Conference USA Preview

Rice set to dominate C-USA once again in 2008


Feb. 16, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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Ever since coming over from the WAC in 2006, Rice has gone 44-4 in conference games. Not exactly a tougher draw is it? Well, 2008 looks like another 22-2 season ahead for the Owls, who stand head and shoulders above the rest of the C-USA crowd. Now, will three other teams join them in playing in the NCAA tournament come June? It's not as likely this year. Then again, one thing you should never doubt is the strength of the Conference USA field, 1-through-10.

 

Favorite: Rice

Contenders: Southern Miss, Tulane, East Carolina

Darkhorse: UCF

 

East Carolina (40-23, 14-9)

 

The Good News:

The Pirates have been solid for a long time now and with the facilities they've got, plan to stay there too. All of ECU's hitters look the same. They all hit in the low .300s, have a little bit of power, but mostly torch the ball in the gaps and run like crazy. Juniors 1B Stephen Batts (.323-6-56) and 3B Drew Schieber (.301-6-22, 11SBs) man the infield corners. DH Kyle Roller (.306) was the No.7 prospect in the Coastal Plains League and CF Harrison Eldridge (.295-6-28, 15SBs) is a great firestarter at the top of the lineup. T.J. Hose (6-5, 3.97) is back for his senior year. Don't let his numbers fool you, of those six wins, three were against Michigan, Pepperdine and Cal State Fullerton. Nasty!

 

The Bad News:

Coach Billy Godwin was right when he said after the win over Fullerton last March, "It's a long season. A marathon, not a sprint." ECU played a little sketchy down the stretch, going 20-17 after a blistering 20-6 start. Leading hitter and key defender SS Dale Mollenhauer and two-thirds of the weekend rotation need to be replaced. Clampdown closer Shane Matthews (14svs) is also gone from last year.

 

The Intangible:

See how the new mounders do.

 

ECU pulled in a great recruiting class again, but the keys will be how four-year transfer pitchers Matt Cox (North Carolina) and Justin Bristow (Auburn) may figure into the open slots on the weekend rotation.

 

Schedule Note:

The Pirates start out as tough as it gets with a roadie at South Carolina. They also have a tough draw in C-USA play, making long roadies to contenders like Southern Miss, Memphis and of course, the near-unwinnable trip to Rice.

 

Houston (28-28, 12-12)

 

The Good News:

Four of the top five hitters return including OF Jimmy Cesario (.352), OF Zak Presley (.306, 13SBs) and 2B Ryan Lormand (.298, 23SBs). Reliable Wes Musick (6-5, 3.00, 15starts) will work with valuable bullpenners Barry Laird (2-1, 5.64, 2svs) and Chris Wright (3-2, 5.98) who will both have increased roles this season.

 

The Bad News:

The Coogs have gone to the Big Dance just once in the last four seasons. They also hit just .285 last season, second-worst in the conference. 1B Josh Stirneman and C Luis Flores accounted for 16 of the 39 home runs from last year. Starter Aaron Brown and do-it-all Shea Hancock are two big losses on the mound.

 

The Intangible:

Wish this was 2005 again.

 

Coach Raynor Noble would love it if senior players Bryan Tully and Bryan Pounds reverted back to their freshman numbers, where they hit .338 and .279 respectively. Last year they hit just .266 and .222 at the dish.

 

Schedule Note:

A large western emphasis to this year's slate, with home weekends vs. Pacific, UCSB and San Francisco coming to H-town and a trip to San Diego State in late March.

 

Marshall (21-32, 5-18)

 

The Good News:

Marshall stampeded out to a solid 13-4 start in 2007. They hope to do the same in '08 with strength up the middle in C Tommy Johnson (.324), 2B Josh Valle (.331), SS Brandon Casamassima (.289-8-36) and CF Jeff Rowley (.319). RHP Adam Dobies (3-5, 6.39) and LHP Andrew Blain (4-3, 5.59) will help rebuild the staff.

 

The Bad News:

MU skidded through losing streaks of 15 and seven games last year. Two weekend starters and the staff relief ace all hit the bricks, as did the lone power threat in Brendan Murphy. The team ERA of 6.57 and the team average of .282 were both last in C-USA.

 

The Intangible:

Flying the coup.

 

Nine players transferred out of the program in the off-season, including expected ace Brian Chrisman. But they get a little bit back too, as a pair of transfers from Cincinnati; RHP Steve Blevins, a former frosh All-American in 2006 and 2B/SS Adam Yeager, who hit .288 with 24SBs last season.

 

Schedule Note:

Herd fans will like this. Three of the four Conference USA teams that played in the NCAA tournament last June will make that arduous trek to Huntington this spring.

 

Memphis (36-27, 12-12)

 

The Good News:

The Tigers made their first NCAA appearance under Coach Daron Schoenrock. And if they need any motivation, the C-USA coaches picked the Tigers to finish in 7th place this season. The strength of experience is on the mound, led by RHP Scott McGregor (5-4, 6.63), Brennon Martin (4-1, 4.73) and Will Hudgens (5-2, 5.17). Saves ace Matt Yokley (4-2, 3.52, 9svs) will be leaned on even more this season.

 

The Bad News:

This will be an all-new team wearing Tiger blue this year, as almost nobody returns in the field, except OF K.K. Chalmers (.289-7-38, 33SBs), who could be one of the best leadoff hitters in the country. The ERA of 5.88 needs to come down if the Tigers want to play in June again.

 

The Intangible:

Turning the corner.

 

Last year's at-large NCAA bid means the Tiger program has reached a new level. Coach Schoenrock should be given major props for bringing Memphis to the Promised Land in just his third season in Elvis-town. But this will definitely be his toughest job this season.

 

Schedule Note:

The Tigers will take on some decent non-conference competition with Creighton and Southeast Missouri coming to town and a three-game trip to Georgia. The C-USA season starts relatively easy too, vs. UAB and at Marshall in the first two weeks.



 
 

 

Rice (56-14, 22-2)

 

The Good News:

Rice is Rice. They'll continue to dominate C-USA for the foreseeable future while they set their sights on a bigger brass ring. The abundance of talent is still amazing: Cole St. Clair (0-0, 1.91, 9svs, injury-shortened season), RHP Ryan Berry (11-3, 3.01, Frosh All Am.), RHP Matt Langwell (8-2, 2.35) and then the top three home run sluggers also return: OF Aaron Luna (.315-13-66), 2B Jess Buenger (.306-7-47) and OF Jordan Dodson (.302-8-55). The corners will be set with 1B J.P. Padron (.310) and 3B Diego Seastrunk (.304). And you can usually count on a freshman or two or three emerging early on.

 

The Bad News:

Losses like two-way star Joe Savery, Brian Friday, Tyler Henley and C-USA pitcher of the year Ryne Tacker are still big, even if it is for a team like Rice. For the second year in a row, the Owls started Omaha in the catbird seat last June at 2-0, but lost the next two to be eliminated. Last year it was to North Carolina doing them in.

 

The Intangible:

"Because an easy schedule is boring!"

 

Still my favorite line from all the interviews I did last season. Coach Wayne Graham continues to put his money where his mouth is and get his team as ready as possible for post season play with a tough slate that adds to their Conference USA rigors.

 

Schedule Note:

Coach Graham takes his team to take on Long Beach State at Blair Field to start things off before they'll play in the Minute Maid Classic in week two, this time featuring Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. The Owls will also face off with Creighton, Winthrop and Louisiana-Lafayette before mid-March.

 

Southern Miss (39-23, 14-10)

 

The Good News:

The Eagles were pitching and defense oriented last year, finishing second in the conference in both, at 3.79 and .973 respectively. Top players 1B Trey Sutton (.368-8-38, 12SBs) and SS Brian Dozier (.339) will have the Ewing brothers behind them; Michael (.284-7-48) and James (.257). Senior starters Barry Bowden (7-4, 3.11) and David Clark (8-5, 4.85) should be steady on the mound. Reliever Tyler Conn (1-2, 2.70, 5svs) will take over the lead closer role.

 

The Bad News:

The Eagles went cold in last year's post-season, going 1-2 in both the C-USA and NCAA tourneys. Southern Miss will lose longtime ace Ryan Belanger and his 106 innings of work from last year. Two .300+ hitters also leave in Jody Blount and Luke Adkins.

 

The Intangible:

Time to make a national move.

 

Southern Miss has now made the NCAA tournament in five straight seasons, but has an overall mark of just 5-10 in those games. They've made the Regional title game once (in 2003 vs. Baylor), but it's time for them to reach the Super Regional round. And with wins over Rice, Louisville, Louisiana-Lafayette, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss last year alone proves they have the ability.

 

Schedule Note:

The Eagles have taken a huge step in their non-conference slate by scheduling a three-game trip at Cal State Fullerton in early March. Immediately before that trip, they'll also play twice at Louisiana-Lafayette and at Ole Miss.

 

Tulane (34-26, 9-15)

 

The Good News:

This is a program back on the way up, after all that disruptive Hurricane Katrina stuff. The new Turchin Stadium is immaculate and should keep the Wave in the C-USA and national mix. RHP Shooter Hunt (6-6, 2.62, 104Ks) is a big time talent to lead the arms corps. OF Warren McFadden (.296) and Aja Barto (.269-6-28) should improve their numbers and get a big shot of adrenalin with the transfer of freshman All-American Josh Prince (.371) from Texas.

 

The Bad News:

Until last season, you'd be hard-pressed to find a losing conference mark in the history of coach Jones' program. The offense needs a kick after averaging just 5.6 runs a game. Some new arms must play big and across the board, this team needs to stay better focused, because the potential is there.

 

The Intangible:

As usual, the great four-year transfers are huge.

 

Like Oklahoma State, the Wave never seem at a loss when it comes to adding high-impact transfers from four-year schools. This time, it's names like the aforementioned Prince, and also North Carolina hurler Matt Petiton and Vanderbilt pitcher Josh Zeid.

 

Schedule Note:

How cold does it get in Minneapolis in February? The Green Wave will find out by playing in the Dairy Queen Classic against Pepperdine, TCU and the host Gophers. They'll also host UC Irvine the second weekend in March. Rice will visit Turchin Stadium for the season's final weekend.

 

UAB (25-33, 12-12)

 

The Good News:

The Blazers finished on a 7-1 spree to close C-USA play in 2007. Lots of experienced leaders return in OF Phil Bell (.336, 17SBs), 1B Ryan Keedy (.333-4-32) and starting pitchers Mitch Kloskowski (5-5, 3.84) and Brandon Wallace (2-4, 4.71, 4svs).

 

The Bad News:

UAB has had only three winning seasons in the 2000s and none in C-USA play since '98. Leading hitter J.R. Bond, 3B Ryne Lovdahl and C Danny Sawyer were all huge parts to this team's success in '07. The pitching staff gave up more walks (300) than threw strikeouts (283).

 

The Intangible:

Speed kills.

 

Look for the Blazers to continue putting on the offensive pressure, since only 11 home runs return from last year. UAB stole 81 bases in 2007 and should get more this season. SS Jonathan Merritt (.294, 13SBs) and OF Brint Henry (.265, 18SBs) will play big parts in that.

 

Schedule Note:

Nothing beats a trip to paradise. The Blazers play three games with Hawaii-Hilo and two with Hawaii, out on the islands, March 8-12.

 

UCF (27-32, 7-17)

 

The Good News:

Almost all of last year's team comes back for 2008, including all nine field starters, led by offensive stars like 1B Kiko Vazquez (.364-9-57), OF Tyson Auer (.356, 27SBs) and OF Ryan Richardson (.313, 12SBs). Righty Jaager Good (5-5, 3.89) is a solid starter and pen ace Justin Weiss (4-1, 1.38, 9svs) will get UCF plenty of Ws.

 

The Bad News:

Hard to believe it's been since 2004 that UCF was last in the NCAA tournament. As expected, the Knights finished near the bottom of every statistical category in C-USA play. Brian Brooks (4-1, 2.42) was one of the most effective arms on the staff and is now gone.

 

The Intangible:

Dear opponents, get your shots in while you can.

 

The turnaround should be soon as Collegiate Baseball rated the Knights newcomers as the 40th best class in the country. Would be Minnesota Twins, SS Stephen Branca (34th round in '07) and C Robert Lara (17th round, '05, transfer from LSU) should be immediate contributors.

 

Schedule Note:

Eighteen of the first 20 games are at home for the Knights, most of those against pretty poor competition. But the last weekend of the regular season sees ACC monster Clemson come in for three games.

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