Team that could surprise: Lamar Lady Cardinals
(Holly Bruder has done a solid job since building the Lamar program back from scratch. Now in its fourth season since being reimplemented as a Cardinals sport, the squad enjoyed their best season to date in 2015, finishing just two games below .500. 2016 should be the season we see a winning record and a top-half seed for the conference tournament. Leading hitter Stephanie Meeuwsen returns, though the top two power threats from a season ago are gone. In the circle, they bring back a solid core, but it is one that will need a lot of shoring up if the Cardinals are to be effective. Laura Napoli, now a sophomore, needs to bring her numbers down a bit across the board and tick up on her strikeouts. If she can make that happen with ease, the Cardinals will be in a good position.)
Team that could disappoint: Central Arkansas Bears
(I place the Bears here for one simple reason and with a large caveat. Their pitching is a huge question mark, and one that will have to be assuredly answered quickly if they are to revisit the success of a season ago. Offensive star Sam Forrest has the makings of a bonafide superstar, but she and the rest of the offense cannot do it all. The pitching staff will have to prove themselves effective and do so quickly, or the postseason may end up just out of reach for the Bears. If David Kuhn's squad can rely on their ladies in the circle, however, we are looking at a potentially-dangerous team coming out of Conway.)
Player of the Year: Erika Piancastelli, McNeese State
Pitcher of the Year: Micaela Bouvier, Northwestern State
Coach of the Year: Donald Pickett, Northwestern State
Conference Champs: Northwestern State Lady Demons
Top WCWS Contender: Northwestern State Lady Demons
(As my pick as the conference's regular-season and tournament champs, the team from Natchitoches is the de-facto candidate in this spot.)
Players to Watch:
--> Sam Forrest, Central Arkansas - When I talked to David Kuhn this offseason, he hesitated only briefly before naming Forrest his squad's x-factor. Holding a top-ten spot in THIRTEEN categories in the program's career record books, she is a two-time all-region selection and the most dangerous hitter, by far, in the UCA lineup. Forrest recorded a .342/9/36 slash line a season ago, accompanied by a .565 slugging percentage. Now in her senior campaign and atop the Bears' lineup, she could not only insert her name in the race for Conference Player of the Year, she could make herself useful as a late-round NPF draft selection.
--> Hannah Null, Abilene Christian - After an injury caused her to have to take a redshirt in 2015, Null returns to the circle for the Wildcats this season as a RS Sophomore. Though her team still remains ineligible for postseason play as part of their move to Division 1 full-time, she is a game-changing player in the circle for Bobby Reeves' staff. The respectable 2.84 ERA she put up in her freshman campaign is very nearly three runs per game below that of her next-closest teammate over the last two seasons. She proved effective when others were less-than-such; if she can return to the same form she had in her freshman campaign, she should be relied upon heavily to make some magic in the circle for ACU.
--> Emily Vincent, McNeese State - Seemingly lost in the shuffle and newsworthiness of freshman Erika Piancastelli's offensive heroics a season ago, Vincent quietly put up quality numbers in the circle, to the tune of a 2.15 ERA and an opponent's batting average of sub-.200 at .194. Her record was somewhat deceiving at just 14-6, but she had several quality starts and outshined the 2014 conference Pitcher of the Year, her teammate Jamie Allred. We should see similar numbers from Vincent this season, though perhaps with a bit more recognition for such after the season.
--> Katie LaCour, Southeastern Louisiana - LaCour has all of three extra-base hits in her career and no home runs - usually must-haves for any kind of top-hitter crown. Nevertheless, LaCour is one of the finest hitters in the state of Louisiana and has another opportunity to put her skills on full display this year. Another potential future-professional sleeper pick, her batting average has steadily ticked each season she's been in Hammond. In 2015, her average jumped eighty-seven points from the year before! She recorded a .484/.489/.527 advanced slash line in her junior campaign of 2015 (that's batting average/slugging percentage/on-base percentage) and, though it's a tall task, I believe we may see even another small tick upward in her stats in 2016. She's a fun player to watch and well-worth keeping an eye on under first-year head man Rick Fremin at SELA.
* Can a young Central Arkansas pitching staff pick up the slack of an all-conference departed senior and help keep their team in the cream of the Southland crop?
* Will 2015 freshman phenom Piancastelli retain her form from a season ago now that she does not have the so-called surprise factor in her favor?
P - Emily Vincent, McNeese State; Jamie Allred, McNeese State; Taylor Bishop, SE Louisiana
C - Jessie Taylor, Central Arkansas; Tiffany Castillo, Sam Houston State
IF - Sam Forrest, Central Arkansas (*JWOS Top 50*); Sarah Bigej, Central Arkansas; Stephanie Meeuwsen, Lamar; Danielle Phillips, Nicholls State
OF - Katie Lacour, SE Louisiana; Natalie Landry, Northwestern State; Sarah Ragsdale, Lamar; Mickayla Cochran, A&M-Corpus Christi
1. Northwestern State Lady Demons
2. McNeese State Cowgirls
3. Central Arkansas Bears
4. Lamar Lady Cardinals
5. Southeastern Louisiana Lady Lions
6. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders
7. Sam Houston State Bearkats
8. Stephen F. Austin Ladyjacks
Others: Nicholls State Colonels; Houston Baptist Huskies; Abilene Christian Wildcats (postseason ineligible); Incarnate Word Cardinals (postseason ineligible)