BA breaks down the Horizon League, including our projections for player of the year, pitcher of the year and top prospects.
Baseball members (First Year): Illinois-Chicago (1994), Northern Kentucky (2016), Oakland (2014), Valparaiso (2008), Wright State (1994), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1994), Youngstown State (2002).
Team to Beat: Wright State. The Raiders have been one of the premier teams in the Horizon League for the last decade and won the conference tournament last year to advance to regionals in coach Greg Lovelady's second year in charge. Wright State reached the finals of the Champaign Regional, eliminating Ohio and Notre Dame before falling to Illinois. That experience, along with the wealth of talent the Raiders have coming back has them well set up for this season. Catcher Sean Murphy (.329/.423/.458), shortstop Mitch Roman (.339/.377/.421) and center fielder Ryan Fucci (.288/.390/.587, 15 home runs) gives Wright State a strong core up the middle, and senior righthander Jesse Scholtens (7-4, 3.08) has the stuff an experience to lead the staff. The Raiders have good depth to go with the confidence they gained from last year's postseason success.
Player of the Year: Sean Murphy, c, Wright State. Murphy has been a critical piece for the Raiders since he arrived on campus and was named the 2014 Horizon League freshman of the year. Now a junior, he is coming off a strong performance in the Cape Cod League, where he established himself as the top catch-and-throw catcher in the country. Murphy hit .329/.423/.458 with four home runs and seven stolen bases last year and will have weighty expectations again this season.
Pitcher of the Year: Jake Dahlberg, lhp, Illinois-Chicago. In his first year with UIC after transferring from Mt. Hood (Ore.) CC, Dahlberg went 8-2, 3.31 in a league-high 106 innings and was named Horizon League pitcher of the year. He doesn't have overpowering stuff, typically throwing his fastball in the upper 80s, but isn't afraid to go right after hitters and fills up the strike zone with his four-pitch arsenal.
Freshman of the Year: Kyle Benyo, of, Youngstown State. The Youngstown, Ohio, native transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for his senior year of high school. He hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, and now gives the Penguins a toolsy player to immediately plug into right field.
Notable Storylines: The Horizon League picks up a new member as Northern Kentucky enters after spending three years in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Last year, Northern Kentucky went 17-34 overall and 5-16 in conference play. The Norse are in the last year of their transition to Division I and will be eligible for the postseason in 2017. . . 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Valparaiso's first baseball team. The Crusaders' first team was coached by Elias Klein and went 4-0 in 1916. Overall, Valparaiso is 1,261-1,378-21 over the last 100 years…Wisconsin-Milwaukee won a program-record 39 games last year and reached the finals of the Horizon League Tournament before falling to Wright State. The Panthers will have a new look this year after losing 16 players (14 seniors and two draftees) from last year's team. Among the returners are senior righthander Brian Keller, who led the team with 97 innings pitched, and senior outfielder Luke Meeteer (.321/.404/.459, 37 steals). Wisconsin-Milwaukee brought in 21 newcomers, including several junior college players, to offset the losses, and coach Scott Doffek will have to figure things out quickly as the Panthers open the season with a four-game series at Texas Tech.
Tournament: Six teams, May 25-28 hosted by the regular-season champion.