College Baseball Today previews the 2011 Sun Belt season - KAIT Jonesboro, AR - Region 8 News, weather, sports

College Baseball Today previews the 2011 Sun Belt season

In 2010, the Sun Belt finally burst through, becoming THE mid-major conference and putting three squads into the NCAA tournament. To build from that, the competition will be as cut-throat as ever. But there will also be a big national spotlight on these guys too. Don't wilt boys.

2010 in a Paragraph:

I was privileged enough to see first hand how good the Sun Belt was last season when I took in a few days at their conference tournament in Murfreesboro. Between the three NCAA teams – Louisiana, Florida Atlantic and Florida International – and the hitting streak of Garrett Wittels, I was riveted from first pitch to final out. But you didn't need me to tell you that, just look at the RPIs here, this was a solid conference. The Cajuns and Owls tied for the regular season title, but really, there was quality baseball played 1-through-8 in the standings. FIU won the conference tournament behind a great job by Turtle Thomas that finally saw his program turn a corner. But there were also near-misses for the NCAA field in Western Kentucky, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee. A case could've been made for all three to get in the field of 64.

Conference RPI: 7

HOW THEY'LL FINISH IN 2011:

1- Louisiana

2- Florida Atlantic

3- Troy

4- Western Kentucky

5- Florida International

6- Arkansas State

7- Middle Tennessee State

8- UL-Monroe

9- South Alabama

10- Arkansas-Little Rock

2011 in a Paragraph:

First and foremost, the entire country will start the season with the spotlight firmly focused on the SBC as Garrett Wittels and his 56-game hit streak will be on the line against Southeastern Louisiana right off the bat. Robin Ventura's college record of 58 games will either be broken or preserved in that three-game set on February 18-20, all under the gaze of ESPN's cameras. Beauty. Beyond whatever Wittels does there, don't take your eye off of FIU as they'll still be stocked enough to make another push to the NCAA tournament in June. Joining them will be my pick for conference title-winners in the Ragin Cajuns of Louisiana, who is unlike most of the teams here in that they are pitching-strong. FAU and Troy will have some potent offenses that should be able to challenge the Peppers for top dawg status. Look out for Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders, who are Sun Belt title-challenging vets. And Arkansas State may be picked 6th in the pre-season here, but coach Tommy Raffo could have the second-best pitching staff in the conference.


Favorites: Louisiana, Florida Atlantic

Contenders: Troy, Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic

Darkhorse: Arkansas State

Can't-Miss Series of the Year: Florida Atlantic at Florida International, May 19-21.

Best Non-Conference Series: Louisiana at AT&T Tournament (Cal, UCSB, San Francisco), Mar. 11-13

Hot Coach: Turtle Thomas, FIU

Hot Seat Coach: Jeff Schexnaider, UL-Monroe.

The "You Gotta See" Player: SS/2B/RHP Garrett Wittels, FIU

 

Three Non-Conference Series SBC Opponents Better Take Seriously:

1- Louisiana at Southern Miss, Mar. 4-6.

2- Florida International at Texas A&M, Mar. 11-13.

3- Western Kentucky at Caravelle Baseball at the Beach (Coastal Carolina, Kansas State, Pacific), Feb. 25-27.

 

Three Bold Predictions:

1- Garrett Wittels streak ends in a tie with Robin Ventura at 58 vs. SLU.

2- Because of the schedules, FAU will end the regular season with the most overall wins.

3- The Sun Belt's RPI jumps up from No. 7 to No. 5 this season. 

 

ARKANSAS STATE (30-28, 16-14)

2010 RPI: 97

Starters Returning: 4

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Jacob Lee (8-3, 3.80, .246OBA)

RHP Andy Ferguson (5-5, 4.71)

RHP Daniel Wright (3-3, 4.10, .244OBA)

RHP John Koch (1-4, 4.35, 4svs)

3B Jordan Castaldo (.363)

OF Todd Baumgartner (.336-3-42, 10SBs)

OF Michael Faulkner (.336, 23SBs)

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The Good News:

