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Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Best of the Rest" Forecast

In preparation for the upcoming collegiate season, we've looked at thirteen of the biggest softball conferences in the country. Unfortunately, we couldn't take a comprehensive look at each conference and team, so we saved the "Best of the Rest" for this piece today. We'll look at three of the remaining conferences - their best players; top seniors; teams that should be favored for the postseason; and projected conference standings. We'll also look at some individual teams that could have an affect on the postseason.

First up, the Big East. Eugene Lenti's Depaul Blue Demons took home the conference title last season, and have already been selected as the preseason favorite to repeat this year. I agree with that assessment. Despite losing Kirsten Verdun, the Blue Demons return Mary Connolly, who is one of the best in the business. Outside of DePaul, the conference's best postseason hope is St. John's. They also lost a big piece in Jackie Reed, but return offensive powerhouse Erin Burner and staff ace Tori Free.

Top Seniors: Mary Connolly, UT, DePaul; Erin Burner, C, St. John's; Megan Hyson, P/UT, Georgetown; Kristen Boros, IF, Butler

Conference projection:
1. DePaul
2. St. John's
3. Georgetown
4. Creighton
5. Butler
6. Villanova
7. Seton Hall
8. Providence

Next up, the Ohio Valley Conference. I actually disagree with the conference's coaches on this one; they chose SIUE as the preseason favorites to take home the championship, but I like Jacksonville State. Nothing against the Cougars, but I believe Sara Borders will lead the Gamecocks of JSU to back-to-back conference titles. SIUE & Eastern Kentucky are solid teams in the projected 2 and 3 spot in my rankings, and both could challenge for the championship crown. Leanna Pittsenbarger at EKU is the real deal in the circle.

Top Seniors: Katie Tackett, C, Eastern Kentucky; Leanna Pittsenbarger, P, Eastern Kentucky; Sara Borders, IF, Jacksonville State; Kenzi Tate, UT, UT-Martin; Mo Ramsey, OF, Murray State; Hannah Cole, C, Eastern Illinois; 

Conference projection:
1. Jacksonville State
2. SIU-Edwardsville (SIUE)
3. Eastern Kentucky 
4. Murray State
5. Tennessee Tech
6. UT-Martin
7. Morehead State
8. Austin Peay

The Southern Conference is an enigma. I battled back and forth in writing this projection before settling on a final order to forecast. I think we legitimately could see two Southern teams in the NCAA round of 64 this year. In their first year in the conference, I think we'll see Mercer take home the crown, but keep an eye on the Mocs of Chattanooga as they'll be close behind. Both teams could earn a postseason berth. Alyssa Taylor (Chattanooga) is one player that is worth keeping an eye on, as I believe she's poised in position for something of a breakout season. Mercer lost first-team all-conference McKenzie Woody, but returns several offensive threats, including Caroline Taylor, who impressed as a freshman in 2014.

Top Seniors: Taylor Deason, P, Chattanooga; Sarah Beth Roberts, UT, Chattanooga; Ambree Muller, OF, Furman; Kaylynn Sloat, UT, Mercer; Abby Adams, IF, Samford; Dominique Madruga, IF, UNCG; 

Conference projection:
1. Mercer
2. Chattanooga
3. Samford
4. Furman
5. UNCG
6. Western Carolina
7. ETSU

In the individual-team department, McNeese State leads the pack. Their strength of schedule was strong in 2014 and they were one of the "first four out" without a doubt. Their success was enough to earn then-head coach Mike Smith the similar position at Ole Miss, and they will definitely feel the loss of him as well as the graduated Alanna DiVittorio. Joanna Hardin moved effortlessly into the role of head coach, and though she's a good softball mind, I believe there will be a bit of a transition period. You can expect another noteworthy season from the Cowgirls, but it may be 2016 before we see any kind of return to the success it looked like they were on the cusp of in 2014.

Wichita State enjoyed a great ride through most of 2014 and seemed to be destined for the land of the postseason, only to be stopped dead in their track by a loss to Bradley in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Pitching is a serious question, with Sloan Anderson graduated and gone, though the offense remains mostly intact and should produce well again, despite the loss of hitting coach Sam Ricketts. Nicole Hudson has replaced Ricketts and when the learning curve there should be minimal. Cacy Williams is a great player, but though the Shockers are an exciting team, I don't anticipate much success if they cannot get their pitching where it needs to be.

And finally, Utah Valley. Oh, Utah Valley. With an 18-42 season's record, the Wolverines pulled a true upset by running the table in the WAC tournament, including two victories over favorite New Mexico State. The victory got them an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and though they were eliminated in short order, showed some promise for the future. Don't expect a miracle, though - Josi Summers is graduated and gone and Nikki Palmer is just in her 2nd season at the helm of the program. Last year's success may look like a fluke if they don't improve much this year, but the Wolverines' sights must be set farther down the road rather than the here-and-now.

Check back next week as we go one-on-one with several coaches and hear their thoughts as they prepare for the upcoming season!

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