Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Southeastern Conference Forecast

Team that might surprise us all: Missouri Tigers
     (Despite a favorably-lopsided win/loss record during the span, the Tigers haven’t been to Oklahoma City since 2011. In the past four seasons, they’ve seen a trio of exits in the Super regional round and were bounced from their own hosted regional by
Nebraska in 2014. I don’t project them to finish very highly in conference, but national ranking and record in-conference have been proven to be two very separate numbers in the course of a season. I like the Tigers’ pitching staff, led by a since-recovered Tori Finucane and including Paige Lowary and Cheyenne Baxter; this trio could help the Tigers stand as one of the top staffs in the nation at year’s end. Offensively, the senior class comprised of Emily Crane and redshirt seniors Sami Fagan and Taylor Gadbois are arguably the three most dynamic offensive players in the lineup and are ready to go out on a high note. Fagan is the best all-around hitter in the lineup, and underclassman Amanda Sanchez and juniors Kirsten Mack and Chloe Rathburn [she a former South Alabama Jaguar] add dangerous depth to the batting order. This could be the year the Tigers break their early-exit streak in the postseason.)

Team that might disappoint us all: Tennessee Lady Vols
     (The Lady Vols rode a lot of late-season momentum all the way to Oklahoma City in 2015, but I expect their youth and inexperience to show through this year. They had a small senior class depart last year, though it did include batting leader and defensive stalwart Tory Lewis, but the transfers of Annie Aldrete and Taylor Koenig is what will hurt Ralph and Karen Weekly’s squad the most. With the departure of the duo of now-Cal Bears, the Lady Vols lose thirty-two home runs, ninety-four RBI, and seventy-nine runs scored from a year ago. Aldrete’s leadership of the pitching staff were sorely underrated and will be missed just as much as her offensive production. The pitching staff needs consistency and the offense will have to make up for the afore-mentioned departures and then some if the Lady Vols are to avoid some of the squeakers of a year ago. The WCWS looks like an extreme long-shot for the team from Knoxville this season.)

Player of the Year: Haylie McCleney, Alabama
Pitcher of the Year: Carley Hoover, LSU
Coach of the Year: Ehren Earleywine, Missouri

Conference Champs: LSU Tigers
Top WCWS Contender: Auburn Tigers
     (After immediate dominance under Clint Myers at AU, the Tigers softball team has gone from the conference cellar to the conference title in just two short years. I expect them to have an excellent shot at a return to Oklahoma City in 2016.)

Players to Watch:
·    --> Sami Fagan, MissouriAfter finding her new home in Columbia, Fagan has thrived. She was selected an all-conference second-teamer a year ago, a season that also included a .368/13/66 slash line. She led the Tigers in nine statistical categories, including runs scored [58] and total bases [120]. Now a redshirt senior, she could play herself into consideration for a conference Player of the Year nod.
·    --> Kasey Cooper, AuburnThere is no better evidence of the impact Clint Myers has had on Auburn than Cooper. In two seasons under his tutelage at AU, Cooper has been twice an all-American and owns a career .404 batting average to this point. She's clubbed thirty-six home runs and driven in 141 runs during that time. Effective at the hot corner, and despite playing in a loaded conference, it's a surprise to me that she hasn't added SEC Player of the Year to her laundry list of honors. This could be the year that changes.
·    --> Alaynie Page, South CarolinaAlmost overnight, Page went from a sub-.230 career hitter to an all-American. In her junior campaign, she more than doubled her career hits total from the previous two seasons. She went from a mediocre outfielder to an ace in the hole for the Gamecocks. Page's .436/15/45 slash line earned her first-team all-american honors, as well as a first-team all-conference nod. If she can retain her form from a year ago, she could be a catalyst to SC winning some ballgames.
·    --> Sandra Simmons, LSU – Simmons' trophy case may be light, comparatively, to others in the SEC, but she is one of the most consistent performers and is assuredly a game-changer for Beth Torina's Tigers. I expect an all-SEC honor for her in her final season and I also classify her as the #2 first baseman in the senior class. Another year of improving offensive statistics could set her up for a selection in the professional draft.

Biggest Questions:
* How will Florida replace Lauren Haeger both in the circle and at the plate?
* How will Auburn fill the void left by Haley Fagan’s injury?
* Can LSU maintain consistency throughout the year instead of leveling off at crunch time?
* Of the three all-star second basemen in the conference – Hugo, Stewart, Carosone – which will prove herself a head above the rest?

Top Seniors:
P – Lexi Davis, Auburn; Rachael Walters, Auburn; Erin Gabriel, Tennessee; Rainey Gaffin, Tennessee; Chelsea Wilkinson, Georgia; Kelsey Nunley, Kentucky
C – Aubree Munro, Florida; Kellsi Kloss, LSU
IF – Taylor Schwarz, Florida; Kelsey Stewart, Florida; Jade Rhodes, Auburn; Emily Carosone, Auburn; Leona Lafaele, Alabama; Bianka Bell, LSU; Sandra Simmons, LSU; Alex Hugo, Georgia; Sami Fagan, Missouri; Nikki Sagermann, Kentucky; Christian Stokes, Kentucky
OF – Kirsti Merritt, Florida; Tiffany Howard, Auburn; Haylie McCleney, Alabama; Emily Crane, Missouri; Taylor Gadbouis, Missouri; Cali Lanphear, Texas A&M; Alaynie Page, South Carolina; Stephanie Canfield, Arkansas
UT – Taylore Fuller, Florida; Lexi Overstreet, Tennessee; Tina Iosefa, Georgia

Conference Projection:
1. LSU Tigers
2. Florida Gators
3. Auburn Tigers
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
5. Georgia Bulldogs
6. Missouri Tigers
7. Texas A&M Aggies
8. Tennessee Lady Vols
Others: Kentucky Wildcats; South Carolina Gamecocks; Mississippi State Bulldogs; Ole Miss Rebels; Arkansas Razorbacks

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