Sun Belt Conference Preview

UL-Lafayette's pitching staff may be the best in the nation


Feb. 21, 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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With 11 teams, there's no time for easing into things as the SBC battles begin in the third weekend of the season. But the important thing is that the respect level of the conference is gaining ground nationally. Three teams went to the Big Dance last June and multiple bids will be on the menu again for 2008. The arms of UL-Lafayette and the moxie of New Orleans will be on full display this season. And of course, Troy wants to make amends for a quick exit from the NCAA tournament after pulling down the last controversial at-large bid. There's a lot to prove, but there's a lot of ammunition left to do that, too.

 

Favorite: Louisiana-Lafayette

Contenders: New Orleans, Troy, FAU

Darkhorse: FIU

 

Arkansas-Little Rock (21-31, 9-20)

 

The Good News:

The pitching staff will be ready to deal, headed by lefties like Ashur Tolliver (6-5, 4.45), David Klumpp (4-6, 4.65, 99Ks) and Nathan Parker (3-5, 7.06). Right-hand help arrived this summer when TCU's Cody Dunbar (a 17th round pick of Toronto last June) transferred in.

 

The Bad News:

Five of the last six years, the Trojans have finished last in the Sun Belt. Only three field starters return, none of which hit over .300. UTL Robert Taylor (.297-7-39 is the only power threat on campus. UALR pitchers allowed opponents to hit .302 last season.

 

The Intangible:

Not the good kind of streaking.

 

The Trojans got off to a good 7-3 start last year. But that was followed by an eight-game losing streak that sent the season tail-spinning. They also had skids of five, three and three games during the season.

 

Schedule Note:

UALR will spend the entire month of May in the Natural State, with home weekends against Western Kentucky and New Orleans, then finishing up the regular season with three games at Arkansas State.

 

Arkansas State (23-32, 13-17)

 

The Good News:

If hitting is infectious, then top bats Brandon Eller (.347-4-26) and Ryan Hudgins (.330-11-45) hope to stay sick at the dish. LHP Jett Jones (2-4, 5.66 and a name very similar to cool rocker Joan Jett) and middle reliever RHP Jacob Maggard (2-2, 3.34) will welcome the return of LHP Joel Boeschen, who went 3-7, 6.49, 72 K in 2006.

 

The Bad News:

The Indians haven't had a winning season in SBC play since 1998. Friday/Saturday starters T.J. Brewer and Nathan Gates threw seven complete games last year and are now gone. As is key closer Tim Egart. Last year's .952 fielding percentage was the worst in the SBC.

 

The Intangible:

The two tallest guys on the team.

 

Keep an eye on a pair of valued transfers in 6-foot-4 RHP Chase Ware, who was 15-3, 2.20 in two seasons at N.W. Mississippi J.C. and 6-foot-7 1B Murray Watts, who was the Arkansas high school player of the year in 2006 and was a Razorback redshirt in Fayetteville last season.

 

Schedule Note:

Between March 25th and April 20th, ASU will play three home games and 16 road games. But from April 22 until the end, they'll play just four roadies and 11 home games, including the rivalry games with UALR to end the regular season.

 

FAU (36-22, 15-15)

 

The Good News:

Well the offense is in devastatingly good hands with All-American candidates like OF Mike McKenna (.413-16-60), OF Daniel Cook (.349, 15SBs) and 3B William Block (.344-18-59) returning from a team that hit .341 with 93 bombs last year. The biggest news on the mound is the return of injured ace Mickey Storey, who is 20-10, 2.91 with 244 Ks so far in his career. 13-game starter Mike Obradovich (9-5, 5.40) and College of Charleston transfer Jeff Beliveau (3-2, 4.56) will also toe the rubber.

 

The Bad News:

Though it's a good sign for the program, losing eight players to the pros, like FAU did last June, is always tough to overcome. There's no telling how well Storey will play after a nearly a calendar year without being in a Blue Wave uniform. 32 of the 58 starts on the mound did not return from last year's roster.

 

The Intangible:

Okay, the Sun Belt IS tough.

 

In six of the previous seven seasons, playing in the TAAC or A-Sun, FAU made the NCAA tournament. But last year, the first in the SBC, they sat at home. Also, the Owls raced out to a 17-4 record, only to see their season turn completely around after getting swept by Troy at home and going 19-18 from there on out.

 

Schedule Note:

Damn! That three-gamer with national runner-up North Carolina is a harrowing way to start the season. Rivalry weekend at FIU closes things out in an interesting way.

 

FIU (26-29, 12-17)

 

The Good News:

Lots of experience is still in the fold with four .300+ hitters and three starting pitchers back. 1B John Petika (.342-7-56) provides the power and DH Tyler Townsend (.338-5-32) comes through when it counts. RHP Jorge Ramos (4-4, 4.97) and 'pen stud Evan Ellison (2-5, 4.11, 3 svs) will be huge keys to the defensive success.

 

The Bad News:

The Danny Price era came to an end at FIU when a Haley's Comet-rare losing season culminated in his ouster. Four of the top six hitters are gone including James McOwen's .414 average. The two other weekend starters, Chris Allen (4-6, 5.69) and Corey Polizzano (4-8, 6.15) need to improve their numbers.

 

The Intangible:

The Turtle Factor.

 

A longtime assistant, Turtle Thomas takes the reigns of the FIU program. And believe me when I say he's the No. 1 recruiter in the country. He's helped build programs at Miami, LSU, Clemson and Arizona State, among others. His last 18 recruiting classes have been rated in the nation's top 10. (Yes, that was 18 straight.) That means, a year or two from now, the Golden Panthers will be stocked with unbelievable talent.

 

Schedule Note:

More than ambitious, this slate is a potential spirit-breaker with USC, Miami, UC Irvine and Arizona State gracing it. Plus, SBC roadies will be at Troy, New Orleans and Louisiana-Lafayette. Hang in there Panthers.

 

Louisiana-Lafayette (45-17, 23-7)

 

The Good News:

How would you like to be coach Tony Robichaux right now? People are hailing his pitching rotation as one of the top units in the country, and for good reason. Righties Danny Farquhar (6-3, 3.08, 115Ks, 6 svs) and Buddy Glass (7-5, 3.42) and lefties Hunter Moody (8-3, 4.13) and Brent Solich (5-2, 3.21) can handle any 1-through-9 they'll face down this year. 1B Scott Hawkins (.344-16-49) and OF Josh Logan (.335, 19 SB) bring bash and pop to the dish.

 

The Bad News:

Three big bullpenners; Andrew Laughter, Matt Pilgreen and Greg Harmon, won't be around to lean on when necessary, so some young arms will have to step in to back the starters. The top three hitters off last year's .310 offense are also needing to be replaced.

 

The Intangible:

Playing better with the bullies.

 

UL-L will be fueled by its two straight losses to Texas A&M and three-game sweep out at Arizona State in April of last season. That ASU series is being whispered as the one of the big reasons the Cajuns didn't get a home regional last year, despite a No. 14 RPI.

 

Schedule Note:

In response to the intangible above, here are the games to circle on your Cajun calendar: vs. Southern Miss, Feb. 29 and March 2, at Rice March 19, at LSU April 2 and at Nebraska May 2-4. Oh, and UL-L will also host the SBC tourney again.

 

Louisiana-Monroe (29-28, 15-14)

 

The Good News:

Year one in the SBC saw UL-M earn its most successful season in five years and finish a half-game out of 2nd place, proving the War Hawks weren't overwhelmed with the transition from the Southland. A trio of seniors lead the offense in Kyle Suire (.338-10-44), A.J. Siggers (.318-6-39) and Dexter Fontenot (.304).

 

The Bad News:

Has it really been since 2000 that UL-Monroe has competed for a conference crown and played in the NCAAs? The Hawks were 9th in hitting (.291) and dead last in pitching (6.24) in the Belt last year. The versatile arm of David Mixon (5-1, 8svs) and starter Bucky Chandler need to be replaced.

 

The Intangible:

Ahhhhh, seniors.

 

If there's one thing that will help UL-M get back into the swing of stalking the post-season again, it's the experience on the mound. Keith Christensen (4-5, 4.27), Jared Jennings (6-3, 4.83) and Kyle Smith (2 vs) will be huge pieces to the puzzle.

 

Schedule Note:

There's no escaping their Southland connection. A full 14 of the 26 non-conference games that UL-M plays this season, including the three-game opener at Nicholls State, will come against teams that they used to play in their SLC days.

 



 
 

Middle Tennessee State (32-28, 16-14)

 

The Good News:

2B Zach Barrett (.329) and 1B Rawley Bishop (.329-17-65 and the best power bat in the Sun Belt) form a great right side. On the rubber, starter Brad Robinson (8-2, 4.00) and reliever Jordan Alvis (2-2, 4.94) must be big time. Seldom-used RHP Kenneth Roberts (just 7.1 inns) was named the No. 4 pro prospect in the Southern Collegiate League this past summer with a 38-to-4 K-to-walk ratio.

 

The Bad News:

The Blue Raiders were sooooo close to an NCAA bid last year, losing to UNO in the SBC title game, despite beating them 18-6 the day before. Four of the top six .325-plus batters moved on and the arm corps was depleted, including two weekend starters expiring their eligibility.

 

The Intangible:

Have you seen The Reese lately?

 

MTSU administrators look to be making serious strides in the baseball program with the impending major overhaul of Reese Smith Stadium. The artist renderings are pretty incredible looking. It's not quite game ready yet, but go to the website and check it out.

 

Schedule Note:

On the good side, MT will take on league leaders like UL-L, Troy and UNO all at home in this year's SBC rotation. Mid-week games like Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Tennessee will be ominous.

