Monday, January 11, 2016

Big Ten Conference Forecast

Team that might surprise us all: Minnesota Golden Gophers
     (The Gophers have come on strong over the last several years, thanks to the emergence of stars like Sara Moulton, Kaitlyn Richardson, and Sara Groenewegen. Under Jessica Allister's tutelage, the Gophers have become perennial postseason stalwarts and are quietly and quickly elevating to the top level of the game. After ending the 2015 season with a top-twenty RPI ranking despite a loss in the regional round to Arizona, the Gophers should have high expectations coming into 2016. Sara Groenewegen continues to put together an incredible career resume and no one should be surprised to see the Gophers in position to host a regional and contend for a spot in the Women's College World Series.)

Team that might disappoint us all: Ohio State Buckeyes
     (Last year, I predicted the Buckeyes as a team that could pull some surprises in the B1G, but they largely put together a season that was much of the same, finishing with a record just above .500 and mid-pack in the conference race. Though they return some of their statistical leaders from a season ago, the loss of leading innings-eater Olivia O'Reilly and offensive stud Caitlin Conrad will hurt. The Buckeyes ended just outside postseason consideration a season ago, but I don't expect them to be anywhere close to consideration in 2016.)

Player of the Year: Sara Groenewegen, Minnesota
Pitcher of the Year: Megan Betsa, Michigan
Coach of the Year: Jessica Allister, Minnesota

Conference Champs: Michigan Wolverines
Top WCWS Contender: Michigan Wolverines
     (Following a season when they went to the WCWS championship series, the Wolverines stand on the short list of preseason favorites to take home the title in 2016.)

Players to Watch:
·    --> Andrea Filler, Northwestern - Filler might be the best kept secret in the Big Ten conference, if not the entire Class of 2016. The former Boston College transfer has played a variety of positions since arriving in Evanston, including first base, designated player, and, most recently, shortstop. If she had a good year in 2014 (.333/6/40), her 2015 season was great. With a .395 batting average, a .735 slugging percentage, twelve home runs and sixty RBI, she earned first-team all-B1G honors as well as a spot on the all-region first team. Continuing a lengthy line of Wildcat stars, she is in position to have a huge senior campaign that can not only set her up for a spot on a professional roster, but help her team make some noise in the postseason.
·    --> Sara Driesenga, Michigan - What could have been the Wolverines' 2015 pitching staff - Haylie Wagner, Megan Betsa, and Driesenga - are what beat reporters' dreams are made of. Unfortunately, that trio never got to realize their full potential as a staff after Driesenga went down with injury and missed most of the 2015 season, including the postseason. After receiving a redshirt and clearance to return for her fifth year, Driesenga will play second-fiddle to Betsa thanks to Wagner's graduation. She can get some innings and has shown over time that she has the stuff to be an elite hurler. If she can return to her form of 2012 and 2013, she will play a large role in helping the Wolverines return to Oklahoma City.
·    --> Austen Urness, Nebraska - Despite spending the last two years in Lincoln, Urness has not had any kind of legitimate opportunity to prove her worth. A frightening injury that occurred while attempting to make a running catch in 2014 sat her down for a month of games and limited her through the rest of the season. An injury in the fall kept her from seeing the field at all last season. In the brief appearances she has made, Urness has shown an ability to produce - a .274 average and four home runs in 106 at-bats in 2014. She may not be an offensive star, but if finally given the opportunity to put together a full season at the plate, she could help the Huskers a lot.

Biggest Question:
* How will first-year B1G coaches Tyra Perry and Julie Wright, who both had success in other conferences, adjust to the top level of competition in the Big Ten?
* Will Minnesota continue their climb into the conference's elite and legitimately challenge Michigan for the conference crown?
* A year after finishing as runners-up, will this be the year Michigan gets the job done and takes home the National Championship trophy?

Top Seniors:
P – Sara Driesenga, Michigan; Emily Lockman, Nebraska; Kristen Wood, Northwestern; Lily Fecho, Purdue
C – Taylor LeMay, Minnesota; Cammi Prantl, Ohio State; Kelsey Dotson, Indiana
IF – Sierra Romero, Michigan; Alicia Armstrong, Nebraska; Andrea Filler, Northwestern; Corey Schwartz, Maryland; Lindsey Schmeiser, Maryland; Stephanie Huang, Rutgers
OF - Sierra Lawrence, Michigan; Kiki Stokes, Nebraska; Lexi Knief, Penn State; Shannon Cawley, Indiana
UT/DP – Amy Letourneau, Northwestern; Erika Leonard, Ohio State; Macy Jones, Penn State

Conference Projection:
1. Michigan Wolverines
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers
3. Northwestern Wildcats
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
6. Maryland Terrapins
7. Ohio State Buckeyes
8. Iowa Hawkeyes
Others: Penn State Nittany Lions; Illinois Fighting Illini; Purdue Boilermakers; Wisconsin Badgers; Indiana Hoosiers; Michigan State Spartans

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