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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

SEC Softball Forecast

Team that will surprise: LSU
     I feel confident in saying that the Tigers could be a legitimate national contender sooner rather than later. A young, but very solid pitching staff is their “crowning glory”. Sophomores Kelsee Selman & Baylee Corbello, along with transfer Carley Hoover, will handle the duties from the circle. Selman was underused in 2014, though Corbello threw nearly 200 innings. Hoover saw very little action before an injury finished her freshman year at Stanford in ’14, but if she’s able to live up to the hype she received as Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of South Carolina, she will fit in well. On offense, a wealth of young-but-great players are featured from 1 to 9. Bailey Landry and Sahvanna Jaquish, both sophomores as well, are the cream of the crop.

Team that will disappoint: Tennessee
     This one was nearly a tie, but I went with the Lady Vols in this spot. For the second year in a row, they graduated an all-star senior class, saying good-bye to Ellen Renfroe, Melissa Davin, and Madison Shipman, though the latter remains in Knoxville as a volunteer assistant coach. Catcher/third baseman hybrid Hannah Akamine left the team shortly before last season ended, as well, and wound up in Corvallis on Laura Berg’s Oregon State squad. Though Rainey Gaffin, Megan Geer, and Cheyanne Tarango lead the group of holdovers, the Weekly-led Vols will undoubtedly suffer from a serious lack of offensive power. Gretchen Aucoin, a junior transfer from Texas Tech, is the most experienced pitcher on the staff, and will be joined in the circle by Erin Gabriel; the duo are the only two “exclusive” pitchers – Gaffin and Tarango will also see their fair share of time in the circle. All things considered, we could be looking at a very early postseason exit from the Lady Vols in 2015.

Player of the Year: Haylie McCleney, Alabama
Pitcher of the Year: Chelsea Wilkinson, Georgia
Coach of the Year: Lu Harris-Champer, Georgia

Conference Champs: Florida Gators
Top WCWS Contender: Florida
     (Perennial WCWS contenders Alabama will have to make up for the loss of Jackie Traina, and I’m not confident her absence can be made up for by Leslie Jury and two underclassmen. Consequently, and despite their own loss of Hannah Rogers, I think the defending-champion Gators hold the best odds of returning to Oklahoma City.)

Players to Watch:
-      - Sandra Simmons, LSU - Simmons is one of just nine upperclassmen on the Tigers' roster. She started all of the team's sixty-two games in 2014, and only missed a single game in her freshman year in 2013. Despite her seemingly-omnipresence, her hitting has lacked a bit; in 2014, she hit .305 with three home runs and thirty-seven RBI. Defensively, she's quite sound with just two errors on her record last season. If she can pick her offensive power numbers up a bit, she'll enjoy another solid season and could be a valuable factor if the Tigers are to fulfill my prediction of postseason success.

-   - Kasey Cooper, Auburn - It's hard to believe Cooper is just a sophomore after the season she put up in 2014. The starting third baseman from day one, she led her squad with a .418 batting average, clubbed eighteen home runs, and was responsible for seventy-seven runs crossing the plate. The Co-Freshman of the Year last season, she was one of just five freshman to be named an All-American last season, garnering second-team honors. She may well find her way onto the first-team this year.

    - Meagan Prince, Kentucky - Kelsey Nunley is the ace and workhorse of the Wildcats staff; there's no doubt about that. But Prince could fill the #2 spot in the rotation and, along with freshman Erin Rethlake, help take some of the workload off Nunley. Prince enjoyed a solid freshman campaign in 2014, including an 8-4 win/loss record and a sub-3.50 ERA. Sixty-one strikeouts and an opponent's batting average of .283 finished off her crucial stat line. If she can bring her ERA and OBA down a a bit, she could establish herself as a solid #2 and a reliable go-to hurler when Nunley graduates after 2016.

    - Kirsti Merritt, Florida - As the Gators seek a repeat title in 2015, an improved offensive season from Merritt will be of huge benefit. With .299/13/52 stat line in 2014, her sophomore stats were nothing to laugh at, but if she can improve on each a bit in 2015, it will be to the great benefit of her squad. A .315/16/70 line is doable for a player of Merritt's talent and capabilities, and her knack for coming in in the clutch just when her team needs her (see: walk-off home run in Super Regionals last year to clinch trip to OKC) will come in mighty handy, without a doubt.
     
Top Seniors:
P – Lauren Haeger, Florida
C – Griffin Joiner, Kentucky; Sarah Mooney, South Carolina
IF – Corrin Genovese, Missouri; Angela Randazzo, Missouri; Kelsea Roth, Missouri; Julia Echols, Mississippi State; Paige Wilson, Georgia; Morgan Estell, Auburn
OF – Branndi Melero, Auburn; A.J. Andrews, LSU; Anna Swafford, Georgia
UT – Devon Wallace, Arkansas

Conference Projection (2014 finish in parentheses):
1. Florida (4)
2. LSU (6)
3. Georgia (5)
4. Kentucky (7)
5. Alabama (1)
6. Missouri (3)
7. Tennessee (2)
8. Auburn (9)
Playing-in to the conference tournament: Mississippi State & South Carolina

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