Both have stellar statistics and dominance from the circle. This will be the year that the Division-Two-to-Pro path will be blazed in the sport of softball.

Monday, February 8, 2016

USA Softball Top 50 PreSeason Watch List Released

The annual offering of the Top 50 Player of the Year watch-list was released last week. Among the members of the list were representatives of the quintet of Power Five conferences, as well as the MAAC, Big Sky, Sun Belt, Colonial Athletic, Conference USA, Atlantic Sun, Southland, Big West, American, and SWAC.

The SEC continued their recent dominance of the sport in recent years by placing fifteen players on the list. The conference's contingent was led by three players each from Georgia and LSU, while twice-defending champions Florida tied with the Crimson Tide of Alabama and Auburn in placing two players on the list. South Carolina, Tennessee, and Missouri all placed one roster member on the watch list.

Historically-top conference Pac-12 placed nine players on the list, showing off a lot of parity with representatives from six of the nine teams. Cal, UCLA, and Oregon all placed two players on the list while Washington, Stanford, and Arizona were represented by a single player each.

2015 championship runners-up Michigan placed a trio of players on the watch list, including likely preseason favorite to win the award, infielder Sierra Romero.

Placing multiple players on the list, as well, were Oklahoma; James Madison; and Louisiana-Lafayette. Teams represented by a single player on the watch list included Baylor; Cal State Fullerton; Florida Atlantic; Florida State; Georgia State; Idaho State; Manhattan; Marshall; McNeese State; Minnesota; Nebraska; North Carolina; Notre Dame; Savannah State; Texas; UCF; and USC-Upstate.

The watch-list included twenty-five seniors; fifteen juniors; and ten sophomores. USC-Upstate junior hurler Lexi Shubert was mislabeled as a sophomore on the ASA/USA press release.

All twelve returning first-team all-Americans from a year ago made the list. Six returning players did not make the watch list after receiving all-American awards after last season.

The full alphabetical list of Watch List members can be found here:
Ali Aguilar, IF, Washington
Annie Aldrete, C, Cal
Bianka Bell, SS, LSU
Allexis Bennett, OF, UCLA
Megan Betsa, P, Michigan
Kayla Bonstrom, 1B, Stanford
Elena Bowman, C, Manhattan
Kristen Brown, IF, North Carolina
Kacie Burnett, OF, Idaho State
Jessica Burroughs, P, Florida State
Emily Carosone, 2B, Auburn
Kelly Christner, OF, Michigan
Kasey Cooper, 3B, Auburn
Emily Crane, OF, Missouri
Ivie Drake, C, Georgia State
Lexie Elkins, C, Louisiana-Lafayette
Cortni Emanuel, IF, Georgia
Jailyn Ford, P/UT, James Madison
Shelby Friudenberg, IF, Baylor
Rainey Gaffin, P/UT, Tennessee
Megan Good, P, James Madison
Sara Groenewegen, P, Minnesota
Kylee Hanson, P, Florida Atlantic
Cheridan Hawkins, P, Oregon
Carley Hoover, P, LSU
Alex Hugo, 2B, Georgia
Jazmyn Jackson, OF, Cal
Bailey Landry, OF, LSU
Shellie Landry, OF, Louisiana-Lafayette
Jenna Lilley, IF, Oregon
Katiyana Mauga, IF, Arizona
Hailey McCleney, OF, Alabama
Erin Miller, OF, Oklahoma
Aubree Munro, C, Florida
Alexis Osorio, P, Alabama
Alaynie Page, OF, South Carolina
Paige Parker, P, Oklahoma
Erika Piancastelli, C, McNeese State
Sierra Romero, IF, Michigan
Lexi Shubert, P, USC-Upstate
Delaney Spaulding, IF, UCLA
Lindsey Stephens, OF, Texas
Kelsey Stewart, 2B, Florida
Kiki Stokes, OF, Nebraska
Missy Taukeiaho, IF, Cal State Fullerton
Shelby Turnier, P, UCF
Karley Wester, OF, Notre Dame
Chelsea Wilkinson, P, Georgia
Torrian Wright, IF, Savannah State
Morgan Zerkle, OF, Marshall

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Former Marshall Softballer Killed in Car Accident

Former Marshall Thundering Herd softballer Emileigh Cooper was killed in a tragic car accident Friday night in Jackson County, Ohio. She was 22.

