Monday, February 6, 2017

Sun Belt Conference Forecast

One of just two mid-major conferences to boast a WCWS appearance this decade, and the only one to brag of more than one appearance in the World Series since 2008, the Sun Belt is made up of twelve member schools that stretch the 'Bible Belt' through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. Ten of the twelve programs sponsor varsity softball; Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock do not.

The conference tournament operates on a double-elimination format, with the top eight teams from the regular-season standings making the tournament field. The #3 and #4 seeds receive first-round byes, while the #1 and #2 seeds receive byes through the first two rounds of play. The tournament champion receives the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. The 2017 tournament will be held in Troy, Alabama.

Expect big things from Georgia State's
Ivie Drake (JR-C) this season.
Photo: Georgia State Athletics
Team that could improve and surprise: Georgia State Panthers
     (The Panthers have been on the brink of an NCAA tournament berth for the last couple of seasons, and 2017 could be their year to finally hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Led by junior catcher Ivie Drake, who we'll talk more about later, Kensey Caldwell and Breanna Skalski both enjoyed breakout campaigns in 2016 and both should help provide a more balanced lineup around Drake. In the circle, Katie Worley departs, leaving sophomore Amanda Chance and junior Annie Davis to help take up the slack; both posted ERAs just above 4.00 and will have to improve on those numbers to help take the Panthers into the postseason. With a coaching staff made up of a crew that that could each be a head coach in their own right at some point, the Panthers are in a good position to show themselves worthy of a round-of-sixty-four berth.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Texas State Bobcats
     (Randi Rupp is one heck of a pitcher, but she can't 'do it all' and I expect the Bobcats to regress a bit this season. Rupp should rightfully find herself among the nation's best in statistical categories and award nominations galore, but I don't think we'll see her squad in the postseason conversation, barring a Sun Belt tournament run. The offensive players haven't performed to the level that I expected from them, and that is a bad sign with a couple of teams climbing up to vie for that perennial third spot in the conference race.)

Player of the Year: Rochelle Roberts, Louisiana-Monroe
Pitcher of the Year: Devin Brown, South Alabama
Coach of the Year: Roger Kincaid, Georgia State

Conference Champion: Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
Top WCWS Contender: Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns

Players to Watch:
---> Ivie Drake, Georgia State - If anyone has enjoyed a quieter, more successful career than Drake in just two years, please, raise your hand. The Panthers catcher has seemed content to play at a stellar level, yet without a considerable amount of notoriety. She ended 2016 with a .387 batting average, sixteen home runs, and a .740 slugging percentage - and that was a small step down from her all-American campaign as a freshman. If the Panthers are to surge in 2017, Drake must return to that all-American level, and with her talent level, that's easily done.

---> DJ Sanders, Louisiana-Lafayette - Sanders is the latest in a long line of breakout offensive stars to come from under Michael Lotief's tutelage. She went from a spur-of-the-moment fill-in as an injury replacement in her freshman season to all-American status and the team lead in RBIs in 2016. She hit the game-tying home run against Texas A&M to force the winner-take-all regional final to extra innings. As per usual, the Cajuns graduated quite a few heavy hitters after last season and Sanders needs to continue to play on her very even-keeled level.

---> Samantha Clakley, UT-Arlington - Clakley is not a name that even some Sun Belt fans necessarily know, but she is poised for a breakout campaign in 2017. She posted a 3.09 ERA and recorded eighteen victories in her freshman season of 2016. Though she struggled a bit, with her team, down the stretch, I expect more consistency this season and a first-team all-conference nod.

---> Taty Forbes, Coastal Carolina - With the Chanticleers joining the Sun Belt for 2017, Forbes gets to follow up her stellar freshman campaign against all-new opponents and pitching staffs. That could be very good for Kelley Green and very bad for the same opponents and pitching staffs. Forbes hit .479 last season and should be a very bright spot for a team in a rebuilding year.

Biggest Questions:
* How strong of a challenge will South Alabama pose to Louisiana-Lafayette this year?
* How will the addition of Coastal Carolina impact the Sun Belt standings and conference play this season?

Top Seniors:
P - Alex Stewart, Louisiana-Lafayette; Destin Vicknair, South Alabama; Melanie Coyne, Louisiana-Monroe
IF - Kensey Caldwell, Georgia State; Haley Hayden, Louisiana-Lafayette; Mandy Blackwell, Georgia State; Corrina Liscano, Texas State; Morgan Robinson, Georgia Southern; Cara Parker, Appalachian State
OF - Rochelle Roberts, Louisiana-Monroe; Amanda Minahan, South Alabama; Morgan Brown, Georgia State; Taylor Rogers, Georgia Southern
UT/DP - Becca Hartley, Troy; Emily Snider, Georgia Southern

Conference Projection:
1. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
2. South Alabama Jaguars
3. Georgia State Panthers
4. UT-Arlington Mavericks
5. Texas State Bobcats
6. Georgia Southern Eagles
7. Troy Trojans
8. ULM Warhawks
Others: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, Appalachian State Mountaineers

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