Friday, January 22, 2016

Ohio Valley Conference Forecast

Team that could surprise: Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
     (Watching the Golden Eagles in the Auburn regional a season ago, I was thoroughly impressed with then-sophomore hurler Danielle Liberatore. Despite the top level of competition that she faced in the Tigers and South Alabama, both ranked and quality opponents, I felt Liberatore performed well even in eventual losses. Catcher Kelly Kennedy has a powerful bat and hot-corner dweller Cortney Fry could use some help offensively, but is a defensive wizard. Alyssa Richards, who led the squad in batting average and home runs a season ago, also returns for her junior campaign. The class of 2017 at TTU is large and powerful. In their respective third seasons in Cookeville, I would not expect another NCAA tournament appearance to fall out of the realm of likelihood.)

Team that could disappoint: SIU-Edwardsville Cougars
     (The Cougars have a huge hole in their lineup with the absence of would-be senior Haley Chambers. I can't stress enough to impact her departure, a season premature, will have. She left the team and school for personal reasons last fall, so Sandy Montgomery has had time to find a body to fill Chambers' vacated roles. That doesn't mean it will be any kind of easy to replace her production and dominance in the circle, however. In three seasons as a Cougar, Chambers posted a 1.71 career ERA, including a career-low 1.45 mark in 2015. Her strikeout/walk ratio was very nearly 7/1 and, in more than 230 innings of work a season ago, she gave up a grand total of sixty-five runs. She also led her team at the plate, posting up as their leading overall hitter (.381 average), top power threat (nine home runs) and best 'get-on-base' player (112 total bases + .461 OBP) She leaves a huge hole and will be sorely missed; I don't think SIUE will dwell in their usual winning ways as they try to fill her stead in 2016.)

Player of the Year: Jessica Twaddle, Murray State
Pitcher of the Year: Danielle Liberatore, Tennessee Tech
Coach of the Year: Bonnie Bynum, Tennessee Tech

Conference Champs: Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
Top WCWS Contender: Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
     (Leaning on the left arm of Liberatore, TTU is my pick to represent the OVC in the postseason once again.)

Players to Watch:
--> Danielle Liberatore, Tennessee Tech - I've lauded Liberatore nearly sufficiently already, but I do think she stands the best shot of leading her team back to the proverbial promised land of the NCAA tournament. A year ago, she posted a 2.30 ERA in more than 225 innings, besting her nearest Golden Eagle peer by more than 3.00 runs per game. She collected 283 strikeouts, helping her to a 3/1 strikeout/walk ratio and opponents hit just .222 against her. I expect even better numbers in many of those categories this season.
--> Baylee Douglass, SIU-Edwardsville - The OVC's 2015 Freshman of the Year and a second-team all-conference selection a season ago, Douglass will be tasked not only with reproducing her numbers from last year, but also with replacing Chambers as the squad's ace material. Douglass performed quite well - 17-8, 2.33 ERA, and a near-4/1 SO/BB ratio. As she gathers more innings in Chambers' stead and in her second season in OVC play, she is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
--> Jessica Twaddle, Murray State - I often shy away from predicting back-to-back winners of major postseason awards in any conference, primarily and specifically Player and Pitcher of the Year. I'm making an exception in that practice here, choosing Twaddle to repeat as the OVC's Player of the Year. Her 2015 stats backed up her selection a year ago - .426/8/54 with a .663 slugging percentage - and I think she could easily put up similar numbers in 2016.

Biggest Question:
* How much will Haley Chambers' departure affect the regular postseason-stalwart SIUE?

Top Seniors:
IF - Cadi Oliver, Jacksonville State; Shelby Miller, Murray State; Dana Hutchins, Morehead State; Savannah Carpenter, Southeast Missouri; Haylee Krack, Southeast Missouri
OF - Olivia Bennett, Tennessee Tech; Ella Denes, Jacksonville State; April Markowski, Eastern Illinois
UT/DP - Jessica Wilson, Belmont

Conference Projection:
1. Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
2. Murray State Racers
3. SIU-Edwardsville Cougars
4. Jacksonville State Gamecocks
5. Eastern Kentucky Colonels
6. Eastern Illinois Panthers
7. Morehead State Eagles
8. UT-Martin Skyhawks
Others: Southeast Missouri Redhawks; Belmont Bruins; Austin Peay Lady Govs; Tennessee State Lady Tigers

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