Team that could surprise: Missouri State Lady Bears
(The Bears made it to the conference tournament final a year ago, eventually falling to the year's Cinderella, Indiana State. Holly Hesse's squad returns three of their top five hitters from last season, including their top two home run hitters, as well as Erin Struemph, their top hurler. If Drake follows my prediction and falters a bit, I expect MSU to take full advantage of the opportunity and find their way once again to the NCAA tourney.)
Team that could disappoint: Indiana State Sycamores
(The Sycamores barely scooted into the conference tournament as the #8 seed and pulled upset after upset, beating the #1, #2, #4, and #5-ranked squads. If there is to be another Cinderella in the Missouri Valley this year, though, don't expect it to be Shane Bouman's squad. The biggest reason that won't happen again can be summed up in two words: Megan Stone. In 2015 alone, Stone hit .397 with twelve home runs, forty-nine RBI, and a .718 slugging percentage. Her batting average was more than 40 points above the next-highest member of the team; outside of Stone, the entire rest of the team hit just ten home runs; and her slugging percentage was 264 points above the same next-highest hitter. Despite their tournament success, the Sycamores ended 2015 with a losing record and I don't see a whole lot of positives on the horizon for them in 2016.)
Player of the Year: Brooke Wyderski, Loyola
Pitcher of the Year: Regan Romshek, Illinois State
Coach of the Year: Holly Hesse, Missouri State
Conference Champs: Missouri State Lady Bears
Top WCWS Contender: Missouri State Lady Bears
(I like the makeup of the Bears this season and I expect them to find their way to the NCAA tournament for the sixth time under Holly Hesse.)
Players to Watch:
--> Erin Duewel, Missouri State - If the Lady Bears are to fulfill my prediction of a conference championship in 2016, Duewel needs to be a player that they can lean upon greatly. An all-conference first-team member from a year ago after posting eleven home runs and .667 slugging percentage. Her batting average was .286, which may be the offensive area that needs a bit of shoring-up. With twenty errors chalked up to her mistakes a year ago, she needs some work on the defensive side of the ball to become the all-around solid player whose presence her team will rely on.
--> Megan Sowa, Drake - In two seasons at Drake, Sowa holds a career .359 batting average in 304 at-bats. She was an all-conference second team member a season ago and was selected to the all-region third-team in 2014. Her batting average fell by more than forty points from '14 to '15, but her power and production numbers ticked up. If she can even out her slash line stats, she can be an offensive catalyst for the Bulldogs.
--> Brooke Wyderski, Loyola - Wyderski spent her freshman campaign as a bright spot on an otherwise-mediocre Loyola squad. As a first-year Rambler, she hit for a .302/12/37 slash line. She showed a lot of promise on offense and I expect an even better batting average and similar power numbers in 2016.
* Will the conference's top teams again be upset, as in 2015, for the conference's automatic NCAA bid?
P - Regan Romshek, Illinois State; Taylor Lockwood, Indiana State
IF - Erin Duewel, Missouri State; Liz Broyles, Wichita State; Brittany Fortner, Wichita State
UT/DP - Chelsea Ross, Northern Iowa; Alyson Clemente, Bradley
1. Missouri State Lady Bears
2. Northern Iowa Panthers
3. Drake Bulldogs
4. Wichita State Shockers
5. Southern Illinois Salukis
6. Illinois State Redbirds
7. Bradley Braves
8. Loyola Ramblers
Others: Indiana State Sycamores; Evansville Purple Aces