Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2016 Conference Forecast Finale - Best of the Rest, Part 1

Over the past few weeks, we've taken a look at the ins and outs of eighteen Division 1 conferences and made some predictions. Time constraints won't let us feature each conference individually, so here's an abbreviated look at the remaining fourteen leagues.

Conference: America East
Team to Watch: Binghamton Bearcats
     (The Bearcats earned the NCAA automatic bid a season ago after coming in as the #3 seed and, though they may not be the favorite coming into 2016, I do think they'll get the job done once-again when it counts. Pitcher Sarah Miller showed some promise as a freshman in 2015 and I like her potential this season. Expect the Bearcats to earn another tournament berth and head likely south for the regional round.)

What to Watch for: Keep an eye on Miller at Binghamton. She showed talent as a freshman and should improve in her second season. Stony Brook, the perennial conference champ, will be a tough team to beat, as well.

Player to Watch:
--> Maggie Cocks, Albany - Twice an all-conference first-teamer at shortstop, Cocks is a solid contender for the A-East's Player of the Year award in 2016. A deep sleeper for potential post-college prospects as a member of the class of '16, she has historically improved by leaps and bounds year-in and year-out. After recording a .411 battting average with ten home runs a season ago, continuing to improve on those numbers would lead to a stellar mark in her swan song campaign.

Conference Projection:
1. Stony Brook Seawolves
2. Binghamton Bearcats
3. Albany Great Danes
4. Maine Black Bears
5. UMBC Retrievers
6. UMass Lowell River Hawks
7. Hartford Hawks

Conference: Big Sky
Team to Watch: Sacramento State Hornets
     (We'll see Idaho State falter seriously with the revamping of their coaching staff and the loss of slugger Vicky Galasso. The Hornets are poised and are arguably in the best shape to fill their stead and take over conference dominance sooner rather than later. Sasha Margulies returns as the team's top hitter, though the protection around her in the order will have to be refilled and revamped.)

What to Watch for: I think we will see some serious improvement from the still-new Montana Grizzlies team this season. In their second year of competition, I believe they still have growing to do, but will be more of a factor. Idaho State will certainly falter; the question is simply by how much?

Players to Watch:
--> Alyson Kulp, Weber State - WSU is also in a good position to take home the conference crown, and are the favorites after a conference tournament title and a solid showing in the NCAA tourney. Kulp, a three-time all-conference honoree, batted just .004 short of .400 for a .396/9/49 clip and a .645 slugging percentage to go along with it. She is a consistent and solid player and will have a big part in the success the Wildcats will have.
--> Sasha Margulies, Sacramento State - The senior first baseman and former Ball State Cardinal has paced her team in batting average both seasons she's been in Sacramento and she led the entire Big Sky in the same category a year ago. She bumped up her power numbers, as well, in forty more at-bats. If her numbers continue to click upward, she will not only go out on a high note, she could help the Hornets win a few extra games that will be crucial to their title hopes.

Conference Projection:
1. Sacramento State Hornets
2. Weber State Wildcats
3. Idaho State Bengals
4. Montana Grizzlies
5. Northern Colorado Bears
6. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
7. Portland State Vikings
8. North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Conference: Big South
Team to Watch: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
     (Kelley Green's Chanticleers came up just short in the conference tournament, losing in the quarterfinal round after earning a #2 seed for the tournament. Despite the loss of Big South home run queen Kory Hayden and pitcher Kiana Quolas, this senior class will have just as big of an impact and seem to be sitting on 'go' to take home the title this season. Speedy outfielder Bri Chiusano, slugging catcher Morgan Noad, and former Temple Owl Kelsey Dominik will all have mighty impacts for their squad this season and show real promise for an NCAA tournament berth.)

What to Watch for: How will the conference's top two teams, Coastal and Longwood, make up for the loss of graduated sluggers Kory Hayden and Megan Baltzell, respectively?

Players to Watch:
--> Maddie Antone, Winthrop - Antone's version of the 'sophomore slump' saw her batting average dip nearly thirty points from her freshman mark and most of her other offensive numbers saw small dips, as well. Of course, when such a steep drop in average still leaves her with a .354 mark, that says something about the player. She can get on base, slug a home run here and there (fourteen thus-far in her career), and can steal a bag when necessary, as well. She's got pieces of the whole package of a star player and, if she can take advantage of even a couple of those skill sets, she will be a key player in conference play and for postseason award consideration.
--> Bri Chiusano, Coastal Carolina - I mentioned Chiusano above; a member of the studded senior class that the Chanticleers carry into this season, I think she's the x-factor of them all. She finished in the conference's top ten in five different categories a year ago and amidst a .363/.423/.460 line. Incredibly speedy, she stole thirty-nine bases, only being caught five times. With Chiusano, I believe we could be looking at another draft sleeper.

Conference Projection:
1. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
2. Longwood Lancers
3. Liberty Flames
4. Charleston Southern Buccaneers
5. Winthrop Eagles
6. Presbyterian Blue Hose
7. Campbell Fighting Camels
8. Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs
Others: Radford Highlanders

Conference: Horizon League
Team to Watch: Oakland Golden Grizzlies
     (The Griz earned the conference's automatic bid in 2015 after putting together the program's second-highest win total ever, and actually made a bit of a rumble when the NCAA tournament rolled around. Placed in the Ann Arbor regional, they put up a fight against Pittsburgh in an elimination game before eventually losing, but they showed promise. I quite like the pitching staff, led by senior Erin Kownacki and sophomore Haley Zemmer. They might just fit the bill of a mid-major sleeper team.)

What to Watch for: How will the Green Bay Phoenix fare under young second-year coach Beth Spoehr? Will Oakland continue to ride the high of an NCAA tournament appearance last season into convincing wins and another berth in '16?

Players to Watch:
--> Erin Kownacki, Oakland - I mentioned Kownacki briefly above; the upperclassman in the solid 1-2 punch of hurlers the Grizzlies boast, I expect another season consistent with her career's path to this point, likely with a sub-3.00 ERA and opponents getting a hit just 1/4 of the time when she's in the circle. If you're looking for a talented hurler in the Great Lake State that doesn't play in the Big Ten, look no further. Kownacki will certainly have a hand in the success that I expect from her team.
--> Katelyn Huemmer, Green Bay - The Phoenix surprised many last season and Huemmer had a great hand in that. She finished in the top three on her squad in nearly every statistical category, numbers that included a .348 batting average and .526 slugging percentage. Continually-improving numbers would not be a surprise for the GB center fielder.

Conference Projection:
1. Oakland Golden Grizzlies
2. UIC Flames
3. Green Bay Phoenix
4. Wright State Raiders
5. Valparaiso Crusaders
6. Cleveland State Vikings
7. Detroit Titans
8. Youngstown State Penguins
Others: Northern Kentucky Norse (postseason ineligible)

Conference: Ivy League
Team to Watch: Dartmouth Big Green
     (Shannon Doepking's squad has a tough non-conference schedule over the first several weeks of the year - matching up against teams like Wichita State, Stanford, South Alabama, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma, including doubleheaders on the road against the latter trio. A few scattered wins could drastically help their RPI, which will also help come NCAA tournament time. They are the obvious favorite to take home the conference crown and the all-important automatic bid.)

What to Watch for: Will the Big Green be able to upset some top teams in their non-conference schedule, as well as dominate as expected in conference play?

Players to Watch:
--> Katie McEachern, Dartmouth - The senior shortstop was selected as the preseason pick for Player of the Year and picked to repeat as an all-conference first teamer. She hit .447 a season ago, pacing the conference more than fifty points. She was the only Ivy Leaguer to post a double-digit home run total. With stellar numbers in her junior campaign following a solid first two years in green and white, McEachern should make some noise regionally, not just in conference.
--> Morgan Groom, Harvard - The senior hurler was second on her team a year ago with a perfect Pi ERA of 3.14. Playing second-fiddle to the now-graduated Laura Ricciardone, Gromo has an opportunity to really come into her own this season. Opponents hit just .234 against her, and with increased work, I think we'll see the same level of consistent production.

Conference Projection:
1. Dartmouth Big Green
2. Harvard Crimson
3. Princeton Tigers
4. Penn Quakers
5. Cornell Big Red
6. Columbia Lions
7. Brown Bears
8. Yale Bulldogs

Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic
Team to Watch: Canisius Golden Griffins
     (After winning the conference's regular-season title a year ago, the Griffs blanked in the conference tournament, dropping two straight games, including a run-rule loss to the 5-seeded team in Monmouth. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise-successful season. I fully expect 'em to come out swinging in 2016, looking to redeem themselves from the stunning losses in the postseason a year ago. They return their top three hitters, including junior Jessica Berzins, their leading hitter from a year ago with a .444/.606/.532 line.)

What to Watch for: How will numerous coaching changes affect some of the lower-tier teams in the conference? Will slugger Elena Bowman set a new conference home run record?

Players to Watch:
--> Elena Bowman, Manhattan - Bowman can slug the ball a mile and is just a few dingers short of the conference's all-time mark. A power show is certainly to be expected from her again this year. The 2015 MAAC Player of the Year, it is not any kind of a stretch to expect a similar award to be added to her trophy case this season. Though she comes from the Northeast, not usually a draft hotbed, and a small conference, she could also be an undrafted free agent signing to play after college.
--> Jayne Oberdorf, Marist - After exactly 101 extra innings to her body of work from her freshman to sophomore campaigns, the junior hurler saw her statistics drastically improve a year ago. Her ERA went down more than five runs per game to a certainly-respectable 2.56 mark. Opponents hit .255 against her instead of the whopping .370 the year previous. I expect another season consistent with the same numbers this season; a 2.50 ERA and opponent’s batting average is a good guestimate for Oberdorf.

Conference Projection:
1. Canisius Golden Griffins
2. Manhattan Jaspers
3. Fairfield Stags
4. Marist Red Foxes
5. Siena Saints
6. Iona Gaels
7. Quinnipiac Bobcats
8. Monmouth Hawks
Others: Niagara Purple Eagles; Rider Broncs; Saint Peter's Peahens

Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic
Team to Watch: Savannah State Lady Tigers
     (Senior slugger Torrian Wright, who you'll read about more below, will be a big part of the Tigers' plans this season; Amber Hallman, the program's only other .400+/double-digit home run player has graduated so there will be a need to add some protection around Wright in the lineup. The pitching staff needs some work, as well - there are some serious question marks around the program entering 2016, and the answer to some of them will be well-worth keeping an eye on.)

What to Watch for: Will Savannah State be able to build their lineup around Wright to give her some protection and keep opponents from being able to pitch around her every at-bat?

Players to Watch:
--> Torrian Wright, Savannah State - This was an easy one. Wright is undoubtedly the best player in the MEAC; a pure slugger with unreal numbers, she boasts forty-six career home runs to her credit and ended 2015, her junior season, with a .566 batting average; 1.229 slugging percentage; and .748 on-base percentage. No, none of those numbers are typos and yes, you did read them correctly. She is a very, very good hitter.

Conference Projection:
1. Savannah State Tigers
2. Delaware State Hornets
3. Bethune-Cookman Wildcats
4. Florida A&M Rattlers
5. Norfolk State Spartans
6. Hampton Pirates
7. Howard Bison
8. North Carolina AT&T State Aggies
Others: Coppin State Eagles; Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks; Morgan State Bears; North Carolina Central Eagles; South Carolina State Bulldogs

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