What a year 2010 was for the Red Wolves. For this first time since 1998 they pulled out a winning record in conference play, then made the SBC tournament field of eight and once there they pulled off a quick 2-0 mark before going belly-up. Coach Tommy Raffo has the Red Wolves howling for more in 2011. The best part is the fact that most of the pitching returns from a unit that was 3rd in the SBC with a team ERA of 5.02. This year they'll have new pitching coach Tighe Dickinson to lead them – who was the pitching coach at Washington the last few years, tutoring such names as Tim Lincecum and John Lester. Jacob Lee and Andy Ferguson are veteran arms that have shown flashes of dominance. I have to admit, Michael Faulkner was one of the better leadoff men I saw play last season and has three other .300+ hitters back to join him, including Jordan Castaldo, Todd Baumgartner and Ryan Emery (.313).

 

The Bad News:

An ice-cold 8-17 spell to finish the season doomed their chances for more than 30 wins and leaves a lack of momentum for 2011. The offense lost one of the more intimidating presences in college baseball in leading hitter Murray Watts, who was a sequoia at 1B as well. In fact, most of the key members of the .964 defense have moved on meaning the infield will need new blood to step in right away. Clutch hitting was a problem last season as nobody in the Sun Belt stranded more runners than the Wolves did, leaving 552 on the paths over the course of the season.

 

Schedule Note:

Going one better.

ASU will play 32 home games this season, which is one more than they've played in each of the last two years. But one thing is for sure, they'll need to be on their horse quickly this time, as they'll have monsters like Auburn, Virginia and Ole Miss to square off against in the firsst two weeks. And talk about getting the hatred out of the way early, the opening weekend of SBC play will be at UALR, followed by a trip to Lafayette to play the Cajuns. That's a wake-you-up-with-a-slap slate there.

 

ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK (29-25, 12-16)

2010 RPI: 140

Starters Returning: 5

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

2B Jason Houston (.297-14-53, 11SBs, .983 defense)

1B Jake Rowell (.308-8-48, .990 defense)

3B Casey McCollum (.310)

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The Good News:

Year two of the Scott Norwood era got off to a flying start with last year's 10-2 early season mark. Let's hope his Trojans can do that again… and then build off it. One thing is for sure, improvement is showing, as witnessed by the teams' jump from No. 233 in the RPI in 2009 to 140 last season. The all-senior infield of 1B Rowell, 2B Houston, SS Brock Feldmann (.293, 10SBs) and 3B McCollum (.310) will be a huge building block for this team. J.C. transfers OF Cameron Bentley and LHP Dillon Wilson had huge falls and could push for All Conference consideration. Also, two players worth watching will be Catcher Niko Navarro, a 2007 22nd round draftee of the Pirates, and 1B/3B Cody Gilles, a J.C. All American in ‘09, both players sat out last season and will make big contributions this time around.

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The Bad News:

Despite the early season success, UALR lost it confidence quickly when it came to conference play, slogging out to a 4-14 start in the SBC and eventually not making the conference tournament as the 9th place team. Do not repeat that, obviously. There are six returning senior hurlers that got a lot of use last season, but none of them had an ERA below 6.00, so there will be a lot of depth, but it needs to be quality depth. Some new pitchers will have to make the adjustment to D-1 level baseball in a hurry, which is never a great circumstance to count on. Finding a new bullpen ace to replace J.R. Boling, who had eight saves and a 4.31 ERA last season.

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Schedule Note:

Okay wait… who screwed up here?

I've checked and double-checked and I still can't figure out why, for the third straight year, the Trojans will host Florida Atlantic and travel to Florida International. Who is making the Sun Belt schedules every year? The trip to Boca Raton will be part of a difficult stretch to end the season as UA-LR plays three of its last four weekends on the road at Louisiana, at FAU and at rival Arkansas State

 

FLORIDA ATLANTIC (37-24, 21-9)

2010 RPI: 36

Starters Returning: 8

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 2

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP/OF Andy Mee (1-2, 2.96, 11svs/.378-8-55)

1B Dan Scheffler (.371-15-65)

DH/C Eddie Cassidy (.329-10-42)

2B Raymond Church (.329-10-48, 10SBs)

SS Nick Delguidice (.306-10-55)

