(Despite the loss of their second-leading hitter and top pitcher, the graduated Bianca Duran, the Lady Techsters can build on a better-than-expectations 2015 when they put together a 31-19 record. It will take some work to adequately fill Duran's stead, but the Techsters have the talent to be able to pull it off. I don't think we have seen the best that Pauline Tufi and Anna Cross can do and, with their increased production and a better performance in conference play, I think we could be looking at an NCAA tournament-bound team in Ruston.)
Team that could disappoint: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
(Miranda Kramer is gone, graduated, moved on to her professional career. That's going to leave a huge hole on Amy Tudor's squad, one that will not be easily filled. Gone, too, are Larissa Franklin and Dani Pugh, the squad's top hitter and home run leader from a year ago, respectively. The Hilltoppers played SEC foe Georgia tough in the regional round, but I'd call them lucky to reach the conference final in 2016, much less the NCAA tournament.)
Player of the Year: Morgan Zerkle, Marshall
Pitcher of the Year: Kylee Hanson, Florida Atlantic
Coach of the Year: Mark Montgomery, Louisiana Tech
Conference Champs: Florida Atlantic Owls
Top WCWS Contender: Florida Atlantic Owls
(Joan Joyce's Owls are a quietly-solid program, overshadowed by a number of their higher-level counterparts in the Sunshine State. If a CUSA team were to reach Oklahoma City in 2016, the Owls might be the best bet.)
Players to Watch:
--> Anna Cross, Louisiana Tech - As I said above, I don't think we've seen the best that Cross can bring to the table - and to the plate. She recorded a .308/6/27 slash line a year ago and scored thirty-one runs in the process, a team high. In her senior campaign, she will be relied upon if the Lady Techsters are to have the season I expect of them.
--> Kylee Hanson, Florida Atlantic - Overshadowed by the statistics of Miranda Kramer a year ago, Hanson has enjoyed a stellar career in her two years at FAU. Sporting a career 1.60 ERA from nearly 290 innings in the circle, she is an excellent righty hurler and will be the backbone of the Owls in 2016. Worthy of note, too, is that opponents hit just .198 against her last season.
--> Jordan Dixon, Marshall - The very definition of a workhorse, Dixon appeared in forty-nine games in 2015 and recorded a decision in forty-eight of them. Registering 280+ innings of work, she still managed to remain effective, as evidenced by her 2.55 ERA and 308 strikeouts. The latter number earned her a top-ten ranking in the entirety of Division 1. She is an undoubted good pitcher, but can be great at times and will once again be the Herd's go-to in the circle, in the line of one Andi Williamson before her.
--> Caitlin Attfield, UAB - If you missed Attfield's 2015 season, you might want to seriously reconsider your softball-watching habits and add the Blazers to your Twitter list. Named the conference's Player of the Year thanks to a .473 batting average, complimented by eighty hits and forty-three runs scored, she wowed a year ago and set herself up for big things this season. A member of the all-conference and all-region first teams, she could be looking at the possibility of an the all-American award I thought she deserved a year ago.
* Following the loss of Miranda Kramer and the rest of a stellar senior class, how far will Western Kentucky fall in 2016?
P - Corinne Jenkins, FIU; Lexi Betancourt, Charlotte
IF - Anna Cross, Louisiana Tech; Katie Cleary, Southern Miss
OF - Christina Martinez, Florida Atlantic; Caitlin Attfield, UAB; Kaelynn Greene, Marshall
UT/DP - Sara Beth Williamson, UAB
1. Florida Atlantic Owls
2. UAB Blazers
3. UTSA Miners
4. Marshall Thundering Herd
5. Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters
6. Charlotte 49ers
7. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
8. FIU Panthers
Others: UTEP Miners; North Texas Mean Green; Southern Miss Golden Eagles; Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders