Friday, February 5, 2016

2016 Conference Forecast Finale - Best of the Rest, Part 2

After featuring eighteen conferences in their own individual Conference Forecast articles before the regular season begins, we spent the first half of this two-part series looking at seven of the remaining fourteen conferences. Now we'll finish up our preseason predictions in the conference category by examining the final septet of leagues and take a special look at their best players; postseason contenders; and our predictions for the final standings in each.

Conference: Northeast
Team to Watch: Saint Francis Terriers
     (The Terriers posted the second-best overall record in the league in 2015, though they wound up mid-pack after a near-.500 conference season. With significant changes taking place at three of the four teams that finished above them a season ago, Jennifer Patrick-Swift's squad is in position to take advantage of the opportunity as it is presented to them. They have a solidly-effective trio of pitching, though their offense needs to see some playmakers emerge. Of the returning crowd, only dual-threat Alexis Bower hit above .270 last season.)

What to Watch for: Will Robert Morris and Central Connecticut be able to account for the losses of their respective workhorse senior pitchers Sleith and Messina?

Players to Watch:
--> Alexis Bower, St. Francis - Since arriving on the scene in 2014, Bower has proven to be quietly effective for the Terriers. She holds a career 2.55 ERA in two seasons, as well as a .311 batting average and thirteen home runs. She saw her pitching numbers falter a bit from her freshman to sophomore seasons, including a 0.60 jump in her ERA from year to year. Her innings were cut in half, down from nearly 155 to just seventy-one, but I expect that number to go back up this year as she still managed to put together a sub-3.00 ERA. I'm expecting good things from her on both sides of the ball.
--> Kristen Gabelt, Robert Morris - Gabelt posted a respectable .343/9/28 stat line in 2015, to go along with a .620 slugging percentage. The latter number as well as her home run mark paced her team. The Colonials are going to need more offensive power to make up for the graduation of ace Nicole Sleith and Gabelt needs to post even *better* production and numbers to keep the Colonials in the race.

Conference Projection:
1. Saint Francis Terriers
2. Robert Morris Colonials
3. LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
4. Central Connecticut Blue Devils
5. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
6. Bryant Bulldogs
7. Sacred Heart Pioneers
8. Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
Others: Wagner Seahawks

Conference: Patriot League
Team to Watch: Bucknell Bison
     (Under a first-year head coach that we graded as a middle-of-the-road hire with promise, the Bison are coming off a second-place finish in conference and two defeats at the hands of eventual-champion Lehigh in the conference tournament that sent them home. The Bisons' pitching staff can be better than they look on paper and have a solid, if not stellar, 1-2 punch in Dana Nielsen and Amanda Fazio. I expect both of them to be effective this season. Fazio also hit .341 at the plate a year ago, so she will be counted in both spots on the diamond.)

What to Watch for: Will Lehigh be able to replace the dominance and success of senior hurler Emily Bausher in the circle? Can Bucknell take advantage of a bit of a turnover period to leap ahead in their challenge for the conference crown?

Player to Watch:
--> Amanda Fazio, Bucknell - Fazio, the senior statesman of the staff, earned all-conference honors in her first season at Bucknell, followed by an all-tournament honor in 2014 after an injury-shortened regular season. In 2015, she finished slightly behind Nielsen in the ERA race after posting a 3.39 mark, but did so in fifty-four more innings. She gathered greather than a 3/1 SO/BB ratio and opponents hit beneath .300 against her. She should improve on both the ERA and opponent's average numbers and position herself in the running for Pitcher of the Year.

Conference Projection:
1. Lehigh Mountain Hawks
2. Bucknell Bison
3. Army Black Knights
4. Colgate Raiders
5. Holy Cross Crusaders
6. Boston Terriers
7. Lafayette Leopards

Conference: Southern
Team to Watch: Furman Paladins
     (Just 2.5 games separated the top four teams in the conference a season ago, and while the Paladins were on the lower end of that group, I expect them to be better in 2016. Sophomore hurler Lindsey Best, with a season now under her belt, can even improve on her already-effectie 2.58 ERA and opponent's batting average of .255 that she posted last season. Reigning conference Player of the Year Sieara Bishop is a solid hitter and needs to lead the offense. She will need some solid protection around her in the batting order.)

What to Watch for: Which of the league's top teams will distance themselves from the pack to emerge as the favorite and top championship contender?

Players to Watch:
--> Shelby Maze, Samford - Maze earned the conference's Freshman of the Year award a season ago. She hit .350 in her first year as a Bulldog and was caught stealing only once in sixteen attempts. Entering her sophomore campaign, her percentages could use some perking up, but I expect another solid campaign from the in-state native.
--> Sieara Bishop, Furman - The reigning conference Player of the Year boosted her batting average by just three points in her sophomore season, but enjoyed a breakout junior campaign a season ago when she hit .375, more than 100 points above her career average to that point. She also clubbed ten home runs, more than doubling her career total. She well-earned the POTY trophy and is well-worth keeping an eye on in Greenville in her senior campaign.

Conference Projection:
1. Samford Bulldogs
2. Chattanooga Lady Mocs
3. Mercer Bears
4. Furman Paladins
5. North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG) Spartans
6. Western Carolina Catamounts
7. East Tennessee State Buccaneers

Conference: Summit League
Team to Watch: North Dakota State Bison
     (The Bison are one of the best mid-major teams in the nation and are perennial postseason appearers, but their season usually seems to end in the regional round. 2009 was the exception, when they advanced to the Supers, but they have not done so since. They got a tough regional assignment one year ago when they traveled to Eugene to face the Ducks. Menke, the graduated workhorse hurler, leaves mighty big shoes to fill in the circle. The offense is still in good shape with returnees Cheyenne Garcia, the reigning conference Player of the Year; fellow senior Logan Moreland; redshirt junior Alyssa Reina.)

