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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Atlantic Coast Conference Forecast

Team that could surprise: Pittsburgh Panthers
     (The Panthers surprised in 2015 by besting #3 seed Notre Dame and #2 seed North Carolina in consecutive days to earn a berth in the conference tournament championship game and an at-large bid to the NCAA regional round, where they advanced to the regional final. Though they lost their leading hurler in the now-graduated Savannah King, they return many starters and top players and I like the Panthers' outlook for 2016. Kayla Harris put up solid numbers and looked promising in the circle as a freshman a year ago and redshirt seniors Maggie Sevilla and Shelby Pickett should lead the offense. 2015 home run leader McKayla Taylor, also a sophomore, stands in good position to put up even better numbers this season. Do not be surprised if the Panthers make another postseason run.)

Team that could disappoint: Louisville Cardinals
     (The Cardinals' 2015 season ended once-again in the regional round in 2015, marking the 12th straight season that that has been the case. Despite talented athletes and winning something near 2/3 of their games on a yearly basis, Sandy Pearsall's ball club never seems to be able to get it done in the postseason. Having lost offensive stars Whitney Arion and Kelsi Jones to graduation, the Cardinals will have to find more consistency on offense; Maryssa Becker is regularly impressive both in the circle (2.12 ERA, .223 batting average against in 2015) and at the plate (.342/9/39), but she can't do it all.)

Player of the Year: Kristen Brown, North Carolina
Pitcher of the Year: Rachel Nasland, Notre Dame
Coach of the Year: Lonni Alameda, Florida State

Conference Champs: Florida State Seminoles
Top WCWS Contender: Florida State Seminoles
     The 'Noles have dominated the ACC for quite a while now and remain the conference's top team and best option to reach Oklahoma City.

Players to Watch:
--> Shelby Pickett, Pittsburgh - I mentioned Pickett briefly above; the redshirt senior and former Ohio State Buckeye hit .350 a year ago in her first playing season as a Panther (she transferred prior to 2014, but sat out that year due to an injury). She's got some pop in her bat and I think she could have a career year this season. She'll be someone the Panthers can lean on to lead their offensive attack if they are to fulfill my prediction and get back to the postseason.
--> Allie Rhodes/Rachel Nasland, Notre Dame - You might not find this duo on any lists of dominant pitching staffs nationwide, but they are a solid 1-2 punch in the circle for the Irish. Rhodes had a breakout campaign a year ago, recording a 20-5 record with a 2.81 ERA. Nasland went 17-9 and opponents hit just .207 against her in more than 180 innings of work. The duo complement each other well and pose a real problem for opposing offenses. If they can continue their high-level consistency of a year ago, they could help the Irish go places themselves in the postseason.
--> Victoria East, Florida State - A two-time all-conference selection, East suffered a down year in 2015. Moving from starting first baseman to primarily a corner outfielder had an effect on her production, as did a diminished amount of playing time. She has shown an ability to play extremely well at this level of the game, and if she can find her groove and return to the form of her freshman and sophomore campaigns, the 'Noles may have no choice but to find a spot for her in the everyday lineup.
--> Kristen Brown, North Carolina - Brown may be the best-kept secret in all of college softball. Did you know she was not only an all-American, but a top 25 finalist for National Player of the Year a season ago? Most seem to glaze over her name in favor of the headline-grabbers like Chamberlain, Romero, etc. but any and all would be remiss to look past Brown in consideration for the best players in the nation in 2016. She owns a career .346 career batting average, as well as the UNC career home runs mark. She led the conference in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage last season and is one of the increasingly-less-rare power-hitting middle infielders. She should have an excellent chance to reach the pros this summer, though she's likely to add a few more trophies and awards in college first.

Biggest Questions:
* Can Pitt capitalize on their postseason success of 2015 and build on it for success in 2016?
* Will Jessica Burroughs follow in the shoes of Monica Perry and Lacey Waldrop and show herself as a bonafide ace for FSU?
* Is this the year the Seminoles are upset for the conference crown?

Top Seniors:
P - Allie Rhodes, Notre Dame; Maggie Tyler, Virginia Tech
C - Katey Smith, Virginia Tech
IF - Micaela Arizmendi, Notre Dame; Jenna Modic, Pittsburgh; Maggie Sevilla, Pittsburgh; Maddie Lionberger, Georgia Tech; Kristen Brown, North Carolina; Corinne Ozanne, Syracuse; Maggie Hawkins, North Carolina State; Lana Van Dyken, North Carolina State; Kelsey Mericka, Virginia Tech
OF - Megan Sorlie, Notre Dame; Victoria East, Florida State; Megan Cooley, Boston College; Aguilla Mateen, North Carolina
DP/UT - Shelby Pickett, Pittsburgh

Conference Projection:
1. Florida State Seminoles
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
3. North Carolina Tar Heels
4. Pittsburgh Panthers
5. North Carolina State Wolfpack
6. Louisville Cardinals
7. Virginia Tech Hokies
8. Boston College Eagles
Others: Georgia Tech; Syracuse; Virginia

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