Team that might surprise us all: Kennesaw State Owls
(The Owls surprised to a point in 2015 under then-interim coach Tory Acheson. He now has the job permanently and has his team in a position to win in 2016. Led offensively by Taylor Denton, Megan Veringa, and Courtney Sutter, the trio of whom were all-conference selections a season ago, if the Owls can find a true pitching ace and develop consistency in the circle, they have the makeup to contend for a high conference seed and potentially the conference crown.)
Team that might disappoint us all: USC-Upstate Spartans
(The Upstate Spartans are one of the top mid-major programs year-in and year-out and that's been consistently the case in recent history. Every team sees a senior class graduate following every season, but the Spartans' 2015 class of six all-conference players will make a huge hit on any success the squad hopes for this season. All-American Shellie Robinson leaves the biggest hole. To put in perspective the offense that will need to be replaced, without their seniors a year ago, the Spartans would have hit twelve home runs and registered just 194 at-bats. Their final 2015 stats included ninety-four home runs and over 1,400 at-bats.)
Player of the Year: Karla Beasley, USC-Upstate
Pitcher of the Year: Lexi Shubert, USC-Upstate
Coach of the Year: Kristin Ryman, Lipscomb
Conference Champs: Lipscomb Bisons
Top WCWS Contender: USC-Upstate
(On a yearly basis, the Spartans play well and show promise against quality opponents, yet never can seem to advance past the NCAA regional round. Chris Hawkins' team retains their spot atop the conference and if an ASun team is to reach the World Series, Upstate will be the program to do it.)
Players to Watch:
· --> Karla Beasley, Upstate - Beasley is the lone position player of impact that returns for Chris Hawkins this season, and she is the kind of player that, though young, you can count on to help keep or take your program to the top level of the conference. The 2015 ASun Freshman of the Year, Beasley registered a .396/12/50 slash line a season ago. The righty slugger will be a big part of the traditionally-offense-happy Spartans offense this season.
· --> Tanner Sanders, Lipscomb - The former unanimous conference all-freshman team member earned all-conference honors last season, ranking in the top five in-conference in strikeouts and ERA (the latter a solid 2.88). Complemented with and by fellow senior Kelly Young, the Bison pitching staff can be quite effective if they're 'on'. Sanders is a solid #2 with ace qualities, and her performance will be silently key.
· --> Courtney Sutter, Kennesaw State - The redshirt junior backstop was part of a quartet of Owls that earned all-conference honors in 2015 and was the only underclassman of the group to earn first-team recognition. With a .313/7/33 slash line, it's without doubt that she can hit; if she can solidify her play behind the plate, she could go into her final season among the best in the nation at the position.
· --> Stacy McClelland, North Florida – As a junior in 2015, McClelland earned first-team all-conference and all-region honors as a first baseman, leaving her high on my big board at that position heading into 2016. She of a .399/13/47 slash line with a .706 slugging percentage a year ago, she has pop in her bat, can get on base, and may be the best first D1 first baseman in the state of Florida this year.
* Will Upstate be able to replace the talented & impactful senior class they lost following last season?
P – Kelly Young, Lipscomb; Tanner Sanders, Lipscomb
C – Jessica Griffin, Stetson
IF – Kayla Drury, Stetson; Emily Sanchez, Jacksonville; Stacy McClelland, North Florida; Megan Veringa, Kennesaw State
UT/DP – Brittany Elmore, Lipscomb; Hillary Kartman, Kennesaw State
1. USC-Upstate Spartans
2. Lipscomb Bisons
3. Kennesaw State Owls
4. North Florida Ospreys
5. Jacksonville Dolphins
6. Stetson Hatters
7. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
7. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles