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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Big Ten Conference Forecast

Team that will surprise: Ohio State
     With incredible players like Sam Marder & Alicia Herron coming out of the Buckeyes program over the last several years, one can't help but wonder why the softball program hasn't seen even a fraction of the success of their football championship-winning counterparts. Though we won't likely see them in Oklahoma City any time soon, the first steps back to relevance will begin this year. Senior outfielders Caitlin Conrad & Taylor Watkins are excellent offensive players, and if senior hurler Olivia O'Reilly can drop her career 3.08 ERA just a bit, this might be the year we see a postseason berth from the Buckeyes.

Team that will disappoint: Nebraska
     Rhonda Revelle's Huskers not only lost the Edwards twins - Taylor & Tatum - to graduation, they also said good-bye to all-conference infielder Hailey Decker. All three losses leave huge holes to fill. Decker, with two seasons of eligibility remaining, would have proved a good bridge from the Edwards era to the next, but with her departure, filling three major offensive holes is going to be a major task, not to mention replacing Tatum Edwards' ability in the circle. Note that only twenty-seven of the Huskers' seventy-three home runs in 2014 belonged to members of the team other than these three.

Player of the Year: Sierra Romero, Michigan
Pitcher of the Year: Haylie Wagner, Michigan
Coach of the Year: Jessica Allister, Minnesota

Conference Champs: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Top WCWS Contender: Michigan Wolverines
     (As long as Carol Hutchins is at the helm of the Wolverines program & Sierra Romero anchors the offense, the Wolverines will be the heavy favorites to represent the B1G in the World Series. This year, despite my prediction of a second-place conference finish, I believe they're in the best position to take it all the way.)

Players to Watch:
- Taylor LeMay, Minnesota - LeMay enjoyed a breakout season in 2014 after transferring from Concordia, St. Paul. She clubbed eleven home runs as the Gophers' starting catcher & figures to be an even more important part of their offense this season. She made just three errors all season, good enough for a .994 fielding percentage, and solidifying her spot as a defensively-solid backstop.
- Sierra Romero, Michigan - Very little can be said about Romero that hasn't already been mentioned at some point; a top-three Player of the Year finalist in 2014, don't be surprised if she takes home the award this year. She's that good. An offensive juggernaut and the very definition of a playmaker, she's the best of the best.
- Steph Pasquale, Nebraska - Pasquale, the former Temple slugger, gained a medical redshirt for the 2014 season and will finish her career as a Husker. She'll likely replace Taylor Edwards behind the plate and will have a solid part in contributing to the now-diminished offense. An All-American and former conference Player & Freshman of the Year, she's one to watch. The broken hand that earned her the redshirt last season shouldn't have too many lasting effects, and Pasquale's post-college prospects are fair.
- Chloe Miller, Wisconsin - Miller started at catcher from day one when she got to Madison, and all the rookie did was lead her squad in home runs and set school freshman records in multiple offensive categories, including home runs & total bases. An All-Region selection, she might only get better in 2015.
- Caitlin Conrad, Ohio State - Conrad, along with her afore-mentioned fellow outfielder Watkins, will be heavily relied upon if the Buckeyes are to fulfill my prediction of a postseason trip. The team's website calls the duo, along with junior Cammi Prantl, "the Cannon Crew". All three batted .300+ and combined for more than 100 runs and RBI. Conrad's statistics have climbed significantly each season she's played, so if her climb continues, a .360 average and a solid dozen roundtrippers would be her leading 2015 statistics. The former may be a bit off reality, but the latter should be right on the money.

Top Seniors:
P - Haylie Wagner, Michigan; Sara Driesenga, Michigan
C - Lauren Sweet, Michigan; Steph Pasquale, Nebraska
IF - Ashley Burkhardt, Purdue; Megan Blank, Iowa
OF - Caitlin Conrad, Ohio State; Taylor Watkins, Ohio State
UT - Kaitlyn Richardson, Minnesota; Andrea DiPrima, Northwestern; Anna Edwards, Northwestern

Conference Projection (2014 finish in parentheses):
1. Minnesota (3)
2. Michigan (1)
3. Wisconsin (4)
4. Northwestern (5)
5. Nebraska (2)
6. Ohio State (6)
7. Illinois (9)
8. Purdue (7)
Other: Iowa; Indiana; Penn State; Michigan State

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