Cooper was en route from her home in Ohio to work a Herd softball camp in Huntington when the wreck happened. According to news reports, an octogenarian fellow motorist pulled out of a residential driveway without yielding and struck Cooper's vehicle, which then traveled across the median and into oncoming traffic.

Since graduating from Marshall in spring of 2015, Cooper had worked as a junior college & high school coach and was preparing for her first season as an assistant with the Rio Grande Community College softball program.

As a member of the Herd softballing unit from 2015-2015, Cooper ended her career in on a high note, registering a .434 average at the plate in 2015. She recorded a stat line of .434/3/13 with an even .500 on-base percentage and was an all-conference and all-region selection that year.

Our thoughts and prayers are extended to Cooper's family, teammates, and friends as they cope with this tragic loss.

Friday, February 5, 2016

2016 Conference Forecast Finale - Best of the Rest, Part 2

After featuring eighteen conferences in their own individual Conference Forecast articles before the regular season begins, we spent the first half of this two-part series looking at seven of the remaining fourteen conferences. Now we'll finish up our preseason predictions in the conference category by examining the final septet of leagues and take a special look at their best players; postseason contenders; and our predictions for the final standings in each.

Conference: Northeast
Team to Watch: Saint Francis Terriers
     (The Terriers posted the second-best overall record in the league in 2015, though they wound up mid-pack after a near-.500 conference season. With significant changes taking place at three of the four teams that finished above them a season ago, Jennifer Patrick-Swift's squad is in position to take advantage of the opportunity as it is presented to them. They have a solidly-effective trio of pitching, though their offense needs to see some playmakers emerge. Of the returning crowd, only dual-threat Alexis Bower hit above .270 last season.)

What to Watch for: Will Robert Morris and Central Connecticut be able to account for the losses of their respective workhorse senior pitchers Sleith and Messina?

Players to Watch:
--> Alexis Bower, St. Francis - Since arriving on the scene in 2014, Bower has proven to be quietly effective for the Terriers. She holds a career 2.55 ERA in two seasons, as well as a .311 batting average and thirteen home runs. She saw her pitching numbers falter a bit from her freshman to sophomore seasons, including a 0.60 jump in her ERA from year to year. Her innings were cut in half, down from nearly 155 to just seventy-one, but I expect that number to go back up this year as she still managed to put together a sub-3.00 ERA. I'm expecting good things from her on both sides of the ball.
--> Kristen Gabelt, Robert Morris - Gabelt posted a respectable .343/9/28 stat line in 2015, to go along with a .620 slugging percentage. The latter number as well as her home run mark paced her team. The Colonials are going to need more offensive power to make up for the graduation of ace Nicole Sleith and Gabelt needs to post even *better* production and numbers to keep the Colonials in the race.

Conference Projection:
1. Saint Francis Terriers
2. Robert Morris Colonials
3. LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
4. Central Connecticut Blue Devils
5. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
6. Bryant Bulldogs
7. Sacred Heart Pioneers
8. Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
Others: Wagner Seahawks

Conference: Patriot League
Team to Watch: Bucknell Bison
     (Under a first-year head coach that we graded as a middle-of-the-road hire with promise, the Bison are coming off a second-place finish in conference and two defeats at the hands of eventual-champion Lehigh in the conference tournament that sent them home. The Bisons' pitching staff can be better than they look on paper and have a solid, if not stellar, 1-2 punch in Dana Nielsen and Amanda Fazio. I expect both of them to be effective this season. Fazio also hit .341 at the plate a year ago, so she will be counted in both spots on the diamond.)