What to Watch for: It will be intriguing to see how North Dakota State and Western Illinois make up for the losses up all-time greats in pitcher Krista Menke and shortstop Sammy Marshall, respectively. Both players helped put their programs on the map and it will be interesting to see how they are replaced in the respective lineups.

Players to Watch:
--> Brooke Boetjer, IUPUI - The former Indiana Hoosier earned second-team all-conference honors in her first season in the Summit League, following a season in which she posted a 2.15 ERA in nearly 166 innings. Opponents hit just .214 against her and she gave up just thirty-seven extra base hits all season long. I would be far from surprised to see her in serious contention for Pitcher of the Year.
--> Logan Moreland, North Dakota State - The senior infielder has gotten substantially better each season she has spent in Fargo; a season ago, she batted .421 with a full stat line of .421/.601/.473. She is a solid bat in the lineup and will be part of the power-punch the Bison need to utilize to the fullest extent this season with their question marks in the circle.

Conference Projection:
1. North Dakota State Bison
2. IUPUI Jaguars
3. South Dakota Coyotes
4. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
5. Western Illinois Leathernecks
6. Omaha Mavericks
7. Fort Wayne Mastodons

Conference: Southwestern Athletic (SWAC)
Team to Watch: Texas Southern Tigers
     (The back-to-back winners of the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament have to find a way to replace the offense created by the graduated Thomasina Garza. Dubbed the conference co-player of the year and hitter of the year a season ago, she leaves big shoes to fill on offense. The Tigers have been the standard at the top of the conference these past two seasons, but that could change if they struggle to find the offense throughout the returners and newcomers in their lineup.)

What to Watch for: If  Texas Southern is unable to recoup some of that offense, who will step forward to challenge for the conference crown?

Player to Watch:
--> Chelsea King, Alabama State - King dazzled as a freshman, posting a 1.60 ERA in her first season as a Hornet. A lighter workload - ninety-two innings - didn't hurt her when it came to awards season, either, as she earned the conference's Pitcher and Freshman of the Year honors; was a first-team all-conference selection; and a member of the all-region third-team. She finished the year ranked #16 in the country in the statistical category of ERA and held opposing hitters to a .235 average at the plate. A young, but talented, player, Chris Steiner-Wilcoxson could have a future star on her hands.

Conference Projection:
1. Alabama State Hornets
2. Texas Southern Tigers
3. Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils
4. Southern Jaguars
5. Jackson State Tigers
6. Prairie View A&M Panthers
7. Grambling State Tigers
8. Alabama A&M Bulldogs
Others: Alcorn State Braves; Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions

Conference: Western Athletic (WAC)
Team to Watch: New Mexico State Aggies
     (The Aggies are at a point of being just on the verge of the top tier of mid-major softball programs, and if they reach that plateau in 2016, senior Fiana Finau will be owed the greatest debt of thanks.A former transfer from San Diego State, Finau has twice been selected for the all-conference first-team and amassed a stat line of .341/24/74 in 2015. Entering her senior season, she should be the easy favorite for Player of the Year honors and was part of the top fifty watch list released by USA Softball this week.)

What to Watch for: Can New Mexico State reach that mid-major elite status they seem to be laying the groundwork for?

Players to Watch:
--> Paige Bouska, Seattle - The junior second baseman has a breakout campaign a season ago, posting a .352 batting average, accompanied by a .401 slugging percentage and fifty-seven hits, a mark that paced her team. The Redhawks have several question marks for 2016, but Bouska should not be one of them; her ability to get on base should prove very helpful to the plans first-year head coach Geoff Harai has for his squad.
--> Katie Kelley, UMKC - Kelley might be the best two-way player that no one knows about. A three-time all-conference selection, she hit .372 with sixteen home runs a season ago, pacing her squad in the latter category, as well as five other statistical categories. In the circle, her ERA inflated to just above four runs per game, but opponents hit below .285 against her and she collected a 2/1 SO/BB ratio. Now a senior, I expect her to return to the all-conference first-team list and help her Kangaroos make some noise in conference.

Conference Projection:
1. New Mexico State Aggies
2. Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos
3. Grand Canyon Antelopes
4. CSU-Bakersfield Roadrunners
5. Seattle Redhawks
6. Utah Valley Wolverines

Conference: West Coast
Team to Watch: Brigham Young Cougars
     (The unanimous preseason favorite coming into 2016, the Cougars should have little difficulty returning to the NCAA tournament. Gordy Bravo is sure-handed in the outfield and impressive at the plate and McKenna Bull is a solid righty in the circle. The Cougars are in a good spot once again heading into the regular season.)

What to Watch for: Will the Cougars receive a favorable NCAA tournament berth that gives them a real shot at advancing past the first round?

Player to Watch:
--> McKenna Bull, BYU - Bull earned the conference's Pitcher of the Year award in 2015 after posting team records in four different categories (wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, and complete games) and pacing the conference in five statistical categories, including strikeouts, ERA, and opponent's batting average, a stellar .171 mark. I expect a repeat performance in 2016 with another POTY trophy added to her mantlepiece.

Conference Projection:
1. BYU Cougars
2. San Diego Toreros
3. Loyola Marymount Lions
4. Pacific Tigers
5. Saint Mary's Gaels
6. Santa Clara Broncos

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