Team that will surprise: UAB
Despite losing their top two power threats in addition to their two best starting pitchers, the Blazers still possess a wealth of talent and, if the chips fall right, could make a postseason push in the conference tournament. Caitlin Attfield, she of the .425 batting average, impressed me immensely last season. In addition to the number of times she reached base, she showed some pop with five home runs and eighteen extra base hits. Mary Warren showed some promise in her inaugural campaign, and could help make up for the loss of the McGrath twins on offense. Pitching is something of a question, but if the Blazers can solve that problem, they could be a sleeper pick in the C-USA.
Team that will disappoint: North Texas
The Mean Green are one of those teams that make the postseason year-in and year-out, but never really seem to challenge for a championship. Following last season, they lost Brooke Foster, their best power threat and all-around player, as well as pitching workhorse Ashley Kirk. Both are HUGE losses for the Mean Green. Foster hit exactly 1/3 of the team's home runs in 2014, and Kirk was in the circle for more than half of the team's innings. Dani Hoff and Kat Strunk both return on offense, though both will have to put up simply stellar numbers in 2015 to make up for the loss of Foster. Pitching is a question, as well.
Player of the Year: Caitlin Attfield, UAB
Pitcher of the Year: Pauline Tufi, Louisiana Tech
Coach of the Year: Amy Tudor, Western Kentucky
Conference Champs: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Top WCWS Contender: Western Kentucky
(UAB would have occupied this spot in any of the last few seasons, but as they must rebuild a bit, I don't see them with much postseason hope outside the CUSA tournament. WKU is the best chance Conference USA has of being represented in Oklahoma City.)
Players to Watch:
- Corinne Jenkins, FIU - Jenkins began 2014 with six straight wins, a start that led to a career-best seventeen victories on the season. Her ERA went down nearly a half-run in roughly forty more innings than the previous season. Now under new tutelage, it remains to be seen if the coaching changes have an effect on Jenkins' stats, but either way, she's worth keeping an eye on, including as a potential late-round draft pick in 2016.
- Hayley Davis, UAB - Davis, a senior, has seen progressively more action as her career has gone on, and appeared in fifty-five games for the Blazers last season. As mentioned above, the Blazers will have to retool their offense and Davis needs to be part of that... four home runs and twelve RBIs are not going to be enough; she has the talent to nearly double those numbers.
- Pauline Tufi, Louisiana - Tufi, an Anchorage, Alaska native, simply showed out in 2014, her freshman campaign. A conference all-freshman, Tufi was also named first-team all state by the Louisiana Sports Writer's Association. In a state that boasts elite programs like LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette, that's quite the accomplishment. She boasted an offensive stat line of .281/4/34 from the batter's box, and went 13-11 from the circle with a 3.43 ERA. If the Techsters can improve a bit as a team, Tufi could fulfill my POTY prediction. Even if she does not, however, she's a young player with considerable raw talent.
- Larissa Franklin, Western Kentucky - Franklin, the IPFW transfer and member of Team Canada, finishes her career with a one-and-done tenure at WKU. A two-time all conference player in the Summit League and an all-region selection in 2014, she paced her squad by nearly 100 points with her .459 batting average last season. She laid five home runs over the fence, showing some pop in addition to a great ability to get on base. She was caught stealing a base in just five of twenty-six tries, and will be a multi-faceted, valuable addition to the Hilltoppers squad.
- Megan Low, UTSA - Low tied for fourth in the NCAA with twenty-two home runs last season, a bright spot in an otherwise-dim 2014 campaign for the Roadrunners. The former CUSA Freshman of the Year earned all-conference and all-region honors for her slugging prowess in her junior season. In addition to her power numbers, Low led her team in batting average and on-base percentage, and had a surprisingly-measly eighteen strikeouts. Look for her to keep dropping bombs this season.
P - Shelbee Rodgers, Southern Miss; Shelby Graves, FIU; Samantha Messer, FAU
IF - Heather Pearson, UAB; Preslie Cruce, Western Kentucky; Vivian Tijerina, UTSA; Megan Low, UTSA; Samantha Slade, Charlotte
OF - Ashley Eldridge, UTEP; Larissa Franklin, Western Kentucky; Shawna Sadler, Western Kentucky
Conference Projection (2014 finish in parentheses):
1. Western Kentucky (4th, Sun Belt)
2. FAU (4)
3. UAB (2)
4. FIU (3)
5. Charlotte (8)
6. North Texas (5)
7. Marshall (7)
8. UTSA (9)