Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sun Belt Conference Forecast

Team that could surprise: Georgia State Panthers
     (The Panthers were yet another team that were right on the bubble and ended up on the outside looking in when tournament time came around in 2015. An offensive-minded team with 102 home runs and a .334 team cumulative batting average a year ago, they made a good case for themselves but didn't go just quite far enough for their name to be drawn out of the hat. I think that changes this year; though they've lost three of their top hitters and two of their best power threats, Ivie Drake and Megan Litumbe are both excellent offensively, both in terms of getting on base and knocking the ball over the fence. Both should have another rock-solid season in the middle of the Panther lineup. In the circle, senior Katie Worley showed some flashes of serious talent last year and she can be a dependable ace if she can bring her ERA down just a touch. Opponents did hit just .231 against her in 160 innings last season, so with consistency, she could be quite good.)

Team that could disappoint: Texas State Bobcats
     (The Bobcats were picked fourth in the conference coaches poll and sophomore hurler Randi Rupp was selected as the preseason pick for Pitcher of the Year. I don't see either one happening. I've picked the team a spot lower in my rankings, but I think it will be a disappointing fifth place rather than a pleasantly-surprising fourth. I predict we'll see more offenses and hitting coaches solve Rupp this year, and though the Bobcat infield is talented, I don't think they've got enough power in them to even reach the threshold of the conference's top teams.)

Player of the Year: Lexie Elkins, Louisiana-Lafayette
Pitcher of the Year: Devin Brown, South Alabama
Coach of the Year: Michael Lotief, Louisiana-Lafayette

Conference Champs: Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
Top WCWS Contender: Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
     (The Cajuns continue their streak of being the Sun Belt conference's top team and have a real shot at representing the league in Oklahoma City.)

Players to Watch:
--> Devin Brown, South Alabama - Brown put together a solid freshman campaign a year ago but it was her postseason performance that really - and rightfully - earned her rave reviews. Outside of the eventual season-ending loss to Auburn, she pitched fourteen innings in the other three games of the regional, including the hard-luck 1-0 loss to Auburn, allowing just four hits and two walks while striking out twenty-one batters. Now a sophomore and the only retained hurler from a season ago, she's the de facto and undoubted ace and should get a chance to prove her talents on an even-larger scale throughout the course of this year.
--> Shellie Landry, Louisiana-Lafayette - Often lost amidst the hype of her fellow classman Elkins, Landry is a very dangerous offensive power threat in her own right. A career .313 hitter with three all-conference honors and an all-American award in her trophy case, she has hit the prime of her career at just the right time for the Cajuns. On a squad famous for their hard-hitting offense, Landry was second only to the afore-mentioned Elkins in home runs and slugging percentage a year ago and her .372 batting average mark was good for fourth(!) on the squad. Not only is she a dangerous hitter in her own right, she protects Elkins in the lineup and gives the Cajuns a lethal and potent 1-2 punch.
--> Ivie Drake, Georgia State - There is no better player to be the focus of the last individual player write-up this preseason. Drake raised a lot of eyebrows last season, finishing her freshman campaign with a .462 batting average and twenty-two home runs. She slugged .918, numbers good enough for an all-conference first-team nod and a place on the all-American second team. The sophomore slump is a legitimate thing, but Drake probably has the best chance in the country of avoiding such a drop. That said, a "slump" for Drake in her second season could still include a .400+ average and double-digit home runs. She's a star in the making and expect her national profile to continue to grow.

Biggest Question:
* Can the Cajuns of Lafayette get the job done in the postseason and make it back to Oklahoma City?
* Will this be another season of parity at the top of the conference, with ULL and USA jockeying back and forth for the top spot or will a dark horse enter the picture?

Top Seniors:
P - Katie Worley, Georgia State
C - Lexie Elkins, Louisiana-Lafayette; Hannah Day, Troy
IF - Samantha Walsh, Louisiana-Lafayette; Kelsey Vincent, Louisiana-Lafayette; Emily Messer, South Alabama; Taylor Anderson, Georgia State; Faith Bohack, Louisiana-Monroe; Kendall Wiley, Texas State; Kelli Baker, Texas State
OF - Shellie Landry, Louisiana-Lafayette
UT/DP - Stephanie Pilkington, South Alabama

Conference Projection:
1. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
2. South Alabama Jaguars
3. Georgia State Panthers
4. Troy Trojans
5. Texas State Bobcats
6. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
7. UT-Arlington Mavericks
8. Appalachian State Mountaineers
Others: Georgia Southern Eagles

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