Team that might surprise us all: UCF Knights
(The Knights significantly boosted their national profile in 2015, finding themselves in the top twenty-five through most of the season and making a real case to host a Regional. After being shorted the privilege of hosting, head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie has put together a tough schedule for this season that includes matchups against five SEC opponents; four PAC-12 foes; and nine other Power Five rivals including a three-game set at Baylor. With the heroic arm of Shelby Turnier in the circle and an offense led by the power of Kalyn Cenal and Samantha McCloskey, the pieces are in place and another well-put-together winning campaign should leave no doubt of the Knights as a high postseason seed.)
Team that might disappoint us all: UCF Knights
(As many reasons as exist for the Knights to succeed in 2016, there are just as many as to why they will not duplicate their success from a year ago. The schedule is, as mentioned, quite a bit tougher than in 2015, when only a dozen Power Five opponents dotted the schedule. Replacing Mackenzie Audas' power and dominance in the circle alongside Turnier will be no easy task. Graduation also saw the departure of the squad's three biggest base-stealing threats, who also happened to be three of the team's top five hitters a year ago. Following last season, expectations are high but disappointment is just as likely as success.)
Player of the Year: Lee Ann Spivey, South Florida
Pitcher of the Year: Shelby Turnier, UCF
Coach of the Year: John Bargfeldt, Tulsa
Conference Champs: Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Top WCWS Contender: UCF Knights
Despite my picking Tulsa to pull the upset and come out on top in the AAC, the Knights have set themselves up to have a high RPI and are the conference's most likely representative in OK City.
Players to Watch:
--> Caitlin Sill, Tulsa - Despite a record just under .500 a year ago, Sill enjoyed the best season of her career in 2015. With a 2.65 career ERA and opponents hitting below .240 against her the past two seasons, she stands with a golden opportunity to finish her career in the circle stellarly. Her strikeout/walk ratio could use improvement, but there are otherwise few complaints about her skill set.
--> Astin Donovan, South Florida - In her inaugural season in Tampa, Donovan posted a .341 batting average. A master of the short game, she laid the foundation for a stellar career. She could easily earn all-conference and all-region honors this season.
--> Samantha McCloskey, UCF - The powerful catcher/infielder came in clutch for the Knights in 2015, clubbing the walk-off, game-winning home run against Tulsa to take home the conference tournament title. Her slash line dropped fairly drastically from two seasons ago, including nearly seventy points in batting average; however, she has the ability to reverse that trend with relative ease in her senior campaign and her team will rely on her leadership. Not to be overlooked is her defensive prowess where she committed only three errors and threw out 79% of would-be base-stealers a year ago.
--> Emily Gaitan, South Florida - In an abbreviated non-conference campaign with the SEC's Ole Miss a year ago, Gaitan impressed, putting together a sub-2.00 ERA and an 8-2 record. In 2014, her only full season as a Rebel, opponents hit .235 against her and she published a 3.93 ERA in seventy-three innings. In a decidedly-lower level of competition in moving from the SEC to the AAC, she could enjoy similar statistics in an elevated amount of work.
* Can UCF duplicate and better their success of a year ago?
* Will this be the year that South Florida returns to relevance in the conference and on a national scale?
* How hot is Natalie Poole's seat in Memphis?
P - Shelby Turnier, UCF; Caitlin Sill, Tulsa; Julana Shrum, Houston; Erica Nunn, South Florida
C - Samantha McCloskey, UCF; Lee Ann Spivey, South Florida
IF - Casey Alcorn, East Carolina; Kalyn Cenal, UCF; Courtney Klinger, Houston; Lexi Gifford, Connecticut
DP - Jessica Ujvari, UCF
4. South Florida
5. East Carolina