RHP Ryan Garton (7-3, 4.87)

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The Good News:

Season 2 of the John McCormack era showed a lot of positives, like the 37 wins, increasing the SBC mark from 12-19 to 21-9, tying for the conference title and making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. Another indication that this is one mentally tough team?… the Owls won every one of their road series in Sun Belt play last season. Niiiiiice. Even better, eight position starters in the field and on in the batting order return for 2011, led by one of the best two-way threats in the country in Andy Mee, who is a real dirt-under-the-nails kind of guy. He'll have four other .300+ hitters back with him, including leadoff man Raymond Church, who always seemed to get the key hit for the Blue Waves last season. Also, keep an eye on diminutive catcher Mike Albaladejo (.251), who is a gritty sparkplug and unquestioned team leader. Talking with coach McCormack last year, he couldn't say enough positive things about Albaladejo. Watch for a big year from him. The rotation returns two weekend starters in Ryan Garton and Soph RHP Kevin Alexander (3-3, 6.99) and they'll be backed by ace reliever Mee and middle reliever Hugh Adams (6-1, 7.09). Also, 11-game starter R.J. Alvarez (3-1, 5.10) comes back as a soph who possesses an awesome cutter and had a huge summer in the Cape Cod League (No. 25 pro prospect by B.A.). A lot to like about the Owls in 2011, especially since they experienced so much success last season and are pining to get more.

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The Bad News:

First of all, with all the increased expectations on this program, Coach McCormack has to hope this team doesn't crumble under the pressure. Considering last year's major positive moves, there's not really a whole lot of bad news, but certainly saying goodbye to staff ace Mike Gipson (8-2, 3.70) and top arm Ryan Bernal (6-3, 3.00) will hurt in the short run until new hurlers can be brought along. The offense was just the 6th-best in the conference and also struck out a stratospherically-high 402 times last season. So some more discerning eyes in the batter's box is a must for this team to improve.

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Schedule Note:

Not as easy as it may seem.

The Blue Wave will have a hell of a lot of early tests in a deceptively tough non-conference slate. Sure, there's the three-gamer vs. Hofstra, which shouldn't be a problem, but after that, FAU will play Florida and Miami back to back in mid-week games. Then they'll host Stony Brook and Monmouth in consecutive weekends, since the Seawolves and Jaspers are favorites in the AmEast and NEC respectively. In the Sun Belt's new rotation, FAU has the luck of drawing South Florida rival FIU in a pair of weekend three-gamers. They'll open SBC play at home vs. FIU and then close the season with a drive down to FIU in the final weekend.

 

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (36-25, 17-13)

2010 RPI: 53

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

SS Garrett Wittels (.413)

OF Mike Martinez (.278-9-55)

OF Yoandy Barroso (.377-4-35)

3B Jeremy Patton (.364-8-45)

OF Pablo Bermudez (.332-8-52, 21SBs)

OF Jabari Henry (.315-12-51, Freshman All American)

LHP R.J. Fondon (5-4, 4.70)

RHP Aaron Arboleya (5-2, 5.27, .258OBA)

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The Good News:

As I mentioned in last year's preview, "Look for the Turtle Thomas factor to kick into high gear this season" and sure enough, it did. Big time. Obviously, the good news begins with Wittels and his attempt to break Robin Ventura's 58-game hit streak. Not only did it bring ESPN cameras to FIU for the season-opening weekend, but it is bringing the nation's eye to college baseball as well. Coach Thomas and crew gotta love that. He's also gotta love the offensive prowess his entire 2011 team will have as six hitters that went .315 or better come back to a lineup that led the Sun Belt with a staggering .337 team average. Seeing the Panthers on a couple of occasions last year, I was struck at how well their 1-thru-9 lineup could handle the bats. A new guy stepped up every game, it seemed. This team will hit with anyone to say the least. Also, when I talked to coach Thomas about his pitchers like R.J. Fondon and Aaron Arboleya he used words like "potential," "gritty" and "upside." Look for them to have big junior seasons. Meanwhile, along with all this good news, the Turtle has kept up his recruiting magic as well, getting RHP Mike Ellis, a member of the Canadian Junior National team and an unsigned pick of the Padres in the 35th round last June, and also adding INF David Vasquez, a 50th round pick of the White Sox and Cuban-born infielder Sergio Perez, a 30th round pick of the Twins. Also, FIU has added former Illinois ace pitcher Phil Haig (7-3, 4.92 in ‘09) to the roster. Don't sneeze at this guy, he won a Friday night game over LSU at Alex Box Stadium in 2009.

