Thursday, January 5, 2017

Atlantic Sun Conference Forecast

A small conference with teams spanning the east and southeast, the ASun and its teams do not sponsor football. Of the conference's eight member schools, seven compete in softball.The New Jersey Institute of Technology is the single school that does not sponsor softball. North Alabama will join the conference in 2018.

The top six teams in the regular-season standings earn berths to the conference tournament. The top two seeds earn first-round byes. The tournament operates on a double-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 hosted in Nashville, Tennessee.

Sophomore hurler Brooke Hutto will
be a counted-upon piece of the puzzle
for the Hatters this season.
Team that could improve and surprise: Stetson Hatters
     (The Hatters finished a quiet third in the 2016 conference standings, but with two pitchers who impressed as freshmen, 2017 and the future is bright. Then-freshmen Tori Perkins and Brooke Hutto made an impressive 1-2 punch in the circle; Perkins' 2.57 ERA led Hutto's 2.59 and the duo posted identical 12-7 win-loss records. Kelsey Waters and Jessie Tenbroeck, the program's leading hitters and only .300+ hitters from a season ago, both return for their senior campaigns. Home run leader Ashly Smith, Perkins and Hutto's fellow sophomore, also led the program with a .451 slugging percentage and returns for her own second season. The Hatters have a lot of talent and a lot of valuable pieces; if the pieces can be put together appropriately, the team should challenge for a conference title.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: USC-Upstate Spartans
     (Despite more than forty victories in 2016 and a berth in the regional round, the Spartans seemed to slip a bit a season ago. Coming off the departure of a loaded senor class that included program-pacer Shellie Robinson, the Spartans seemed to have to find their footing at some instances. Though I believe they'll still be tops of the conference when all is said and done, another quick two-and-out Regionals appearance may be the way the cards fall.)

Player of the Year: Karla Beasley, USC-Upstate
Pitcher of the Year: Logan Viers, Kennesaw State
Coach of the Year: Chris Hawkins, USC-Upstate

Conference Champs: USC-Upstate Spartans
Top WCWS Contender: USC-Upstate Spartans

Players to Watch:
--> Logan Viers, Kennesaw State – In the span of a single season, Viers went from a part-time pitcher (8-7 record, 3.69 ERA, 91 innings) to the ace of the Owls staff and one of the conference's premier hurlers (14-11, 1.65 ERA, 170 innings). Having earned all-conference honors for her efforts, expect Viers to flourish even more in her final season, especially under the tutelage of her new renowned pitching coach.

--> Lexi Shubert, USC-Upstate – Already known as one of the conference's all-time greats, Shubert's respectable 2.75 ERA last season was her career high by nearly a full run. Taking on a somewhat diminished role with a smaller innings count didn't serve Shubert well, as she had to play "second fiddle", really for the first time in her career. The former ASun Pitcher of the Year and two-time first-team all-conference selection has an opportunity for a final rebound and showcase of her skills in her senior campaign.

--> Brooke Hutto/Tori Perkins, Stetson – Both Hutto and Perkins impressed as freshman. Taking on the lion's share of the workload in the circle, they turned in respective ERAs each under 2.60 and opponents hit just .256 against them in nearly 250 innings of work. With a season now under their belts and three more to go, all-conference honors and a Pitcher of the Year award are certainly within the realm of likelihood. The duo packs a solid 1-2 punch and should only get better as time goes on.

Biggest Questions:
* Will the Upstate Spartans return to their traditional level of conference dominance?
* After a tumultuous offseason, but with one of top head coaching prospects now at the helm, how will Kennesaw State begin building their program back?

Top Seniors:
P – Lexi Shubert, USC-Upstate; Holly McKinnon, USC-Upstate; Logan Viers, Kennesaw State; Taylor Thorpe, Jacksonville
IF – Jessie Tenbroeck, Stetson
OF – Ryan Rector, USC-Upstate; Kelsey Waters, Stetson
UT/DP – Taylor Denton, Kennesaw State

Conference Projection:
1. USC-Upstate Spartans
2. Stetson Hatters
3. Florda Gulf Coast Eagles
4. Kennesaw State Owls
5. Lipscomb Bisons
6. North Florida Ospreys
7. Jacksonville Dolphins

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