Monday, February 6, 2017

Southland Conference Forecast

One of the more competitive mid-major conferences in the nation, the Southland boasts thirteen member schools, nestled in the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Twelve of the thirteen schools sponsor varsity softball; the University of New Orleans is the only program that does not.

Pride of the Southland, McNeese State C Erika Piancastelli
Photo: McNeese State Athletic Communications
The Southland conference tournament operates on a double-elimination format, with the top six teams from the regular-season standings advancing to the tournament field. The top two seeds receive first-round byes. The winner of the tournament earns the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. The 2017 conference tournament will be held in Conway, Arkansas, hosted by Central Arkansas.

Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are postseason ineligible following a move from Division 2 to Division 1, so if either team finishes in the top six of the standings, the next-highest eligible team is elevated to participate in the tournament.

Team that could improve and surprise: Nicholls State Colonels
     (The Colonels nearly reached the 40-win mark in 2016, eventually coming up just one victory short. After an exit in the conference tournament, they did not hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Hannah Haydel and Megan Landry formed a formidable 1-2 in the circle, and though Haydel has since departed, I expect big things out of Landry this season. Amanda Gianelloni and her near-.400 average return to lead the Colonels offense. Especially if McNeese falters as they mold a new pitching staff, expect the Colonels to be one team in prime position to pounce.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Northwestern State Lady Demons
     (Mikayla Brown's opening-weekend ACL injury to kick off last season proved to be an unfortunate forecast for how things would go for the once-formidable Lady Demons. Kellye Kincannon impressed me in her junior season and I expect her to have another fine year in her last year in Natchitoches. If Brown is healthy and can return to previous form in the pitching circle, NSU might make some noise. If not, though, the tides have seemingly turned in this "what have you done for me lately" sport and the Lady Demons may find themselves by the wayside.)  

Player of the Year: Erika Piancastelli, McNeese State
Pitcher of the Year: Hannah Null, Abilene Christian
Coach of the Year: Holly Bruder, Lamar

Conference Champion: McNeese State Cowgirls
Top WCWS Contender: McNeese State Cowgirls

Players to Watch:
---> Megan Landry, Nicholls State - Landry came hot out of the gate, throwing a no-hitter in her first collegiate start. She finished the year with a 1.80 ERA and fifteen victories in a convincingly-sturdy inaugural campaign. With Hannah Haydel having graduated, Landry will have more of a load to shoulder in 2017 and if she can do so effectively, she will be an x-factor for the Colonels.

---> Hannah Null, Abilene Christian - While Hannah Null has shown herself to be one of the finest pitchers in the league - and, potentially, across the mid-major spectrum as a whole - she has suffered greatly by the Wildcats' postseason ineligibility and without the opportunity to "show her stuff" on the postseason stage. Twice an all-conference honoree, Null finished the 2016 campaign with a 2.87 ERA and 125 strikeouts across nearly 175 innings of work and fifteen victories in the circle.

---> Mikayla Brown, Northwestern State - An ACL injury ended prematurely what we predicted would be a breakout campaign for Brown in 2016. If she can successfully come back from her injury, the remainder of her career - including 2017 - should be fun to watch. In 2015, her last full season of play and her freshman year, Brown posted a 1.56 ERA, good enough for fifteenth in the nation at that point, and recorded thirteen victories.

Biggest Questions:
* How will Northwestern State's Mikayla Brown fare in her comeback from an ACL injury?
* How significantly will the loss of their primary pitchers + head coach affect McNeese State?

Top Seniors:
P - Liz Carter,  Texas A&M-Corpus Christi; Ciara Luna, Lamar
C - Brynn Baca, Lamar
IF - Brooke Morris, Nicholls State
OF - Marisa Taunton, McNeese State; Kellye Kincannon, Northwestern State; Briana Whisenhunt, Central Arkansas; Taylor Brown, Abilene Christian
UT/DP - Haley Stevenson, Nicholls State

Conference Projection:
1. McNeese State Cowgirls
2. Nicholls State Colonels
3. Lamar Cardinals
4. Abilene Christian Wildcats
5. Central Arkansas Bears
6. Sam Houston State Bearkats
7. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders
8. Northwestern State Lady Demons
Others: Southeastern Louisiana Lions, Stephen F. Austin Ladyjacks, Houston Baptist Huskies, Incarnate Word Cardinals 

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