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The Bad News:

Okay, first and foremost, that whole Garrett Wittels getting accused of rape in the Bahamas thing… really? I don't think college baseball needs that black eye, so hopefully it won't become a further issue. On the field, for a high-quality team, the Panthers sure were a sieve at times, giving run totals of eight runs or more 25 times last season. Put a stop to that and we're talking about a 45-win season. The pitching staff was 6th in the conference (at 5.72), but has taken on some heavy losses and will have to be totally revamped after returning just three pitchers that threw more than 20 innings last season. The biggest missing talent is RHP Scott Rembisz, who paced the squad as the Friday starter with nine wins, 80 strikeouts and 92 innings of work. Also, a new lockdown closer will need to emerge after Eric Berkowitz took his nine saves to pro ball. Bryam Garcia could fill that role after gathering three saves but he pitched only 12.2 innings last season. For an NCAA tournament team the defense was pretty pathetic, fielding at a .955 pace, which was 10th in the SBC.

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Schedule Note:

Have we mentioned that ESPN loves these guys?

Not only were the final three games in the Coral Gables Regional televising the Golden Panthers seasons' end, but now we have the worldwide leader in sports having their cameras fixated right on Garrett Wittels and Co. The schedule is pretty easy until FIU goes on the road (or rather, through the air) to play at Rice, a three-gamer at Texas A&M and at Baylor. The first weekend of SBC play will be a three-gamer at rival FAU Then, in the SBC rotation, the final weekend of the regular season will also have them going up again the Owls, this time at home.

 

LOUISIANA (38-22, 21-9)

2010 RPI: 40

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

2B Jordan Porrier (.329-12-56)

SS Greg Fontenot (.321)

OF Alex Fuselier (.295-3-39, 20SBs)

LHP T.J. Geith (6-2, 4.67)

RHP Joey Satriani (3-0, 2.66, 5svs, .249OBA)

RHP Ryland Parker (2-1, 2.83, 3svs, .167OBA)

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The Good News:

The Fighting Peppers won a share of the conference title, finished in the top 40 of the RPI, got an at-large bid to the Big Dance and even pulled off a round 1 upset of Rice once they got there. Not a bad season in the Atchafalaya Basin. The biggest key was the pitching staff which led the Sun Belt by a wide margin, with its 3.43 team ERA. Each of the seven returning pitchers return with an ERA of 4.42 or lower. And if you doubt the quality of the Cajun arms corps, Taylor Hubbell was that 4.42 ERA pitcher (to go with a 4-4 record) and he held his opposing batters to a paltry .233 average. Bitchin' man. Also watch for righties like weekend starter Michael Cook (3-2, 4.17) and Chase Traffica (3-3, .3.76). Not surprisingly, UL-L led the loop with a miniscule 2.65 walks per 9innings. That's some good quality there… or did I just state the obvious? Sorry. Offensively, five of the top six hitters are back on the lineup card, all hitting .295 or better. Without a lot of pop to the lineup, coach Tony Robichaux utilized his teams' mercurial nature, stealing 101 bases and slicing 21 triples last season, both good for 2nd in the Sun Belt. The newcomers to the roster are very highly regarded, including OF Dominick Francia, who was drafted by the Padres in the 45th round.

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The Bad News:

The Cajuns' offense went cold at the wrong time, scoring just 10 runs in their five post-season games a year ago. The offense still has to ratchet things up a bit, as they finished 8th in the conference at .291. They also hit just 45 home runs as a team and will sorely miss catcher Chad Keefer who was second on the team with a .325 average and led the Cajuns with 15HRs and 58RBI. But it was his team leadership that could have been his most important factor. Also missing was two-way threat Justin Robichaux, the coaches son, who was a force at the dish and toeing the rubber. Staff horse Zach Osborne (9-4, 2.37) led off weekends by example from his Friday spot, but has now moved on to pro ball. Finally, the defense wasn't bad, but can certainly improve the .965 defense that was 6th in the conference.