What to Watch for: Will Lehigh be able to replace the dominance and success of senior hurler Emily Bausher in the circle? Can Bucknell take advantage of a bit of a turnover period to leap ahead in their challenge for the conference crown?

Player to Watch:
--> Amanda Fazio, Bucknell - Fazio, the senior statesman of the staff, earned all-conference honors in her first season at Bucknell, followed by an all-tournament honor in 2014 after an injury-shortened regular season. In 2015, she finished slightly behind Nielsen in the ERA race after posting a 3.39 mark, but did so in fifty-four more innings. She gathered greather than a 3/1 SO/BB ratio and opponents hit beneath .300 against her. She should improve on both the ERA and opponent's average numbers and position herself in the running for Pitcher of the Year.

Conference Projection:
1. Lehigh Mountain Hawks
2. Bucknell Bison
3. Army Black Knights
4. Colgate Raiders
5. Holy Cross Crusaders
6. Boston Terriers
7. Lafayette Leopards

Conference: Southern
Team to Watch: Furman Paladins
     (Just 2.5 games separated the top four teams in the conference a season ago, and while the Paladins were on the lower end of that group, I expect them to be better in 2016. Sophomore hurler Lindsey Best, with a season now under her belt, can even improve on her already-effectie 2.58 ERA and opponent's batting average of .255 that she posted last season. Reigning conference Player of the Year Sieara Bishop is a solid hitter and needs to lead the offense. She will need some solid protection around her in the batting order.)

What to Watch for: Which of the league's top teams will distance themselves from the pack to emerge as the favorite and top championship contender?

Players to Watch:
--> Shelby Maze, Samford - Maze earned the conference's Freshman of the Year award a season ago. She hit .350 in her first year as a Bulldog and was caught stealing only once in sixteen attempts. Entering her sophomore campaign, her percentages could use some perking up, but I expect another solid campaign from the in-state native.
--> Sieara Bishop, Furman - The reigning conference Player of the Year boosted her batting average by just three points in her sophomore season, but enjoyed a breakout junior campaign a season ago when she hit .375, more than 100 points above her career average to that point. She also clubbed ten home runs, more than doubling her career total. She well-earned the POTY trophy and is well-worth keeping an eye on in Greenville in her senior campaign.

Conference Projection:
1. Samford Bulldogs
2. Chattanooga Lady Mocs
3. Mercer Bears
4. Furman Paladins
5. North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG) Spartans
6. Western Carolina Catamounts
7. East Tennessee State Buccaneers

Conference: Summit League
Team to Watch: North Dakota State Bison
     (The Bison are one of the best mid-major teams in the nation and are perennial postseason appearers, but their season usually seems to end in the regional round. 2009 was the exception, when they advanced to the Supers, but they have not done so since. They got a tough regional assignment one year ago when they traveled to Eugene to face the Ducks. Menke, the graduated workhorse hurler, leaves mighty big shoes to fill in the circle. The offense is still in good shape with returnees Cheyenne Garcia, the reigning conference Player of the Year; fellow senior Logan Moreland; redshirt junior Alyssa Reina.)

What to Watch for: It will be intriguing to see how North Dakota State and Western Illinois make up for the losses up all-time greats in pitcher Krista Menke and shortstop Sammy Marshall, respectively. Both players helped put their programs on the map and it will be interesting to see how they are replaced in the respective lineups.

Players to Watch:
--> Brooke Boetjer, IUPUI - The former Indiana Hoosier earned second-team all-conference honors in her first season in the Summit League, following a season in which she posted a 2.15 ERA in nearly 166 innings. Opponents hit just .214 against her and she gave up just thirty-seven extra base hits all season long. I would be far from surprised to see her in serious contention for Pitcher of the Year.
--> Logan Moreland, North Dakota State - The senior infielder has gotten substantially better each season she has spent in Fargo; a season ago, she batted .421 with a full stat line of .421/.601/.473. She is a solid bat in the lineup and will be part of the power-punch the Bison need to utilize to the fullest extent this season with their question marks in the circle.

Conference Projection:
1. North Dakota State Bison
2. IUPUI Jaguars
3. South Dakota Coyotes
4. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
5. Western Illinois Leathernecks
6. Omaha Mavericks
7. Fort Wayne Mastodons

Conference: Southwestern Athletic (SWAC)
Team to Watch: Texas Southern Tigers
     (The back-to-back winners of the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament have to find a way to replace the offense created by the graduated Thomasina Garza. Dubbed the conference co-player of the year and hitter of the year a season ago, she leaves big shoes to fill on offense. The Tigers have been the standard at the top of the conference these past two seasons, but that could change if they struggle to find the offense throughout the returners and newcomers in their lineup.)

What to Watch for: If  Texas Southern is unable to recoup some of that offense, who will step forward to challenge for the conference crown?

Player to Watch:
--> Chelsea King, Alabama State - King dazzled as a freshman, posting a 1.60 ERA in her first season as a Hornet. A lighter workload - ninety-two innings - didn't hurt her when it came to awards season, either, as she earned the conference's Pitcher and Freshman of the Year honors; was a first-team all-conference selection; and a member of the all-region third-team. She finished the year ranked #16 in the country in the statistical category of ERA and held opposing hitters to a .235 average at the plate. A young, but talented, player, Chris Steiner-Wilcoxson could have a future star on her hands.

Conference Projection:
1. Alabama State Hornets
2. Texas Southern Tigers
3. Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils
4. Southern Jaguars
5. Jackson State Tigers
6. Prairie View A&M Panthers
7. Grambling State Tigers
8. Alabama A&M Bulldogs
Others: Alcorn State Braves; Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions

Conference: Western Athletic (WAC)
Team to Watch: New Mexico State Aggies
     (The Aggies are at a point of being just on the verge of the top tier of mid-major softball programs, and if they reach that plateau in 2016, senior Fiana Finau will be owed the greatest debt of thanks.A former transfer from San Diego State, Finau has twice been selected for the all-conference first-team and amassed a stat line of .341/24/74 in 2015. Entering her senior season, she should be the easy favorite for Player of the Year honors and was part of the top fifty watch list released by USA Softball this week.)

What to Watch for: Can New Mexico State reach that mid-major elite status they seem to be laying the groundwork for?

Players to Watch:
--> Paige Bouska, Seattle - The junior second baseman has a breakout campaign a season ago, posting a .352 batting average, accompanied by a .401 slugging percentage and fifty-seven hits, a mark that paced her team. The Redhawks have several question marks for 2016, but Bouska should not be one of them; her ability to get on base should prove very helpful to the plans first-year head coach Geoff Harai has for his squad.
--> Katie Kelley, UMKC - Kelley might be the best two-way player that no one knows about. A three-time all-conference selection, she hit .372 with sixteen home runs a season ago, pacing her squad in the latter category, as well as five other statistical categories. In the circle, her ERA inflated to just above four runs per game, but opponents hit below .285 against her and she collected a 2/1 SO/BB ratio. Now a senior, I expect her to return to the all-conference first-team list and help her Kangaroos make some noise in conference.

Conference Projection:
1. New Mexico State Aggies
2. Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos
3. Grand Canyon Antelopes
4. CSU-Bakersfield Roadrunners
5. Seattle Redhawks
6. Utah Valley Wolverines

Conference: West Coast
Team to Watch: Brigham Young Cougars
     (The unanimous preseason favorite coming into 2016, the Cougars should have little difficulty returning to the NCAA tournament. Gordy Bravo is sure-handed in the outfield and impressive at the plate and McKenna Bull is a solid righty in the circle. The Cougars are in a good spot once again heading into the regular season.)

What to Watch for: Will the Cougars receive a favorable NCAA tournament berth that gives them a real shot at advancing past the first round?

Player to Watch:
--> McKenna Bull, BYU - Bull earned the conference's Pitcher of the Year award in 2015 after posting team records in four different categories (wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, and complete games) and pacing the conference in five statistical categories, including strikeouts, ERA, and opponent's batting average, a stellar .171 mark. I expect a repeat performance in 2016 with another POTY trophy added to her mantlepiece.

