Team that could surprise: Kent State Golden Flashes
(The MAC is without doubt the toughest conference to predict anything about this season; with the top two teams from a year ago both making head coaching changes, the parity in the league has grown to a head. At some point this season, though, somebody is going to have to stand a head above the crowd and I believe the Golden Flashes could be that team. Despite the loss of veteran head coach Karen Linder and ace pitcher Emma Johnson, the Flashes retain powerful slugger Maddy Grimm, as well as junior pitcher Ronnie Ladines, who I like as a sleeper this year. New head coach Eric Oakley will certainly have his hands full to match the conference-leading .810 winning percentage of a season ago, as well as the all-purpose forty-one victories, but in a parity-strong conference, the talent on his squad could be able to pull off another impressive showing.)
Team that could disappoint: Ball State Cardinals
(With again the disclaimer of the conference's vast parity, this spot is even tougher to predict. I still predict a solid campaign for the Cardinals, but under a new coaching regime and having lost their leading hitter from a year ago, a learning curve is quite probable. Emily Dabkowski, their top slugger from 2015 and second-leading hitter, is back for her senior campaign as is workhorse hurler Nicole Steinbach, and both are impactful performers. I think they've got a good head coach in first-year Megan Bartlett, but I believe 2016 will contain that learning curve and be a bit of a down year for the Cardinals.)
Player of the Year: Maddy Grimm, Kent State
Pitcher of the Year: Amber Logemann, Miami
Coach of the Year: Eric Oakley, Kent State
Conference Champs: Kent State Golden Flashes
Top WCWS Contender: Kent State Golden Flashes
(I believe the Golden Flashes will be able to again assert victory over the MAC and take home the conference crown. As the likely only conference representative in the NCAA tournament field, KSU or the eventual champ is the obvious nod for this distinction.)
Players to Watch:
--> Ronnie Ladines, Kent State - Despite playing somewhat in the shadow of Emma Johnson, Ladines put up impressive numbers in her sophomore campaign a year ago. Posting a 12-6 record with a 2.38 ERA and greater than 3/1 strikeout/walk ratio, she threw 109 innings of work, giving her a solid body of work to prepare her to make up for Johnson's absence this season, no easy task. Not to be forgotten is that Ladines does have a bit of pop in her bat and isn't your stereotypical 'easy out' pitcher when she steps up to the plate.
--> Ivy Schaaf, Western Michigan - Schaff has started all but one of the 102 games she's played in over her two years in Kalamazoo. After a mediocre freshman season in 2014, she blew expectations out of the water a season ago, registering a .368 average on the year with six home runs and nineteen total extra-base hits. She drove in twenty-two runs and was a perfect 7-7 on the basepaths. If she can hold onto whatever changes she made prior to last season, she could put together another stellar campaign in '16.
--> Rachael Knapp, Central Michigan - Knapp is quietly not just effective, but dominant. In each of her first two seasons in Division 1, she has posted a sub-2.25 ERA and opponents have hit no better than .205 against her. She faced nearly 220 extra hitters last season than she had the previous season, yet they couldn't even hit .200 against her as a group. Her strikeout/walk ratio is excellent and she could and should easily put up numbers worthy of consideration for Pitcher of the Year.
--> Keegan Hayes, Northern Illinois - Hayes was an all-freshman selection a season ago after she put up a 15-10 record with a 2.75 ERA in more than 152 innings pitched. Call it a gut feeling on this one, but from what I saw from her last season, I think this young lady has the potential to be a star.
* In a conference with a very even-keeled outlook across the board, who will distance themselves from the pack?
* How will the conference's three new head coaches, including two first-timers, fare?
P - Amber Logemann, Miami; Kelsey Schifferdecker, Ball State; Nicole Steinbach, Ball State; Erin Seiler, Akron
C - Emily Naegele, Northern Illinois
IF - Michele Duffy, Kent State; CarolAnn Sexauer, Central Michigan; Chelsea Delamielleure, Central Michigan; Emily Dabkowski, Ball State; Melissa Palmer, Western Michigan
OF - Taylor Shuey, Miami; Jessica Lemieux, Toledo
UT/DP - Katelyn Rentschler, Central Michigan
1. Kent State Golden Flashes
2. Miami Redhawks
3. Central Michigan Chippewas
4. Ball State Cardinals
5. Northern Illinois Huskies
6. Akron Zips
7. Western Michigan Broncos
8. Ohio Bobcats
Others: Toledo Rockets; Bowling Green Falcons; Eastern Michigan Eagles; Buffalo Bulls