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Schedule Note:

Don't leave your heart in San Francisco.

The Cajuns were a last-second fill-in for the AT&T Tournament played at the world champion San Francisco Giants home field in the fourth weekend of the season. At McCovey's Cove, they'll take on Cal, UC-Santa Barbara and USF. So the good news is that they won't have to face Rice… or is that the bad news? Either way, it should be an interesting weekend to see how far this team has come for 2011. Playing in the western-most locale in the Sun Belt, the Cajuns will play roadies at the far-south outpost of FIU and also at the northern-most campus at WKU. Neither will be easy.

 

LOUISIANA-MONROE (17-38, 7-23)

2010 RPI: 197

Starters Returning: 5

Weekend Starters: 3

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 2

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All Conference Candidates:

2B Caleb Clowers (.357-4-36)

OF Judd Edwards (.333)

RHP Drew Granier (4-6, 5.56, .263OBA)

RHP Wil Browning (3-2, 4.87, 5svs)

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The Good News:

The Warhawks opened the 2010 season by stunning Ole Miss and ace Drew Pomeranz in game one, so they showed right away that they could play with (or beat) anyone. Hoping to turn things around this year, coach Jeff Schexnaider will look to five senior pitchers, including the entire weekend rotation, led by Granier, Jordy Poche (3-5, 6.96) and James Jones (3-8, 7.39). Browning will be a huge plus if he's on his game in the late innings. Four of the top five hitters return to the batting order, including Clowers and Edwards, the top two. Senior outfielders Kelvin York (.295-4-29) and Shane Ardoin (.289-4-19) will add a pair of experienced bats and gloves, and hope to lead the new players into the Sun Belt rigors.

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The Bad News:

Unfortunately, after that Ole Miss win in game one, 2010 was mostly bad news. Things eventually scraped the bottom of the barrel, especially that nasty nine-game losing streak to close the season which kept them out of any post-season hopes. The Hawks will have to put that in their rear view mirror immediately. There are across the board need for improvement, including that awful 7.90 team ERA and .273 batting average, worst in the Sun Belt. Some offensive firepower will be missing from the lineup, including Nick Wade, the only real home run threat from last season.

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Schedule Note:

More sensible.

One of the problems of last year's debacle was that the schedule never eased up and the Warhawks' confidence was crushed. This time, non-conference weekends against Texas-San Antonio, Nicholls State and Southern Utah will be much easier to manage. They'll also have the advantage of playing nine of their final 12 games at home, three weekends coming against WKU, Troy and Louisiana.

 

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (35-23, 18-12)

2010 RPI: 67

Starters Returning: 3

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 2

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All Conference Candidates:

OF/RHP Justin Guidry (.389-7-52/2-0, 4.78)

OF Will Skinner (.307-16-49)

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The Good News:

Not to state the obvious here, but the expectations aren't as stratospherically high as they were last season, so maybe the Blue Raiders will play a tad more relaxed this year and reach their potential. And not to worry Blue Raider fans, they've only had one losing campaign in the last eight seasons, so it's not like they're going anywhere anytime soon. (Psst… That's the magic of longtime head coach Steve Peterson. Shhhhh.). Three of the returning pitchers threw sub-5.00 ERAs last season, including Justin Guidry, weekend starter RHP Eric Gilley (6-2, 4.32) and closer Hunter Dawson (5-0, 4.57). Outfielders Guidry (when he's not pitching) and Will Skinner will make for a solid meadow and need to take over the leadership roles.

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The Bad News:

With as much as they had returning to campus prior to last year (the entire weekend rotation, six field starters, All American Bryce Brentz), the Raiders "best season in school history" never came to be, falling badly under the white-hot spotlight. Very little quality talent coming back as there was a mass exodus of seniors off last year's team. Six .300+ hitters are gone from the batting order, including All American Bryce Brentz. On the bump Kenny Roberts and Chad Edwards, who had 28 starts and six complete games between them, are gone from the starting rotation. Ouch. A lot of newcomers will need to play at the top of their game, including two transfers from Univ. of New Orleans in part-time starting infielders Johnny Thomas (hit .270 in 40 starts) and Jay Morris (.248 in 30 starts).

