Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Sun Belt Softball Forecast

Team that might surprise us all: Western Kentucky
            (The Hilltoppers enjoyed a solid run last season, finishing among the conference’s softball elite. With a depleted conference this year thanks to some realignment, new head coach Amy Tudor doesn’t really even have to go through the usually “rebuilding” period. WKU is built to win now & with budding superstars like Preslie Cruce and Olivia Watkins leading the offense, Tudor should be able to jump right in and manage the squad to a consistently high level of play. I believe they’ll challenge for a conference championship on a consistent basis, including this season.)

Team that might disappoint us all: South Alabama
            (After enjoying a great in-season run that led to them being nationally ranked for several weeks as well as a conference championship, the Jags were shocked on their home field in the regional round by Florida State. One might think the disappointment couldn’t get much worse coming off a major shocker like that, but after losing a star senior class that included three starters, including reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Brittany Fowler, as well as 2013 freshman phenom third baseman Haley Fagan, Becky Clark’s got some serious holes to fill. While those graduations & absences will leave a big void, the biggest hole may be the one left by former assistant coach Jimmy Kolaitis. Kolaitis took a similar AC job at Oregon over the summer, and he left behind a huge void in Mobile. He was an excellent recruiter, as well as one of the best assistant coaches in the country, and while Mark Ryal will do an excellent job on the staff, Kolaitis’ absence will nonetheless be felt. I anticipate the Jaguars to have a solid season, but I do not believe they’ll meet the humongously-high standard that they set for themselves last year.)

Player of the Year: Preslie Cruce, Western Kentucky
Pitcher of the Year: Jordan Wallace, Louisiana-Lafayette
Coach of the Year: Amy Tudor, Western Kentucky

Conference Champs: Louisiana-Lafayette

Players to Watch:
Farish Beard, South Alabama – It’s rare for a team to have two aces on their pitching staff, but the Jaguars have that luxury with Hannah Campbell & Beard... Beard, just a junior, posted a stellar 23-0 perfect record and a 1.61 ERA in 2013, and recall that’s against teams like Michael Loteif’s offense in Lafayette; Mississippi State; and others. Beard may be #2 on the USA depth chart in the circle, but she’s better than a lot of other team’s numero uno... definitely a player to watch throughout the year.

Preslie Cruce/Olivia Watkins, Western Kentucky – Western Kentucky has one of the more underappreciated offenses in the country, and these two young ladies are going to be the backbone of that offense... Cruce was an all-conference second teamer last season, and continued a solid offensive putout… fourteen home runs and a .634 slugging percentage were the excellent power numbers she put up, while a .431 OBP and .323 batting average show she can play the short game, as well... Only nine fielding errors in more than 135 tries last year alone... Watkins led the WKU squad in batting average by a good margin, posting a .378 clip... the senior infielder registered almost two hundred at-bats at the top of the lineup, and despite not hitting a single home run, recorded a .446 slugging percentage... her blazing speed is always a factor, as she was only caught six times in forty-four tries last year, and led the conference & was naturally ranked in the category.

Samantha Hamby, Louisiana-Monroe – Coming off a season that saw her go under the surgeon’s knife twice, Hamby’s experience, talent, & senior leadership will be heavily relied upon if the Warhawks are to have success this season... after receiving a redshirt in 2013, Hamby should be healthy and ready to go this year... I got the opportunity to see her pitch in person last fall, and she was on her game. When I talked to Warhawks coach Rosemary Holloway-Hill, she told me that Hamby would be heavily relied upon, though she stopped short of naming her the ace of the staff... what she did tell me, though, was  that Hamby is fully healthy, and from my experience, when a player’s coming back from injury and is in their final year, they make it count, and I expect nothing less from Hamby this season.

Conference Projection:
1. Louisiana-Lafayette
2. Western Kentucky
3. South Alabama
4. Troy
5. Georgia State
6. ULM
7. UT-Arlington
8. Texas State

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