Conference Projection:
1. BYU Cougars
2. San Diego Toreros
3. Loyola Marymount Lions
4. Pacific Tigers
5. Saint Mary's Gaels
6. Santa Clara Broncos

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2016 Conference Forecast Finale - Best of the Rest, Part 1

Over the past few weeks, we've taken a look at the ins and outs of eighteen Division 1 conferences and made some predictions. Time constraints won't let us feature each conference individually, so here's an abbreviated look at the remaining fourteen leagues.

Conference: America East
Team to Watch: Binghamton Bearcats
     (The Bearcats earned the NCAA automatic bid a season ago after coming in as the #3 seed and, though they may not be the favorite coming into 2016, I do think they'll get the job done once-again when it counts. Pitcher Sarah Miller showed some promise as a freshman in 2015 and I like her potential this season. Expect the Bearcats to earn another tournament berth and head likely south for the regional round.)

What to Watch for: Keep an eye on Miller at Binghamton. She showed talent as a freshman and should improve in her second season. Stony Brook, the perennial conference champ, will be a tough team to beat, as well.

Player to Watch:
--> Maggie Cocks, Albany - Twice an all-conference first-teamer at shortstop, Cocks is a solid contender for the A-East's Player of the Year award in 2016. A deep sleeper for potential post-college prospects as a member of the class of '16, she has historically improved by leaps and bounds year-in and year-out. After recording a .411 battting average with ten home runs a season ago, continuing to improve on those numbers would lead to a stellar mark in her swan song campaign.

Conference Projection:
1. Stony Brook Seawolves
2. Binghamton Bearcats
3. Albany Great Danes
4. Maine Black Bears
5. UMBC Retrievers
6. UMass Lowell River Hawks
7. Hartford Hawks

Conference: Big Sky
Team to Watch: Sacramento State Hornets
     (We'll see Idaho State falter seriously with the revamping of their coaching staff and the loss of slugger Vicky Galasso. The Hornets are poised and are arguably in the best shape to fill their stead and take over conference dominance sooner rather than later. Sasha Margulies returns as the team's top hitter, though the protection around her in the order will have to be refilled and revamped.)

What to Watch for: I think we will see some serious improvement from the still-new Montana Grizzlies team this season. In their second year of competition, I believe they still have growing to do, but will be more of a factor. Idaho State will certainly falter; the question is simply by how much?

Players to Watch:
--> Alyson Kulp, Weber State - WSU is also in a good position to take home the conference crown, and are the favorites after a conference tournament title and a solid showing in the NCAA tourney. Kulp, a three-time all-conference honoree, batted just .004 short of .400 for a .396/9/49 clip and a .645 slugging percentage to go along with it. She is a consistent and solid player and will have a big part in the success the Wildcats will have.
--> Sasha Margulies, Sacramento State - The senior first baseman and former Ball State Cardinal has paced her team in batting average both seasons she's been in Sacramento and she led the entire Big Sky in the same category a year ago. She bumped up her power numbers, as well, in forty more at-bats. If her numbers continue to click upward, she will not only go out on a high note, she could help the Hornets win a few extra games that will be crucial to their title hopes.

Conference Projection:
1. Sacramento State Hornets
2. Weber State Wildcats
3. Idaho State Bengals
4. Montana Grizzlies
5. Northern Colorado Bears
6. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
7. Portland State Vikings
8. North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Conference: Big South
Team to Watch: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
     (Kelley Green's Chanticleers came up just short in the conference tournament, losing in the quarterfinal round after earning a #2 seed for the tournament. Despite the loss of Big South home run queen Kory Hayden and pitcher Kiana Quolas, this senior class will have just as big of an impact and seem to be sitting on 'go' to take home the title this season. Speedy outfielder Bri Chiusano, slugging catcher Morgan Noad, and former Temple Owl Kelsey Dominik will all have mighty impacts for their squad this season and show real promise for an NCAA tournament berth.)