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Schedule Note:

Underrated start for the newbies to dig into.

The first three weekends of the season will see the Blue Raiders take on three underrated teams in Portland and Jacksonville State at home, followed by a trip to Louisiana Tech before Sun Belt play begins. Add to the "tough" department that MTSU will have to play a strong Western Kentucky team twice in the regular season.

 

SOUTH ALABAMA (32-27, 17-13)

2010 RPI: 73

Starters Returning: 3

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 5

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All Conference Candidates:

3B Jake Overstreet (.346-11-74)

OF Taylor White (.346, 27SBs)

RHP Garrett Harris (5-4, 4.89)

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The Good News

USA was able to bust out of their three-year funk of losing seasons with their 32 wins last season and the future is exciting with coach-in-waiting Mark Calvi primed to take over for the now-legendary Steve Kittrell. But Coach K isn't ready to hit the bricks yet, he's still got work to do, like adding significantly to his 1,022 career victories. He'll have a pair of absolute studs in .346ers Jake Overstreet and Taylor White. Also look for some added pop from fellow senior Brent Tanner (.300-7-42). If USA can add a couple of serviceable bats and steady gloves, those three mentioned will show lead-by-example traits to them. The Jags were a Johnny Wholestaff-type of team last season so a lot of innings return. Beyond weekend starter Garrett Harris, also look for significant steps up for a trio of senior relievers like RHP Carlton Paris (4-2, 5.71, 1sv), RHP Jake LeBlanc (0-0, 6.08) and RHP Kyle Dees (0-0, 6.66, 1sv), all of whom should take on bigger roles this year. Also, watch for incoming J.C. transfer RHP Corey McGinnis, who was a Pittsburgh Pirates draftee last June but chose to become a Jaguar.

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The Bad News:

It's never good to see a legend hang up the cleats and, after this season is done, Steve Kittrell will finally say goodbye in Mobile. Especially with all he's done for the program, including NCAA tournament appearances, a couple close calls to making it to Omaha and over-seeing the building the state-of-the-art stadium that the Jags play in. A rough 5-11 finish to last year doomed the Jags and their hopes for an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Four huge bats, including leading hitter Sean Laird, are missing from the 2010 team so don't look for the Jags to quite get to last year's .312 team average. Also, and more importantly, two big time starters are gone off the hill in 10-game winner D.D. Hanks and Lance Baxter, the two most-used flingers on the roster. Baxter also served in the closer role, pulling in five saves. The bullpen has been a sticking point the last few seasons, so finding a stud or three to emerge will be a huge key to their season.

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Schedule Note:

From the great white North to the desert heat.

With the Jaguars scheduled to take part in the Dairy Queen Classic in the Metrodome, as of this writing it now looks like that tournament will take place in Tucson, Arizona, given that the Metrodome roof collapsed and all. USA will take on Minnesota, Washington State and Oklahoma State in that first weekend in March. Before that, a real tell-tale weekend will find the Jags hosting Central Florida, Alabama and Southeastern Louisiana for a round-robin weekend at the South Alabama Classic.

 

TROY (36-25, 16-14)

2010 RPI: 63

Starters Returning: 4

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 2

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All Conference Candidates:

SS Adam Bryant (.356-23-65)

C Todd McRae (.354)

2B T.J. Rivera (.295-8-51)

RHP Tyler Ray (8-4, 5.34)

RHP Drew Hull (4-6, 6.59)

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The Good News:

This team came on strong at the end of last season, going on an 11-3 spree in Sun Belt play down the stretch and then nearly winning the SBC tournament, if not for that red-hot FIU team. If momentum like that can carry over, this team will go places in 2011. One thing that jumped out at me about this team when I saw them at the SBC tournament last May was how good they were with the bats. Bryant was particularly impressive, wielding great raw power and smart plate instincts. The dynamo shortstop will also team with T.J. Rivera to make a strong middle infield, in hopes they can keep their Sun Belt best .975 defense playing at a high level. The return of LHP Shane McCain will be huge after he went 2-1, 6.33 and had joined the weekend rotation in mid-March last season, but tendinitis shelved him the rest of the season. Incoming LHP Jimmy Hodgskin has been called by Baseball America "the highest-profile recruit Troy has ever had." That's heady stuff for the Phillies draftee (43rd round). Also watch for J.C. transfer infielder Tyson Workman, a speed merchant who made big strides in the fall.

