Monday, January 25, 2016

PAC-12 Conference Forecast

Team that might surprise us all: Arizona Wildcats
     (Mike Candrea’s squad always seems to hang around when it comes time for the postseason, but I think they’ll do more leading the way and less following along this season. The loss of would-be sophomore hurler Trish Parks will hurt, but the pitching staff is deep and will greatly benefit from Danielle O’Toole’s addition following her redshirt season last year. Michelle Floyd is very capable of mowing down powerful PAC bats. Offensively, the Wildcats lose their top three hitters from a year ago in Kellie Fox, Hallie Wilson, and Parks, as well as the power bat of Chelsea Goodacre, but Katiyana Mauga owns a solid part of the Wildcat offense already and I expect what could be a career year from senior infielder Lauren Young.)

Team that might disappoint us all: Arizona State Sun Devils
     (The Sun Devils are coming off a hard-fought regional in Baton Rouge last season, but the offseason's unexpected departure of head coach Craig Nicholson has cast the squad into a state of disarray. The pitching staff is talented, but showed only glimpses of that talent last season. The insertion of Kelsey Kessler into the rotation could help, but with inexperienced co-head coaches being thrown into the fire that is PAC-12 softball and a lack of offensive playmakers, ASU will almost certainly make the postseason, but I don’t expect them to take much advantage of the opportunity.)

Player of the Year: Allexis Bennett, UCLA
Pitcher of the Year: Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon
Coach of the Year: Mike Candrea, Arizona

Conference Champs: Oregon Ducks
Top WCWS Contender: Oregon Ducks
     (Simply put, though the Ducks exited the World Series quickly in 2015, they are still the PAC’s best team and the conference’s most legitimate shot at a return to OKC in 2016.)

Players to Watch:
·    --> Kayla Bonstrom, Stanford - I rank Bonstrom as the top first baseman in this year's senior class. A first-team all-American selection a year ago after a stellar campaign as the Cardinal first baseman, I expect another stellar season, albeit not completely to those heights. She recorded a .439/13/54 slash line in 2015, and I expect another .400+ campaign with similar power numbers in '16. The Cardinal can flounder, but Bonstrom is the undoubted bright spot in Rachel Hanson's lineup. She is excellent defensively and I predict a mid-round selection when NPF Draft time comes around.
·    --> Danielle O’Toole, Arizona – To me, O’Toole is the difference maker for the Wildcats this season, and doubly so with the surprising departure of Parks. Following a redshirt season after a transfer from San Diego State, O'Toole was the Mountain West's top hurler before she ended as the newest member of Mike Candrea's historically-great stable of hurlers. O'Toole makes up for, and then some, the absence of Parks and I expect great numbers from her this year - along the lines of a sub-2.00 ERA and a strikeout/walk ratio similar to her 2014 mark of 4/1. 
·    --> Allexis Bennett, UCLA – 'Chip' is the Bruins' spark plug and, through some implausibility, seems to remain underrated on a nationwide scale. Despite a near-.500 batting average; first-team all-American status; and offensive statistics that only get better as her career goes on, the wily outfielder gets little love. Don't expect that to last too much longer, though, as she will thrust herself into the conversation quickly and could be a Player of the Year contender.
·    --> Annie Aldrete, Cal – The Tennessee transfer will be eligible to suit up immediately for Cal and should be not only a valuable bat in the lineup, but her veteran experience and skill behind the plate will be an important piece of Cal’s 2016 game plan, as well. Together with Taylor Koenig, who came to Berkley from Knoxville with her this offseason, the duo combined for producing 173 runs in Lady Vol orange last year. The Bears hope she can replicate that production against PAC-12 pitching, and I think she can do not only that, but more.

Biggest Questions:
* Can Oregon finish and finally earn the championship rings they’ve long been considered a favorite for?
* How much will the offseason turmoil at Arizona State’s head coaching position affect the team in-season?
* Will Cal be able to capitalize on some battle-tested additions to catapult them back into the conference championship conversation?
* Will Rachel Hanson be able to revitalize her locker room at Stanford and gain control of a tumultuous situation that is the Cardinal program and those around it?

Top Seniors:
P – Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon; Bev Miller, Oregon State
C – Janelle Lindvall, Oregon; Jessica Plaza, Stanford
IF – Hailey Decker, Oregon; Koral Costa, Oregon; Lauren Young, Arizona; Courtney Gano, Washington; Kimberlee Souza, Washington; Mikela Minewa, Oregon State; Kayla Bonstrom, Stanford
OF – Geri Ann Glasco, Oregon; Allexis Bennett, UCLA
UT – Brittany Moeai, UCLA

Conference Projection:
1. Oregon Ducks
2. Arizona Wildcats
3. UCLA Bruins
4. Utah Utes
5. Cal Golden Bears
6. Washington Huskies
7. Arizona State Sun Devils
8. Oregon State Beavers
Others: Stanford Cardinal

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