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Monday, January 23, 2017

Horizon League Conference Forecast

The Horizon League is made up of ten teams, all from the midwestern region spanning Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinoi, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. Northern Kentucky brought the conference to an even ten members with their addition in 2015. The Horizon League does not sponsor football, and nine of the ten teams participate in softball.

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 conference tournament is held annually at the site of the highest seed that meets the necessary facility requirements.

Team that could improve and surprise: UIC Flames
The graphic published by UIC Athletics after announcing the hiring
of program alum Lynn Curylo as the new head softball coach.
     (The defending regular-season champions were upset in the conference tournament last season and were forced to watch the remainder of the postseason from their couches. In the offseason, head coach Michelle Venturella resigned her position as head coach in order to take a different position that would allow her to be closer to family. Program alum Lynn Curylo moved over from conference rival Wright State to assume the duties as head coach. It was Curylo who had the WSU program second in the conference a season ago and would have been threatening for a postseason berth this year. She returns the reigning conference Pitcher and Freshman of the year, as well as a third who was named all-conference. Senior Elaine Heflin impressed as a junior, posting a sub-1.45 ERA and holding opponents to a .198 batting average against her. She amassed 170 strikeouts in more than 180 innings of work and was even better in league play. I expect the Flames to finish the job this year and represent the Horizon League in the NCAA tournament.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Wright State Raiders
     (The young ladies who will put on a Raider uniform this season have endured tremendous strife this offseason, and strictly through no fault of their own. Despite the team’s winning record and solid performance, head coach Lynn Curylo departed to return to her alma mater, UIC. Ray Loeser was hired away from Division II World Series participant Charleston, only to himself depart just a few months later. Loeser’s former assistant Justine Wichman, in her first season at the Division I level after following Loeser from Charleston, will assume the interim role for 2017. A program that otherwise may have been a sleeper for postseason contention will undoubtedly suffer from the summer’s turbulence.)

Player of the Year: Cali Mikovich, Youngstown State
Pitcher of the Year: Elaine Heflin, UIC Flames
Coach of the Year: Lynn Curylo, UIC Flames

Conference Champs: UIC Flames
Top WCWS Contender: UIC Flames

Players to Watch:
--> Lexi Watts, UIC – Watts earned the conference's Freshman of the Year title a season ago, thanks to her .362 batting average and sixty-three base hits. She led her program with an even greater .377 mark in conference play and set the Flames' single-season stolen base record, a number that put her in the top fifteen in the nation. A speedy, table-setter style of player, expect Watts to be in the thick of whatever success the Flames have this season.
--> Becka Peterson, Wright State – A hard-hitting infielder, Peterson got better nearly across the board in her junior campaign, though her batting average dipped a handful of points. In every other category, statistically, she has improved since her freshman season and I see no reason why that should be any different in her final season. A first-team all-conference honoree a year ago, I would not be surprised to see her once-again break the double-digit home run mark with ease and perhaps add to her RBI and base hit totals. Despite what we predicted for Wright State, I expect Peterson to have a fine final season.
--> Cali Mikovich, Youngstown State – Mikovich's sophomore season's line of .398/13/41 earned her all-conference first-team and all-region second-team honors, while her .688 slugging percentage was sixth all-time on the program's single-season list. Her thirteen home runs set a program single-season record and her RBI mark tied for second all-time in a single campaign. After nearly doubling some of her stats from her freshman to sophomore years, I expect Mikovich to get even better in her junior season and add a Player of the Year trophy to her mantle.

Biggest Questions:
* How will the revolving door at the head coaching position affect Wright State?
* Will Valparaiso jump off their postseason hot streak & NCAA berth and succeed in the regular season?

Top Seniors:
P – Elaine Heflin, UIC; Erin Kownacki, Oakland
C – Maria Lacatena, Youngstown State
IF – Brittney Moffatt, Youngstown State; Becka Peterson, Wright State; Allie Taylor, Green Bay
OF – Sarah Dowd, Youngstown State
UT/DP – Vivi Marquez, Wright State; Alyssa James, Detroit

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

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