What to Watch for: How will the conference's top two teams, Coastal and Longwood, make up for the loss of graduated sluggers Kory Hayden and Megan Baltzell, respectively?

Players to Watch:
--> Maddie Antone, Winthrop - Antone's version of the 'sophomore slump' saw her batting average dip nearly thirty points from her freshman mark and most of her other offensive numbers saw small dips, as well. Of course, when such a steep drop in average still leaves her with a .354 mark, that says something about the player. She can get on base, slug a home run here and there (fourteen thus-far in her career), and can steal a bag when necessary, as well. She's got pieces of the whole package of a star player and, if she can take advantage of even a couple of those skill sets, she will be a key player in conference play and for postseason award consideration.
--> Bri Chiusano, Coastal Carolina - I mentioned Chiusano above; a member of the studded senior class that the Chanticleers carry into this season, I think she's the x-factor of them all. She finished in the conference's top ten in five different categories a year ago and amidst a .363/.423/.460 line. Incredibly speedy, she stole thirty-nine bases, only being caught five times. With Chiusano, I believe we could be looking at another draft sleeper.

Conference Projection:
1. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
2. Longwood Lancers
3. Liberty Flames
4. Charleston Southern Buccaneers
5. Winthrop Eagles
6. Presbyterian Blue Hose
7. Campbell Fighting Camels
8. Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs
Others: Radford Highlanders

Conference: Horizon League
Team to Watch: Oakland Golden Grizzlies
     (The Griz earned the conference's automatic bid in 2015 after putting together the program's second-highest win total ever, and actually made a bit of a rumble when the NCAA tournament rolled around. Placed in the Ann Arbor regional, they put up a fight against Pittsburgh in an elimination game before eventually losing, but they showed promise. I quite like the pitching staff, led by senior Erin Kownacki and sophomore Haley Zemmer. They might just fit the bill of a mid-major sleeper team.)

What to Watch for: How will the Green Bay Phoenix fare under young second-year coach Beth Spoehr? Will Oakland continue to ride the high of an NCAA tournament appearance last season into convincing wins and another berth in '16?

Players to Watch:
--> Erin Kownacki, Oakland - I mentioned Kownacki briefly above; the upperclassman in the solid 1-2 punch of hurlers the Grizzlies boast, I expect another season consistent with her career's path to this point, likely with a sub-3.00 ERA and opponents getting a hit just 1/4 of the time when she's in the circle. If you're looking for a talented hurler in the Great Lake State that doesn't play in the Big Ten, look no further. Kownacki will certainly have a hand in the success that I expect from her team.
--> Katelyn Huemmer, Green Bay - The Phoenix surprised many last season and Huemmer had a great hand in that. She finished in the top three on her squad in nearly every statistical category, numbers that included a .348 batting average and .526 slugging percentage. Continually-improving numbers would not be a surprise for the GB center fielder.

Conference Projection:
1. Oakland Golden Grizzlies
2. UIC Flames
3. Green Bay Phoenix
4. Wright State Raiders
5. Valparaiso Crusaders
6. Cleveland State Vikings
7. Detroit Titans
8. Youngstown State Penguins
Others: Northern Kentucky Norse (postseason ineligible)

Conference: Ivy League
Team to Watch: Dartmouth Big Green
     (Shannon Doepking's squad has a tough non-conference schedule over the first several weeks of the year - matching up against teams like Wichita State, Stanford, South Alabama, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma, including doubleheaders on the road against the latter trio. A few scattered wins could drastically help their RPI, which will also help come NCAA tournament time. They are the obvious favorite to take home the conference crown and the all-important automatic bid.)

What to Watch for: Will the Big Green be able to upset some top teams in their non-conference schedule, as well as dominate as expected in conference play?

