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Monday, January 30, 2017

Ohio Valley Conference Forecast

The Ohio Valley Conference, a mid-major group of schools in the midwest and upper southern portions of the country, the conference contains twelve member schools located throughout the states of Missouri; Illinois; Kentucky; Tennessee; and Alabama. All twelve of the conference's member schools sponsor varsity softball.

The top eight seeds after the regular season advance to the conference tournament. The tournament operates on a double-elimination format. No "byes" are given to any teams. The tournament champion earns the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. The 2017 tournament will be held in Oxford, Alabama, a neutral site.

Akron Racers head coach
joined Belmont as their head coach
this offseason.
Team that could improve and surprise: Belmont Bruins
     (Despite posting the second-most wins in program history, the Bruins made a coaching change this offseason. They brought in one of the hottest coaches at the Division II level in former UMSL leader Brian Levin. He returns the program's top three hitters from 2016, as well as innings leader Ashley Johnson in the circle. Though a huge jump in Levin's first year may be a stretch, it is not too big of one to expect the Bruins to continue to improve on a yearly climb.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
     (After an impressive postseason run that resulted in a conference tournament title and an NCAA regional berth in 2015, the Golden Eagles regressed in 2016. A .500+ conference record was overshadowed by an overall record ten games under the plateau mark. Danielle Liberatore remains one of the better hurlers in the conference and in the midsouth region as a whole, and while it would be a shame to see her squad not take advantage of her last season in Cookeville, that may just be what happens.)

Player of the Year: Paige Murphy, Eastern Kentucky
Pitcher of the Year: Whitney Gillespie, Jacksonville State
Coach of the Year: Jana McGinnis, Jacksonville State

Conference Champs: Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Top WCWS Contender: Jacksonville State Gamecocks

Players to Watch:
Whitney Gillespie, Jacksonville State – Gillespie gathered some national acclaim after a gutsy twelve-inning performance in the regional round against Oregon State a season ago. It was a stellar performance that capped off an impressive season for the Gamecock righty. She put up a 16-4 record and a 1.13 ERA and earned all-conference and all-region honors, as well as the OVC's Pitcher of the Year award. A higher national awareness and first-team all-region honors are not outside the realm of probability for the hurler, who is still in just her junior season.

Haley Chambers-Book, SIU-Edwardsville – Chambers-Book, prior to taking the 2016 season off, was one of the nation's finest mid-major hurlers. The 2015 OVC Pitcher of the Year, she earned all-region and all-conference honors in each of her sophomore and junior campaigns. After a year way, it is well-worth keeping an eye on what she does, both in the circle and at the plate this season.

Jessica Wireman, Eastern Illinois – Wireman logged 225 innings of work in 2016, her sophomore campaign, and averaged nearly a strikeout an inning. She posted a 19-19 record, making thirty-four starts and forty-five appearances. In that kind of time in the circle, her 3.11 Earned Run Average looks even more impressive. With two seasons still to go, expect much of the same from Wireman.

Biggest Questions:
* How will Jacksonville State fare in defending their title and continuing their high-level play of 2016?
* How will SIU-Edwardsville react to the turnover in their pitching staff, namely the transfer of Baylee Douglass and the re-appearance of Haley Chambers-Book?

Top Seniors:
P – Haley Chambers-Book, SIU-Edwardsville; Brooke Kennedy, UT-Martin; Danielle Liberatore, Tennessee Tech; Mason Robinson, Murray State
C – Jamie McGuire, Jacksonville State
IF – Cadi Oliver, Jacksonville State; Allison Smiley, SIU-Edwardsville; Chelsey Deloney, Belmont; Jessica Twaddle, Murray State; Karly Thompson, Morehead State
OF – Stephanie Lewis, Jacksonville State; Carly Gonzalez, UT-Martin; Courtney Gearlds, Tennessee State
UT/DP – Emily Church, Jacksonville State

Conference Projection:
1. Jacksonville State Gamecocks
2. SIU-Edwardsville Cougars
3. Eastern Illinois Panthers
4. Eastern Kentucky Lady Colonels
5. UT-Martin Skyhawks
6. Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
7. Belmont Bruins
8. Murray State Racers
Others: Southeast Missouri Redhawks, Morehead State Eagles, Austin Peay Lady Govs, Tennessee State Lady Tigers

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