2018 Conference Previews: Conference USA

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Conference USA

Team to Beat: Southern Mississippi.

The Golden Eagles last season stormed through conference play with a 25-5 record to win CUSA by six games. Southern Miss finished the year at 50-16 overall and hosted a regional, all a part of its best year since it advanced to the 2009 College World Series. Southern Miss does have some big pieces to replace, especially on the mound, but it returns outfielder/righthander Matt Wallner, the 2017 Freshman of the Year, closer Nick Sandlin (10-2, 2.38, 8 SV) and a core of experienced, veteran players in its lineup. The Golden Eagles have enough offensive firepower to outslug many opponents, but will need some pitchers to step up in the rotation if they are to match last season's success. Righthanders Cole Smith (6-2, 3.36) and J.C. Keys (3-3, 5.56) will be counted on to step into bigger roles on the staff and help Southern Miss turn leads over to Sandlin. If they're able to do that, the Golden Eagles will again be flying high.

Player of the Year: Matt Wallner, OF/RHP, Southern Mississippi.

Wallner was a revelation last season as a freshman. The Minnesota native hit .336/.463/.655 with 19 home runs and went 2-0, 1.84 with three saves as a pitcher despite a hip injury that limited him to 15 innings on the mound. Wallner was named 2017 Freshman of the Year and this year was voted a Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors. His dynamic all-around play makes him one of the nation's most exciting players.

Pitcher of the Year: Jake Miednik, LHP, Florida Atlantic.

The 2016 junior college pitcher of the year, Miednik had a strong junior season after transferring to FAU from Walters State (Tenn.) JC. Miednik went 7-4, 4.88 and struck out 75 batters in 86.2 innings. His fastball sits 91-92 mph and he pairs it with a solid breaking ball. He's undersized at a listed 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, but he has good pitchability and understands what he needs to do to get outs.

Freshman of the Year: Logan Allen, LHP, Florida International.

Coach Mervyl Melendez and his staff hit the ground running at FIU and a little more than a year after he was hired, the Panthers hauled in the No. 21 recruiting class in the country. Allen, the Florida Gatorade player of the year, headlines the class as a polished lefthander with excellent pitchability who can immediately move into the rotation. He doesn't have ideal size or any plus pitches, but pounds the zone with his whole arsenal and has a mature understanding of his craft.

Top 25 Team: Southern Mississippi (21).

Other Regional Team: Florida Atlantic. The Owls made consecutive regional appearances in 2015-16 for the first time in more than a decade, but their run was snapped last season when they went 35-21-1 and finished third in CUSA but landed on the wrong side of the bubble. FAU has what it takes to get back to regionals this season, as it returns junior shortstop Tyler Frank, its leading hitter, senior outfielder David Miranda, its leading power threat and a deep pitching staff led by Miednik. Frank (.336/.448/.540, 11 HR) spent the summer with USA Baseball's Collegiate National team and was the first Owl ever to make the final roster. He and sophomore catcher Pedro Pages (.243/.366/.383) give FAU a pair of strong defenders up the middle, while Frank and Miranda (.319/.403/.590, 12 HR) will anchor the lineup. Miednik will front the rotation, followed by junior righthander Kyle Marman (2-2, 4.50), who has made a jump this year. He is more athletic after cleaning up his body and now throws his fastball in the low 90s with a solid breaking ball and changeup. Righthander Zach Schneider, who struck out 95 batters and walked 10 in 93 innings in two years at Polk State (Fla.) JC, gives the Owls another solid option in the bullpen. FAU has all the pieces to make this another strong spring in head coach John McCormack's 10th season.

Notable Storylines:

Rice, long CUSA's powerhouse, was 13-25 in mid-April last season and was in danger of not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994. But the Owls won their final five series to get into the conference tournament, which they swept through to earn an automatic bid to their 23rd consecutive NCAA Tournament. Rice and coach Wayne Graham, who turns 82 in April, will try to avoid the need for such a dramatic second-half push to get back to the NCAA Tournament this year. Rice has a large returning group, including nine seniors, that will give it experience, and junior catcher Dominic DiCaprio (.366/.438/.508) and junior shortstop Ford Proctor (.311/.408/.450) add some star power in the lineup. The Owls have to replace relief ace Glenn Otto and will have to improve on the mound this season after posting a 5.10 team ERA last year. Their success will largely depend on the ability of some of their young pitchers to take a step forward. Sophomore righthander Matt Canterino (5-5, 4.12) is the most talented of the bunch and made 17 starts as a freshman. A full healthy season from senior righthander Ricardo Salinas who missed nearly all of last season due to injury would be a big boost for the Owls. Rice proved last year it can never be counted out, but it needs to get off to a better start this year.

Old Dominion last year went 37-21 and finished second to Southern Miss in the CUSA standings, but with an RPI of 50 on Selection Monday was just on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Monarchs were one of the first four teams left out of the tournament. ODU will this spring aim for a better finish to the season and a return to regionals for the first time since 2014. The Monarchs had a strong freshman class last year and those players will now be counted on to step into bigger roles. Outfielder Kyle Battle (.341/.419/.425) and first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino (.321/.397/.473) are the Monarchs' leading returning hitters and will again be counted on at the top of the lineup. With some talented newcomers ready to step in as a part of a large 2017 recruiting class, ODU should have the pieces necessary to remain in the mix at the top of the conference.

Louisiana Tech last year went 36-20 and had the second-best RPI in CUSA on Selection Monday in coach Lane Burrough's first season, but fell short of a second-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. After making significant strides as a program over the last few years, the Bulldogs now must replace the core of those teams, including All-American righthander Nate Harris, leading hitter Ralph Gladau and catcher Brent Diaz. LaTech went heavy on junior college transfers in its 2017 recruiting class to help ease the transition and it will rely on several of those newcomers. Lefthander/first baseman Logan Bailey, a transfer from Panola (Texas) JC, will move to the front of the rotation. He won't overpower hitters, but has good pitchability and knows how to get outs. Senior righthander Kent Hasler (5-3, 3.99) will again anchor the bullpen, which figures to be deeper this season. Offensively, the Bulldogs may not have as much power as they did when they hit 62 home runs last year, but they should be more athletic and be more capable of manufacturing runs. LaTech will need its newcomers to get up to speed quickly and if they're able to do so, it could be another exciting season at the Love Shack.

Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Tyler Frank, SS, Florida Atlantic
2. Ford Proctor, SS, Rice
3. Nick Sandlin, RHP, Southern Mississippi
4. Dominic DiCaprio, C, Rice
5. Kyle Marman, RHP, Florida Atlantic
6. Cody Wilson, OF, Florida Atlantic
7. Troy Newell, LHP, Western Kentucky
8. Jake Miednik, LHP, Florida Atlantic
9. LeeMarcus Boyd, SS, Southern Mississippi
10. Daniel Keating, OF, Southern Mississippi

Top 10 2019 Draft Prospects
1. Matt Wallner, OF/RHP, Southern Mississippi
2. Matt Canterino, RHP, Rice
3. Pedro Pages, C, Florida Atlantic
4. Kyle Battle, OF, Old Dominion
5. Nick MacDonald, RHP, Florida International
6. Tyler Myrick, RHP, Florida International
7. Zack Smith, C/1B, Charlotte
8. Mike Ruff, RHP, Florida Atlantic
9. Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B, Old Dominion
10. Nick Prather, RHP, Florida Atlantic

Top 10 Newcomers
1. Logan Allen, LHP, Florida International
2. Christian Santana, RHP, Florida International
3. Trei Cruz, INF, Rice
4. Jose Garcia, C, Florida International
5. Cody Wilson, OF, Florida Atlantic
6. Troy Newell, LHP, Western Kentucky
7. Jose Sanchez, LHP, Florida International
8. Branden Comeaux, INF, Rice
9. Jacob Rhinesmith, OF, Western Kentucky
10. Quinton Logan, OF/LHP, Louisiana Tech

Best Tools
Best Pure Hitter: Tyler Frank, Florida Atlantic.
Best Raw Power: Matt Wallner, Southern Mississippi.
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Ford Proctor, Rice.
Best Athlete: Matt Wallner, Southern Mississippi.
Best Defensive Infielder: Tyler Frank, Florida Atlantic.
Best Defensive OF: Kyle Battle, Old Dominion.
Best Fastball: Matt Canterino, Rice.
Best Breaking Ball: Jake Miednik, Florida Atlantic.
Best Control: Matt Brooks, Charlotte.

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