The Golden Hurricane will enjoy much success in their first season in the AAC. Coming off a season when they set a team record for wins and took home both the C-USA regular-season and conference tournament championships, John Bargfeldt's squad must make up for the loss of pitching ace Aimee Creger, but will put up a real fight for a championship and postseason spot. Senior former OU transfer Erica Sampson will be a leader on the offense, as the departure of the graduated Jill Barrett will leave a big gap, as well. Bailey Erwin is another you'll want to keep your eye on.
Team that will disappoint: Houston
The Cougars put together another solid campaign in 2014, though their postseason hopes were quickly dashed in both the conference tournament (lost in quarterfinals) & the NCAA regional round (eliminated w/ 1-2 record). With only seven teams competing in the AAC, an average year might still leave Kyla Holas' squad at the top half of the conference pile, but another abbreviated postseason journey should be counted as nothing less than disappointing. Mid-season two-game-sets against 2014 WCWS participants Oregon and Baylor provide the Cougars with an opportunity to show their talent against extremely-tough out-of-conference opponents.
Player of the Year: Lee Ann Spivey, South Florida
Pitcher of the Year: Shelby Turnier, UCF
Coach of the Year: Renee Luers-Gillispie, UCF
Conference Champs: UCF Knights
Top WCWS Contender: UCF
(Tulsa could be just as worthy of this mention, but they've yet to show how they will replace Creger and Barrett... the Knights will rely on their pitching staff heavily, and with their biggest playmakers returning, they're in the best position to head to OKC.)
Players to Watch:
- Shelby Turnier/Mackenzie Audas, UCF - The two stars of the Knights' pitching staff, they may be one of the best-kept secrets in the country. Though Audas saw forty extra innings of action, Turnier posted the lower ERA & opponent's batting average. Both posted a sub-2.00 ERA and opponents hit just .192 against the duo. They will be crucial for UCF if the Knights intend to contend in the postseason.
- Erica Sampson, Tulsa - After two years as an Oklahoma Sooner, where she started just twenty-eight games, Sampson transferred to Tulsa and started immediately. In sixty-two games for the Golden Hurricane in 2014, Sampson clubbed thirteen homers, and collected sixty-one hits in total. She'll have to improve even on that if she's to help her squad make up for the loss of Jill Barrett.
- Lee Ann Spivey, South Florida - Spivey enjoyed another solid season as the Bulls' primary catcher in 2014. Though her batting average went down a full ten points, her home run total more than doubled. Her stats over her first two seasons have been remarkably consistent, year to year, and I see no reason that should not continue or even improve in 2015. She's a young player worth keeping an eye on.
P - Mackenzie Audas, UCF; Bailey Erwin, Tulsa
C - Abby Wynne, East Carolina
IF - Farrah Sullivan, UCF; Veronica Gajownik, South Florida
Conference Projection (2014 finish in parentheses):
1. UCF (1)
2. Tulsa (1st, C-USA)
3. Houston (4)
4. South Florida (2)
5. Memphis (7)
6. East Carolina (6th, C-USA)
7. UConn (8)