Team that could surprise: Long Beach State 49ers
(Transfer hurler Christina Clermont got to the Beach and immediately and firmly established herself as arguably *the* finest hurler in the Big West conference. She will have a huge hand and part in any success Kim Sowder's squad has in 2016. Offensively, Lauren Lombardi and Darian Tautalafua, two of the squad's .300+ hitters from a season ago, return to step into the box for the Beach. Accounting for twenty-one of the team's forty home runs last season, the pair pack a solid power punch in the middle of the Niners lineup.)
Team that could disappoint: Cal State Northridge Matadors
(The Matadors have lost a lot in the pitching department since the 2015 season ended. Senior Brianna Elder graduated after registering a 2.24 ERA in 180+ innings a year ago and all-conference freshman star Zoe Conley, who recorded a 1.84 ERA and nearly a 3/1 SO/BB ratio in 2015, transferred to Cal. Veteran pitching coach Samantha Sheeley has been brought in and tasked with pulling together and managing a staff that has recorded all of a combined 133 innings in the circle at the Division 1 level. Despite the game-changing presence of Katie Hooper [more on her below], I do not anticipate the Matadors to make as big of a splash in 2016.)
Player of the Year: Missy Taukeiaho, Cal State Fullerton
Pitcher of the Year: Christina Clermont, Long Beach State
Coach of the Year: Kim Sowder, Long Beach State
Conference Champs: Long Beach State 49ers
Top WCWS Contender: Long Beach State 49ers
(I predicted the Niners to take home the conference title and, by virtue of that, consider them the Big West's best candidates to reach the World Series in 2016, long-shot though it may be.)
Players to Watch:
--> Christina Clermont, Long Beach State - After spending a single season at Syracuse with what could be described as mediocre-at-best statistics, Clermont came to the Beach and quickly and soundly situated her position as one of the conference's best. The conference Co-Pitcher of the Year in 2015, she will again shoulder much of the workload for the Niners and will be depended upon to get them through any postseason levels they may reach.
--> Katie Hooper, CSU-Northridge - Despite the afore-mentioned would-be catastrophe in the circle for CSUN, the Matadors have a true x-factor in Hooper, a junior. The 2015 conference Player of the Year led her squad with a .392 batting average and her sixteen home runs and fifty-six RBI paced both her team and the entire conference. An exciting player to watch, she will have to perform to an even higher level to keep the Matadors at the top of the conference. She is certainly a candidate to repeat as conference Player of the Year.
--> Courtney Rodriguez, CS-Fullerton - The former University of Arizona Wildcat transferred to Fullerton in time for the 2015 campaign, playing right away after leaving the PAC-12. It made head coach Kelly Ford and Titan fans very happy that she did, too - she recorded a .406/3/42 slash line, complimented by a .563 slugging percentage and .433 on-base percentage. She exercised her speed to the tune of fifteen stolen bases in seventeen tries. An offensive play maker, she's a solid member of the lineup and figures to have a great role in 2016 and could easily repeat on both of her first-team all-conference and all-region honors.
* Can CSU-Northridge recover from the loss of the two biggest pieces of their pitching staff to attempt to repeat as conference champs in 2016?
IF - Maylynn Mitchell, CSU-Northridge; Darian Tautalafua, Long Beach State; Missy Taukeiaho, Cal State Fullerton; Christa Castello, UC Davis
OF - Courtney Rodriguez, Cal State Fullerton; Keiki Carlos, Hawaii
UT/DP - Haley Tobler, Long Beach State
1. Long Beach State 49ers
2. Cal State Northridge Matadors
3. Cal State Fullerton Titans
4. UC Riverside Highlanders
5. Hawaii Rainbow Wahine
6. UC Davis Aggies
7. Cal Poly Mustangs
8. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos