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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

American Athletic Conference Forecast

The top conference outside of the so-called "Power Five" conferences, the American contains predominantly former members of the Big East conference who split off from that conference name, and the non-football schools that remained, in 2013. Of the conference's eleven full members, seven schools sponsor softball and four do not.

East Carolina P Lydia Ritchie
The top six teams in the regular-season standings earn berths to the conference tournament. The tournament operates on a single-elimination format, with the tournament champion earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. The 2017 conference tournament will be held in Greenville, North Carolina.

Team that could improve and surprise: East Carolina Pirates
     (The Pirates struggled in Courtney Oliver's inaugural season as head coach in 2016, but also showed signs of promise, with victories over ACC foes Virginia and North Carolina State in the non-conference season. Though conference play began with sweeps at the hands of what would wind up being the American's two best teams, Oliver's squad did not suffer another sweep through the rest of the course of the season and even took a series win over Houston. Then-junior pitcher Lydia Ritchie improved leaps and bounds under Oliver's tutelage, besting her previous season'-best ERA by more than 6/10 of a run in almost three times the workload over previous years. The offense struggled somewhat, hitting .262 as a team with only 105 extra base hits and twenty-one stolen bases through the course of the campaign. The addition of transfer Meredith Burroughs should buoy the offense in a strong fashion this season.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Houston Cougars
     (The Cougars made many headlines in the coaching news department this summer, with the departure of longtime leader Kyla Holas; promotion of former assistant Kristin Vesely; and Vesely's hiring of former longtime professional stars Megan Gibson; Jessica Shults; and Cassie Tysarczyk. The on-field product, however, remains largely underwhelming. Home run leader Courtney Klingler graduated following last season, as did Katie St. Pierre, the second-leading hitter on the '16 squad. Gibson is a solid pitching coach, though the rest of the staff is largely unproven, but nevertheless, it will likely take a little while for the group to see any on-field success.)

Player of the Year: Juli Weber, South Florida
Pitcher of the Year: Lydia Ritchie, East Carolina
Coach of the Year: John Bargfeldt, Tulsa

Conference Champs: Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Top WCWS Contender: South Florida Bulls

Players to Watch:
--> Kalen McGill, South Florida – McGill spent her freshman campaign at South Alabama in 2015, where she blossomed to the tune of a 1.92 ERA and a 16-4 win-loss record for the conference champions. After transferring from the Jaguars, McGill spent last season at the Kevin Fagan-led College of Central Florida where she posted a 0.83 ERA and 124 strikeouts in almost 194 innings en route to a 33-4 win-loss record. With a hole left in the Bulls' pitching staff caused by the departure of all-American Erica Nunn, McGill figures to be a big part of filling that void.

--> Meredith Burroughs, East Carolina – Burroughs, the in-state transfer formerly of the North Carolina State Wolfpack, brings a powerful bat and some veteran experience to the Pirates' lineup for the next two seasons. A slugging first baseman with a when-needed pitching arm, Burroughs hit .279 in 2016 with thirteen home runs and forty RBI on the year. She should be a solid power bat in the middle of the Pirate lineup and able to help solidify what was a shaky offense a season ago.

--> Emily Watson, Tulsa – Gone from the Golden Hurricane is Caitlin Sill and her 182+ innings of work from 2016. Enter Watson, who played a solid and steady #2 in her sophomore season last year, putting together 123 innings in the circle. Watson put together a 12-9 win-loss record to go along with her 2.28 ERA and 173 strikeouts, holding opponents to just a .216 batting average, a number nearly more than twenty points beneath even Sill's mark in that category. Watson is seemingly well-equipped to take over as the staff ace and should help her team maintain the success they've come to enjoy over the last several years.

Biggest Questions:
* How effectively will South Florida replace all-American Erica Nunn in the circle?
* Will Houston's big-name staff come through with on-field results?

Top Seniors:
P – Lydia Ritchie, East Carolina
IF – Maggie Withee, Tulsa; Kristen Wyckoff, South Florida; Brittany Solis, Central Florida; Lindsey Stickrod, Memphis
OF – Maddie Withee, Tulsa; Juli Weber, South Florida; Linnea Goodman, Central Florida; Ciara Ervin, East Carolina

Conference Projection:
1. South Florida Bulls
2. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
3. Central Florida Knights
4. East Carolina Pirates
5. Houston Cougars
6. Connecticut Huskies
7. Memphis Tigers

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