NEW ORLEANS (SBC) - Florida Atlantic, the defending Sun Belt Conference regular season co-champion, has been tabbed as the preseason favorite to win the 2011 league title in a vote of the league's head coaches.
The Owls received six of the ten first-place votes from the coaches in the poll released on Friday.
Last season, the Owls advanced to the NCAA Regional championship game losing to Florida, however, eliminating Bethune-Cookman and two-time national champion Oregon State along the way. FAU returns eight position player starters and two members of the starting rotation, including preseason All-Sun Belt selection Andy Mee, as the Owls look to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in the last 13 seasons.
Mee and fellow preseason All-SBC selections Raymond Church and Dan Scheffler will look to give the Owls back-to-back championships, something that hasn't happened in the SBC since the 2003 and 2004 seasons when South Alabama won back-to-back titles.
FIU, picked to finish second in the SBC in 2011, received one first-place vote from the coaches as the Panthers look to remain near the top of the SBC standings this coming season. FIU won the 2010 SBC Tournament by winning five consecutive games en route to the title. FIU is led by the SBC Preseason Player of the Year, infielder Garrett Wittels, who will begin the 2011 season chasing one of college baseball's most hallowed records. The Bay Harbor, Fla., native currently sits second on the all-time list with a hit in 56-consecutive games, three shy of breaking Robin Ventura's mark of 58 games set in 1988.
The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year, Wittels led the Panthers with a .412 batting average and set an FIU record with 100 hits in a season. He was named a preseason All-American by the NCBWA and Louisville Slugger earlier this year. Junior Mike Martinez joins Wittels on the preseason All-SBC team as he was second on the team in hitting with a .378 batting average. He was the only Panther to start all 61 games last season.
Louisiana-Lafayette was picked to finish third overall in the SBC in 2011, garnering two first-place votes from the coaches. The Ragin' Cajuns will feature a veteran squad in both position players and pitching staff, returning five position starters and two-thirds of its weekend pitching rotation, including preseason All-SBC selections T.J. Geith and Jordan Poirrier. The Cajuns were co-champions last season in the SBC.
The WKU Hilltoppers were picked to finish fourth by the coaches, followed by Troy. The Hilltoppers enter the 2011 season led by preseason All-SBC selections Kes Carter, Rye Davis and Matt Rice along with four other position starters as they look to improve on last season's 35-23 record and a campaign that came to an abrupt end at the SBC tournament.
Rice led the Hilltoppers with a .369 batting average, 10 home runs and 65 RBIs in 2010, committing just two errors while throwing out nearly 30 percent of potential base-stealers and finished as a semi-finalist for the Johnny Bench Award. Juniors Davis and Carter will again be counted on in 2011 to be leaders for the Hilltoppers. Davis emerged as one of the conference's best closers in 2010 recording a team-high nine saves, which ranked second in the conference, while Carter hit .341 with seven home runs and 53 RBIs, swiped 14 bases in 17 attempts and posted a .993 fielding percentage, committing only one error.
Troy enters the 2011 season with a roster full of new players but with lofty expectations fueled by what should be a vastly improved pitching staff led by junior Tyler Ray and the return of preseason All-SBC shortstop Adam Bryant. Troy finished the 2010 season on a tear and then nearly winning the SBC tournament.
Arkansas State was picked to finish sixth in the league in 2011 following a very successful campaign one year ago that saw the Red Wolves earn a SBC tournament berth for the first time since the 2006 season picking up two early tournament wins before bowing out. ASU recorded 30 wins last season for the first time since 2005.
SBC Preseason Pitcher of the Year Jacob Lee returns for the Red Wolves and should bolster a pitching corps that finished third overall in the SBC in 2010 with a 5.02 team ERA. Lee compiled an 8-3 record, a team-best, while pitching two complete games with 92.1 innings pitched. He struck out a team-high 83 batters and allowed just 39 earned runs for a 3.80 ERA. Lee is joined on the preseason All-SBC team by teammate Todd Baumgartner, who is one of ASU's top returning batters from last season, averaging .336 in 2010.
Middle Tennessee and South Alabama tied for seventh overall with 41 points received. The Blue Raiders, the preseason favorite from last season, finished third in the standings in 2010 with an 18-12 conference record. MTSU last won SBC regular season and tournament titles in 2009, the same year the team was picked to finish eighth overall in the preseason voting.
South Alabama, led by preseason All-SBC selection Jake Overstreet, won 32 games a season ago and finished tied for fourth overall in the league with FIU. Overstreet drove in 74 runs in 2010, which tied for the most in the SBC, and marked the second-highest single-season total in South Alabama history. He finished tied for 23rd in the nation in RBI last season while hitting .346 with 11 home runs.
Louisiana-Monroe and UALR were picked ninth and tenth, respectively, by the coaches.
2010 was one of the most successful seasons in SBC Baseball history as eight of the 11 league teams finished under 100 in the final NCAA RPI. Only four other conferences in the country had more teams with that distinction. Additionally, the SBC finished seventh overall in the final conference RPI, marking the fifth consecutive year with a top ten finish.
2010 SBC Coaches Poll (first-place votes) – as voted on by the league's head coaches
1. Florida Atlantic (6) 95 pts
2. FIU (1) 85 pts
3. Louisiana-Lafayette (2) 82 pts
4. WKU 64 pts
5. Troy 52 pts
6. Arkansas State 48 pts
7. Middle Tennessee 41 pts
7. South Alabama 41 pts
9. Louisiana-Monroe (1) 26 pts
10. UALR 16 pts
2010 All-SBC Preseason Baseball Team – as voted on by the league's head coaches
Jacob Lee (Arkansas State, Junior, SP)
T.J. Geith (Louisiana-Lafayette, Senior, SP)
Tyler Ray (Troy, Junior, SP)
Andy Mee (Florida Atlantic, Senior, RP)
Rye Davis (WKU, Junior, RP)
Matt Rice (WKU, Senior, C)
Dan Scheffler (Florida Atlantic, Senior, 1B)
Raymond Church (Florida Atlantic, Senior, 2B)
Jordan Poirrier (Louisiana-Lafayette, Senior, 2B)
Adam Bryant (Troy, Senior, SS)
Jake Overstreet (South Alabama, Senior, 3B)
Todd Baumgartner (Arkansas State, Senior, OF)
Andy Mee (Florida Atlantic, Senior, OF)
Kes Carter (WKU, Junior, OF)
Mike Martinez (FIU, Junior, DH)
Preseason Player of the Year
Garrett Wittels (FIU, Junior, SS)
Preseason Pitcher of the Year
Jacob Lee (Arkansas State, Junior, SP)