 

New Orleans (38-26, 16-14)

 

The Good News:

Coach Tom Walter is Billy bad ass. I've been on the UNO bandwagon since he's kept his Katrina-ravaged team intact and earned 30+ wins in two straight years, including last year's solid showing in the Wichita Regional. It should continue with great hurlers like RHP Stephen Whalen (9-5, 3.61), Justin Garcia (6-4, 5.74) and Bryan Cryer (8-4, 5.34). But the most decorated player should be 2B Johnny Giavotella (.385-15-65) and has OF Joey Butler (.340-15-23, 16SBs) and 3B T.J. Baxter (.374-11- 60) to help light the scoreboard.

 

The Bad News:

I'm not sure if there really is any, fellow baseball scribe Mark Etheridge was right, this is one of the biggest up-and-coming programs in the country. I guess if we're digging here, beyond the top four batters, most of the rest of the lineup needs revamping and someone must replace relief ace Adam Campbell. The team ERA of 5.19 could shrink a bit too.

 

The Intangible:

Smoother sailing.

 

As Penn Holderness and I talked about on CSTV last June, Coach Walters has worked wonders with this program through a difficult period, with the recovery from Katrina and all. Just imagine what he'll do when all is calm? I can't wait.

 

Schedule Note:

It's no irony that UNO will open the season at the place they once called their home, New Mexico State. The Privateers and Aggies face off for three games. UNO will also play 13 of their final 16 games on the road.

 

South Alabama (31-26, 13-16)

 

The Good News:

Whoever wants to pile on the Jags, better do it while they can. History shows that Steve Kittrell's charges are never down for long. C David Doss (.365-8-52), OF Clint Toomey (.356, 11SBs) and SS Ryne Jernigan (.306) lead the assault. Two starters on the mound return in LHP Lance Baxter (4-3, 4.84) and RHP Dan Goldberg (4-6, 5.34).

 

The Bad News:

The Jags had gone to the NCAAs six of the seven years in the new millennium, until last season's miss. It was also their first losing record in SBC play since 2000. Three of the top five hitters have vamoosed and two of the weekend arms are gone as well. Which doesn't bode well for a team whose opponents hit .301.

 

The Intangible:

Ray of hope.

 

CF Ray Kruml may be one of the most important players in the Sun Belt. He kick starts the offense from the leadoff position and covers a lot of ground in the middle of the meadow. Kruml sparks everything, but must improve his .279 average so his speed (18SBs) can be better utilized.

 

Schedule Note:

A couple of good matchups should let us know right away whether the Jaguars are back or not. They'll host Kentucky for a pair of games as part of the Coca-Cola Classic to open the season. Then they'll take on Arizona and Notre Dame down at the Whataburger Classic in Corpus Christi, Texas in week three.

 

Troy (34-27, 16-14)

 

The Good News:

Controversy sure, but Troy's 2007 at-large bid to the NCAAs earned it a very large amount of publicity for the program. It was hard to argue the wins over Arkansas, Alabama, Coastal Carolina and Michigan along the way. Trevor Trye (.381) and Edgar Ramirez (.339-12-45) provide the push in this year's offense. Part-time starter Tim Wheeler (4-1, 5.66) and Florida State transfer RHP Travis Burge will have to pace the mound staff.

 

The Bad News:

Going 0-2 in the Big Dance and getting eliminated by Sam Houston State didn't do the Men of Troy any P.R. favors. Losing Josh Dew (7 W, 10 svs, .325) and Ian Craze (.307, 25 SB) leaves huge holes. Two weekend starters are also needing to be replaced.

 

The Intangible:

The Maine thing.

 

Culture shock be damned, another highly anticipated newcomer will be Univ. of Maine transfer Mike Powers, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher who went 5-4, 4.64 as a freshman in Orono. He should make an immediate impression for the Trojans on the mound.

 

Schedule Note:

If Troy wants to make bigger tremors through the college baseball world (and bury some major misconceptions), go out to Arizona State (March 14-16) and win a game or two... or three.

 

Western Kentucky (25-30, 15-15)

 

The Good News:

The Hilltoppers can bank on LHP Bart Carter (6-5, 4.13), RHP Matt Ridings (7-3, 4.83 and a Freshman All-American) and Cobly Beach (4-3, 6.07) to keep things close on the mound. 1B Wade Gaynor (.323), SS Terrence Dayleg (.320-6-39) and OF Scott Kaskie (.319-6-39, 16 SB) will pace a capable offense, but other newbies need to emerge.

 

The Bad News:

After joining the Sun Belt and starting out with four straight 30-plus win seasons, WKU has now gone three straight below 30 Ws. A full 32 of the 39 roster players are either first or second-year players for the Hilltoppers, they'll have to learn on the fly. The team ERA of 6.11 has got to shrink for WKU to have a chance at another 30 win season.

 

The Intangible:

The Slater Rule.

 

Recruiting coordinator Andrew Slater has brought in two straight incoming classes that were recognized by Collegiate Baseball in the honorable mention category. That bodes well for the immediate future for the Hilltoppers and their competing in the Sun Belt.

 

Schedule Note:

The Hilltoppers will get their shots at some SEC behemoths along the way, having two games against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The best part is that they are all mid-week games, giving them a better shot at pulling in some big-name Ws.

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