Players to Watch:
--> Katie McEachern, Dartmouth - The senior shortstop was selected as the preseason pick for Player of the Year and picked to repeat as an all-conference first teamer. She hit .447 a season ago, pacing the conference more than fifty points. She was the only Ivy Leaguer to post a double-digit home run total. With stellar numbers in her junior campaign following a solid first two years in green and white, McEachern should make some noise regionally, not just in conference.
--> Morgan Groom, Harvard - The senior hurler was second on her team a year ago with a perfect Pi ERA of 3.14. Playing second-fiddle to the now-graduated Laura Ricciardone, Gromo has an opportunity to really come into her own this season. Opponents hit just .234 against her, and with increased work, I think we'll see the same level of consistent production.

Conference Projection:
1. Dartmouth Big Green
2. Harvard Crimson
3. Princeton Tigers
4. Penn Quakers
5. Cornell Big Red
6. Columbia Lions
7. Brown Bears
8. Yale Bulldogs

Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic
Team to Watch: Canisius Golden Griffins
     (After winning the conference's regular-season title a year ago, the Griffs blanked in the conference tournament, dropping two straight games, including a run-rule loss to the 5-seeded team in Monmouth. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise-successful season. I fully expect 'em to come out swinging in 2016, looking to redeem themselves from the stunning losses in the postseason a year ago. They return their top three hitters, including junior Jessica Berzins, their leading hitter from a year ago with a .444/.606/.532 line.)

What to Watch for: How will numerous coaching changes affect some of the lower-tier teams in the conference? Will slugger Elena Bowman set a new conference home run record?

Players to Watch:
--> Elena Bowman, Manhattan - Bowman can slug the ball a mile and is just a few dingers short of the conference's all-time mark. A power show is certainly to be expected from her again this year. The 2015 MAAC Player of the Year, it is not any kind of a stretch to expect a similar award to be added to her trophy case this season. Though she comes from the Northeast, not usually a draft hotbed, and a small conference, she could also be an undrafted free agent signing to play after college.
--> Jayne Oberdorf, Marist - After exactly 101 extra innings to her body of work from her freshman to sophomore campaigns, the junior hurler saw her statistics drastically improve a year ago. Her ERA went down more than five runs per game to a certainly-respectable 2.56 mark. Opponents hit .255 against her instead of the whopping .370 the year previous. I expect another season consistent with the same numbers this season; a 2.50 ERA and opponent’s batting average is a good guestimate for Oberdorf.

Conference Projection:
1. Canisius Golden Griffins
2. Manhattan Jaspers
3. Fairfield Stags
4. Marist Red Foxes
5. Siena Saints
6. Iona Gaels
7. Quinnipiac Bobcats
8. Monmouth Hawks
Others: Niagara Purple Eagles; Rider Broncs; Saint Peter's Peahens

Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic
Team to Watch: Savannah State Lady Tigers
     (Senior slugger Torrian Wright, who you'll read about more below, will be a big part of the Tigers' plans this season; Amber Hallman, the program's only other .400+/double-digit home run player has graduated so there will be a need to add some protection around Wright in the lineup. The pitching staff needs some work, as well - there are some serious question marks around the program entering 2016, and the answer to some of them will be well-worth keeping an eye on.)

What to Watch for: Will Savannah State be able to build their lineup around Wright to give her some protection and keep opponents from being able to pitch around her every at-bat?

Players to Watch:
--> Torrian Wright, Savannah State - This was an easy one. Wright is undoubtedly the best player in the MEAC; a pure slugger with unreal numbers, she boasts forty-six career home runs to her credit and ended 2015, her junior season, with a .566 batting average; 1.229 slugging percentage; and .748 on-base percentage. No, none of those numbers are typos and yes, you did read them correctly. She is a very, very good hitter.

Conference Projection:
1. Savannah State Tigers
2. Delaware State Hornets
3. Bethune-Cookman Wildcats
4. Florida A&M Rattlers
5. Norfolk State Spartans
6. Hampton Pirates
7. Howard Bison
8. North Carolina AT&T State Aggies
Others: Coppin State Eagles; Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks; Morgan State Bears; North Carolina Central Eagles; South Carolina State Bulldogs