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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sun Belt Conference Forecast

Team that will surprise: Louisiana-Lafayette
     I really didn't have a team that fit this spot, so I went with the Ragin Cajuns just to have a chance to write about them a bit more at-length! They lost Natalie Fernandez and Shelbi Redfearn to graduation after last season, but I would not be at all surprised to see another trip to Oklahoma City in the Cajuns' not-too-distant future. They are not without their faults, though. The pitching duo of Jordan Wallace & Christina Hamilton can be one of the best in the business IF both can repeat past success. Hamilton emerged as a breakout star in 2014, though Wallace regressed from her 2013 stardom. Conflicting opinions on a potential tear in her throwing-shoulder rotator cuff have left Hamilton inactive, and it remains to be seen what long-term effects will be felt there. Haley Hayden enjoyed a breakout freshman campaign, and as you'll see if you keep reading, I expect her to have an even better 2015. She's moved across the diamond, now residing at second base instead of in center field, but that shouldn't have an impact on her offensive production. Lexie Elkins is another offensive star to watch - a third-team All-American last season, she and Hayden make up as fine a 1-2 punch on offense as Wallace and Hamilton can in the circle.

Team that will disappoint: Louisiana-Monroe
     The Warhawks showed some promise in the conference tournament last season, upsetting #3 Georgia State & #4 Western Kentucky before eventually falling in an elimination game to ULL. Following the quote unquote "retirement" of head coach Rosemary Holloway-Hill, Corey Lyon was brought in from Southern Arkansas to lead the program. I'm not impressed with the hire, and, despite a small handful of considerably-talented offensive stars, I believe the Hawks will regress from that perceived-progress in 2015. Samantha Hamby, who led the Warhawks pitching staff in nearly every category and threw almost 50% of her team's innings, has graduated, and the holdovers in the circle are unproven and untested.

Player of the Year: Haley Hayden, Louisiana-Lafayette
Pitcher of the Year: Farish Beard, South Alabama
Coach of the Year: Michael Lotief, Louisiana-Lafayette

Conference Champs: Louisiana-Lafayette
Top WCWS Contender: Louisiana-Lafayette
     (I said it all above; the Cajuns are likely to host a regional and have solid odds of returning to Oklahoma City.)

Players to Watch:
-    - Lexie Elkins, Louisiana-Lafayette - I only wrote a bit about Elkins above, but she's worth more than a one-sentence mention. After transferring to ULL from Texas Tech, Elkins became a bonafide star almost overnight. She posted a .388/24/74 stat line and was defensively solid. An all-around excellent player, she did her job and then some. The Sun Belt Player of the Year; an all-conference and all-region selection; and a third-team All-American, she quietly put up some of the best numbers in the country on a team where all the hype was on the pitching.
-    - Rochelle Roberts, Louisiana-Monroe - Roberts was a bright spot on the Warhawks squad last season, impressing immediately in her freshman season. An all-conference first-teamer, she hit .343 on the season, but had just five extra base hits. She showed speed on the base paths with eighteen stolen bases, second on the squad only to Miyuki Navarrete's forty-two. If she can improve her run-production numbers a bit, she could be looking at another all-conference nod.
-    - Taylor Anderson, Georgia State - Anderson isn't your typical leadoff hitter. Hitting in the #1 spot in the batting order, she led her squad in home runs, triples, and slugging percentage last season, and finished second in RBI, just four short of the top spot there. Still just a junior, she looks to build on her breakout 2014 campaign; expect to see similar offensive numbers this year from Anderson, and perhaps a well-deserved all-conference honor.
      
Top Seniors:
P – Christina Hamilton, UL-Lafayette; Jordan Wallace, UL-Lafayette; Farish Beard, South Alabama
C – Callie Alford, Georgia State
IF – Lauren Coleman, Georgia State; Alexis Cacioppo, Louisiana-Monroe; Miyuki Navarrete, Louisiana-Monroe; Nina Villanueva, UT-Arlington; Courtney Harris, Texas State
OF – Blair Johnson, South Alabama; Ashley Christy, Georgia State

Conference Projection (2014 finish in parentheses):
1. Louisiana-Lafayette (1)
2. South Alabama (2)
3. Georgia Southern (1st, Southern Conf.)
4. Georgia State (3)
5. Texas State (5)
6. Troy (7)
7. UT-Arlington (8)
8. Louisiana-Monroe (6)

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