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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

C-USA Conference Forecast

One of the top mid-major conferences in the nation, traditionally, the C-USA is made up of teams stretching from the mid-East coast all the way through Texas, Florida, and the Southern states. Twelve of the conference's fourteen teams compete in softball, leaving Rice and Old Dominion as the lone holdouts.

Kylee Hanson is the elite of the nation, not just the CUSA.
Photo: Conference USA
The conference is split into two divisions of six teams each, the East and West. The top three teams from each division earn berths in the conference tournament, as well as two at-large teams who have the best winning percentages from either division for a field of eight. The first day of the conference tournament is single-elimination, with seeds three and four receiving a bye. The top two conference seeds earn a double-bye to the second day of play, when competition enters a double-elimination format. The eventual tournament champion earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. The 2017 conference tournament will be hosted by Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Team that could improve and surprise: Marshall Thundering Herd
     (Shonda Stanton runs a family-style program with the Herd and the fruit of her labors usually leaves her perennially amid the pack of tight conference contenders. The speedy Kaelynn Greene had graduated, leaving the Herd with a hole at the top of their lineup, but infielder Morgan Zerkle is a superstar in green and white and has a solid supporting cast around her with some budding breakout players. Junior Elicia D'Orazio might sneak up on some people, while sophomore Briana Daiss was the only Herdster to put up double-digit home run totals a season ago. In the circle, Jordan Dixon is a classic workhorse and held opponents to a .235 batting average and recorded a 2.82 ERA in more than 268 innings in 2016. Despite Greene's absence, the Herd should enjoy success once again and be in the thick of contention for a title and an NCAA berth.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Florida Atlantic Owls
     (One of the game's classic and most respected coaches, Joan Joyce has brought the Owls to a position of both perennial relevancy and contention in the C-USA and on a national scale. Senior Kylee Hanson is a world-class hurler in the circle and can stack up against the very best of competition. Emily Lochten is a stellar player on offense and Madisyn Palmer is a star in the making if she can manage to "stick" at a starting position through the season. The Owls are in this spot because the one trait they seem to lack is an ability to "finish". They can contend during the regular season, even against quality opponents, but seem to kow-tow in the postseason when it counts. Hanson was bested and the Owls sent packing prior to even the Regional finals, and if that happens again in 2017, it would be a sad sendoff for one of the program's greatest ever. If they can manage to avoid a similar result, look out. The team is stacked.)

Player of the Year: Morgan Zerkle, Marshall
Pitcher of the Year: Kylee Hanson, Florida Atlantic
Coach of the Year: Shonda Stanton, Marshall

Conference Champion: Marshall Thundering Herd
Top WCWS Contender: Florida Atlantic Owls

Players to Watch:
--> Emily Lochten, Florida Atlantic Lochten has managed to sneak under many radars during her two years as an Owl, despite starting off with a bang in 2015 and largely improving a year later. Though her batting average slipped ever-so-slightly in her sophomore campaign, Lochten's power numbers went way up, more than quadrupling her home run total and improving her slugging percentage by nearly 160 points. Speedy on the base paths, powerful at the plate, and reliable in the field (Lochten also improved her fielding percentage from making twenty errors in her freshman campaign to just six in 2016), she is a force to be reckoned with, and conference opponents still have two years of reckoning to do with her!

--> Preslee Gallaway, Louisiana Tech - Gallaway largely flew unnoticed in her freshman campaign, though her 3.43 was a solid mark and she ranked in the top ten in the nation as a closer with five saves. A member of the Conference USA all-freshman team, do not be surprised if she fires on all cylinders this season. She impressed in the fall and will likely enjoy a bit of a heavier workload in 2017. I believe we'll see an all-conference nod in her near future.

--> Stephanie Texeira, Florida International - Frequently overshadowed by her fellow statesman at larger-market schools, Texeira has quietly paced the FIU lineup for years runing. After being named conference Freshman of the Year in 2014, she had led the program and the conference in numerous categories throughout her tenure, the least of which are not home runs; batting average; and slugging percentage. A three-time all-conference performer and an all-region selection in 2014, her freshman campaign, expect to see Texeira break out in her final season as a Panther.

Marshall's Morgan Zerkle is very, very good.
Photo: Marshall Athletic Communications
Biggest Questions:
* Will FAU's Hanson remain one of the most dominant pitchers in the nation?
* Can Western Kentucky return anywhere close to their previous top-level form?
* How great will Marshall's Morgan Zerkle be in her senior season?

Top Seniors:
P - Kylee Hanson, Florida Atlantic; Amanda Wilson, Florida Atlantic; Jordan Dixon, Marshall; Cara Goodwin, UAB; Jessica Elder, North Texas
IF - Shaelynn Braxton, Marshall; Stephanie Texeira, Florida International; Ashley Leon, Florida International; Tori Dew, Southern Miss; Lauren Holifield, Southern Miss; Pauline Tufi, Louisiana Tech; Kiki Pepi, UTEP; Kelli Schkade, North Texas
OF - Delaney Rickey, Florida Atlantic; Gabby Spallone, Florida International; Joanna Fallen, UAB; Danielle Gregory, North Texas
UT/DP - Morgan Zerkle, Marshall; Mary Warren, UAB; Randee Crawford, UTSA

Conference Projection:
East Division:
     1. Florida Atlantic Owls
     2. Marshall Thundering Herd
     3. Florida International Panthers
     4. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
     5. Charlotte 49ers
     6. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

West Division:
     1. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
     2. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
     3. UAB Blazers
     4. UTEP Miners
     5. UTSA Roadrunners
     6. North Texas Mean Green

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