2016 College Conference Preview: Southwestern Athletic

BA breaks down the SWAC, including our projections for player of the year, pitcher of the year and top prospects.

Members: East Division—Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Alcorn State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State.
West Division—Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Southern, Texas Southern.
Team to beat: Alabama State. The Hornets have made a case for being the nation's top HBCU program. Now in his fifth season since coming over from Bethune-Cookman, coach Mervyl Melendez has built a consistent winner, but hopes to avoid last year's poor finish, as Alabama State lost eight of its last 12 games. Alabama State returns ace senior righthander Joseph Camacho (12-0, 3.84). Junior catcher Chris Biocic (.351/.402/.446, 12 stolen bases), whose brother P.J. was the team's shortstop and leading hitter, the previous season, plays important roles on both sides of the ball. Sophomore infielder Yamil Pagan (.331/.390/.500) should take on a larger role after a strong 2015 finish.
Player of the year: Jesus Santana, 3b/1b, Jackson State. As a freshman, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Santana tied for the league home run lead with 12, including nine in 23 conference games. He has strength and leverage in his swing, producing plus power while also making consistent contact.
Pitcher of the year: Joseph Camacho, rhp, Alabama State: The 5-foot-9 senior ranked fourth in the country in wins last year and is 22-1, 3.14 over the last two seasons.
Freshman of the year: Franky Montesino, ss/3b, Southern: Listed at just 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, Montesino figures to contribute early defensively and at the plate thanks to good hands and quickness that plays on the bases and in the field.
Notable Storylines: While Alabama State is favored in the East, Texas Southern is the defending SWAC Tournament champion and is again favored in the west. Coach Michael Robertson annually has the Tigers among the national stolen base leaders, and they figure to be again in 2016 with the return of senior outfielder Ryan Lazo (.243/.372/.320, 34 stolen bases) and sophomore shortstop Horace Leblanc (.302/.382/.358, 10 steals). TSU may lean more on a veteran rotation that returns junior righthander Ryan Rios (6-2, 2.89) and senior righthanders Robert Pearson (5-3, 5.17) and Larry Romero (6-1, 3.15), who's expected to move from a swing role last year into the rotation. Hard-throwing righthander Seth Oliver (2-0, 4.67 with 57 strikeouts in 54 innings) is expected to take over the closer role after the graduation of closer Devin Kanorik. … Southern is looking for its first league title since 2009, with senior catcher Jose DeLa Torre (.278/.360/.525, 10 home runs) leading the way offensively and defensively. The Jaguars also added several potential impact newcomers, both with three freshmen from Miami's Coral Gables High, including infielder Franky Montesino and outfielder Anthony Valdes, as well as JC transfers such as shortstop/righthander Troy Lewis (Delgado, La., CC), who hit .372/.442/.558 with five homers last spring while striking out 17 in 15 innings with a 0.61 ERA on the mound. Southern, Alcorn State and Grambling State join Louisiana Tech in the 2016 edition of the MLB Urban Youth Academy invitational in New Orleans in the first weekend of the season. … Jackson State ranked ninth in the country in runs per game last year and brings back several key pieces, including last year's freshman of the year Jesus Santana, the league's top power hitter who participated in the 2014 Power Showcase. This year's Tigers should be better on the mound with its staff nearly intact from last year, hopefully a year older and wise. Senior lefty Vincent Anthonia (5-3, 4.45) and junior Jamal Wilson (3-4, 5.29) anchor the front and back of the staff, while senior righthander Jevon Jacobs (6-4, 5.70) should return to a full rotation role after playing both ways last season.
Tournament: Eight teams, May 18-22 at Wesley Barrow Stadium in New Orleans.

1. Jose DeLa Torre, c, Southern
2. Troy Lewis, rhp/ss, Southern
3. Jamal Wilson, rhp, Jackson State
4. Angel Alicea, inf, Alabama State
5. Carlos Diaz, c, Jackson State
6. Carlos Ocasio, of, Alabama State
7. Robert Pearson, rhp, Texas Southern
8. Joseph Camacho, rhp, Alabama State
9. Jevon Jacobs, rhp, Jackson State
10. Ryan Lazo, of, Texas Southern