Sunday, February 5, 2017

Southeastern Conference Forecast

Considered by some to be the nation's premier conference in the sport at the present time, the SEC boasts three of the last five national championships in softball and has placed a conference team in the WCWS final every year since 2011. The conference is made up of fourteen teams, thirteen of whom sponsor varsity softball. Vanderbilt is the lone school that does not.

The SEC tournament operates on a single-elimination lose-and-go-home format. The top twelve conference seeds make the tournament, leaving just one team on the outside looking in. The top four seeds receive first-round byes in the tournament. The tournament winner receives the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. The 2017 tournament will be held in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Expect even bigger and better things from Texas A&M sophomore
Samantha Show this season.
Photo: A&M Athletics
Team that could improve and surprise: Texas A&M Aggies
     (The Aggies started 2016 off on a hot note, beating top-ten ranked UCLA in the season's first game. The Aggies beat three ranked opponents, including Washington and Arizona, at the Mary Nutter Classic and walloped Texas Tech in a three-game in-state series by a combined score of 31-14. Coming from the #10 seed in the conference tournament, the Aggies went one-and-done. They did not fare much better in the regional round, losing to Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette and going home with a 2-2 regional record. Freshmen Keeli Milligan and Samantha Show both solidified themselves as some of the league's brightest players, while Milligan's .379 batting average and eighty-two total bases earned her second-team all-conference and all-region honors. Show led in the circle, amassing more than 200 innings of work and posting a respectable 3.67 ERA. Tori Vidales continued her torrid career pace with a .406 bating average to lead the team, while her fourteen home runs ranked second on the squad. Her .712 slugging percentage and .519 on-base mark both led the squad. Head coach Jo Evans has a lot of solid, healthy, steady playmakers and this could be her year to really vault to the top of the league standings.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Georgia Bulldogs
     (The Bulldogs pulled off one of the greatest Cinderella stories of the year in 2016, grabbing the last Regional hosting spot - a move that acquired some controversy - and upsetting twice-defending-champion Florida in the Super Regionals for a World Series berth. The Dawgs lost offensive leaders Alex Hugo and Tina Iosefa, as well as pitching ace Chelsea Wilkinson. Brittany Gray suffered through some lingering injury effects for some of last season, leaving her as a question mark going into this year. The Bulldogs will falter this season.)

Player of the Year: Kasey Cooper, Auburn
Pitcher of the Year: Carley Hoover, LSU
Coach of the Year: Jo Evans, Texas A&M

Conference Champion: Florida Gators
Top WCWS Contender: Florida Gators

Players to Watch:
---> Amanda Lorenz, Florida - Lorenz, on a team of upper classmen, shone as one of the Gators' brighest stars in 2016, en route to the Division I Freshman of the Year trophy and first-team all-conference and all-region honors. With a lengthy list of departures from the Gator batting order, Lorenz will be called upon to duplicate her .403 batting average - and then some. Expect her to live up to the task.

---> Matty Moss, Tennessee - Erin Gabriel, Rainey Gaffin, and Gretchen Aucoin are all departed, leaving Moss as the only Vol returner to see time in the circle in 2016. She earned SEC all-freshman honors, throwing just over 112 innings in thirty-two appearances, seventeen of them starts. The staff veteran, even as just a sophomore, expect her to assume a larger load on her shoulders this season.

---> Chandler Dare, Alabama - With Haylie McCleney departed, the Tide need both a speedster who can get on base and an emotional, fiery leader atop the lineup. Dare could be "the one". Already impressive in her own right in terms of production, earning first-team all-region honors a season ago. She hit .382 with sixty-eight base hits and perfectly went seventeen-for-seventeen on the base paths. She possesses many of McCleney's similar traits and can - and should - be a real spark plug atop the Tide batting order.

---> Meagan Prince, Kentucky - As Kelsey Nunley's number two, Prince has consistently raised her innings count year-to-year, though never more than in 2016 when she threw nearly 163 innings and recorded an impressive 1.85 ERA and 126 strikeouts for her troubles. She has proved to be effective in her own right, not just in Nunley's shadow, something that will serve her well as she seeks to help make up some of the slack caused by Nunley's graduation and departure. Prince should undoubtedly earn all-conference honors and could be a sleeper in the Pitcher of the Year race.

Biggest Questions:
* How will Florida recover from their early elimination last season?
* Will the SEC see a 'down year' in 2017 following a significant round of graduated superstars after last season?

Top Seniors:
P - Delanie Gourley, Florida; Meagan Prince, Kentucky; Nickie Blue, South Carolina; Sydney Littlejohn, Alabama; Alexis Silkwood, Mississippi State
C - Katie Anne Bailey, Mississippi State
IF - Sahvanna Jaquish, LSU; Kasey Cooper, Auburn; Haley Fagan, Auburn; Caroline Seitz, Mississippi State
OF - Bailey Landry, LSU; Megan Geer, Tennessee; Sydni Emanuel, Georgia; Miranda Strother, Ole Miss
UT/DP - Chandler Dare, Alabama; Chloe Rathburn, Missouri

Conference Projection:
1. Florida Gators
2. Texas A&M Aggies
3. LSU Tigers
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
5. Auburn Tigers
6. Tennessee Vols
7. Kentucky Wildcats
8. Ole Miss Rebels
Others: Georgia Bulldogs, Missouri Tigers, South Carolina Gamecocks, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Arkansas Razorbacks

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