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The Bad News:

Considering last year's hot finish (15-5 in the month of May), the Trojans can't afford to get out to another languid 5-10 start, because who knows how far this team could have gone. Four .300+ hitters must be replaced, including leading hitter Chase Whitley (.364) and a pair of sluggers that hit like SEC behemoths in Ryan Ditthardt (18HRs) and Steven Felix (17HRs). If they are going to make the jump to the next level of college baseball, the Trojans' arms corps must go a step better, since Ray is the only returning pitcher with an ERA below 6.00. Also, a few new left-handed pitchers must live up to billing.

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Schedule Note:

The tough end.

The Trojans will have to pile up the wins while they can, since the back side of their Sun Belt schedule gets pretty arduous. Three of the last four weekends will be roadies to Florida Atlantic, ULM and South Alabama. The second weekend of the season will tell a lot about how far this team will go when they take on Southern Miss in a three-game home series.

 

WESTERN KENTUCKY (35-23, 16-14)

2010 RPI: 38

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

C Matt Rice (.369-10-65)

OF Jared Andreoli (.341-5-49, 14SBs)

OF Kes Carter (.341-7-53, 14SBs)

RHP Brian Edelen (4-2, 3.78)

RHP Rye Davis (3-4, 2.72, 9svs, .249OBA)

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The Good News:

In the early stages of last seasons' grind, the Hilltoppers were 21-5 and playing very much like the mid-major monsters they were projected to become. Let's hope they can come close to reproducing last year's 21-5 mark through February and March… and then keep it going till June. Having a sturdy senior backstop like Matt Rice is huge, considering the dude committed just two errors all last season. Add All American candidate Kes Carter and fellow speedster Jared Andreoli in the meadow and junior 3B Casey Dykes (.286-5-29) and SS Logan Robbins (.261-8-36, 18SBs), who will be joined by J.C. national defensive player of the year in Ivan Hartle, a 2Bman.  There's a lot of quality returning on the mound as five of the six returning pitchers have ERAs of 5.27 or lower. The ‘Toppers were 2nd in the Belt with a team ERA of 4.33 and will have soph LHP Tanner Perkins (3-4, 5.27) who had 12 starts last season and should improve in his second season on the hill and closer Rye Davis was an absolute stud, striking out 63 batters in his 49 innings of work. You go Holmes!

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The Bad News:

The Hilltoppers felt like they had fallen off the hill and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. After going 0-and-2 in the SBC tourney, coach Chris Finwood said despite their decent RPI, the writing was on the wall; they weren't going to get an at-large bid. And he was right. WKU has the dis-honor of being the highest rated team in the country NOT to get a bid to the Big Dance last season. A big part of their problem, according to coach Finwood was losing Matt Ridings to a late-season injury. Well 2011 sees them without Ridings again, along with fellow weekend starter Shane Cameron, so lets hope his team doesn't sink like last year. Oddly, though the Toppers were a solid defensive team (.972 fielding), they didn't help their pitching staff too often, turning just 39 double plays all last season, fewest in the SBC.

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Schedule Note:

Big boys beatdowns ahead again?

Last year, WeKy shot out of the gates and made huge waves by beating BCS-big boys like Texas A&M, Baylor, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Suh-weet! This year, they'll have some more chances by taking on teams like Kansas State, Coastal Carolina, Vandy, Auburn and Ole Miss. Coach Finwood has to hope his team doesn't emulate last year's flat finish where they went 14-18 in April and May. Road trips to Troy, UL-Monroe and Middle Tennessee comprise tree of the last five SBC weekends, so beware of fatigue.

 

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