Ohio Valley Conference
Team to Beat: Belmont.
The Bruins last season went 31-29 (17-13) and made a run to the OVC Tournament championship game, where they fell to Tennessee Tech. Belmont is primed to take a step forward this season and capture its first OVC championship since joining the league for the 2013 season and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 2011-12. Belmont is strong on the mound with righthanders Dylan King (3-5, 4.07), Tyler Vaughn (4-9, 5.22), Casey Queener (4-2, 4.60) and Connor Etheridge (4-1, 5.62), who all started at least 10 games last season, returning. King, who has made a jump this year, will take over from Vaughn as Friday starter, while Vaughn will move to the No. 2 spot in the rotation. In a league typically dominated by hitting, having so much experience back on the mound is critical. Offensively, the Bruins must replace Rafael Bournigal and Nick Egli, their top two hitters last year, and will look to outfielder Matt Cogen (.332/.403/.472), shortstop Kyle Conger (.286/.367/.380) and Hunter Holland (.284/.355/.515) to lead the lineup. Belmont last year ranked third in the league in ERA (5.56) and fielding percentage (.970) and it will rely on its strengths in those areas to push to the top of the conference.
Player of the Year: Niko Hulsizer, OF, Morehead State.
Hulsizer was last year named co-conference player of the year as a sophomore after hitting .349/.435/.775 with 27 home runs, an OVC record. He continued to hit for power over the summer, winning the college home run derby in TD Ameritrade Park and slugging six home runs in the New England Collegiate League, where he ranked as the No. 6 prospect. He has impressive power and is an average runner but, as he moves to the next level, will need to improve his free-swinging approach after walking just 27 times and striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances last season.
Pitcher of the Year: Dylan King, RHP, Belmont.
King has grown as a pitcher throughout his career at Belmont and now, as a junior, is ready to take over as the Friday starter. He last year went 4-5, 4.07 and led the OVC with 108 strikeouts in 84 innings. Listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he has a physical presence on the mound and controls his low- to mid-90s fastball well.
Freshman of the Year: Grant Wood, 2B, Murray State.
Wood was named the 2017 Missouri Gatorade player of the year after excelling at the plate and on the mound as he helped Jefferson City High to its first state title since 1989. Wood figures to this spring take over at second base for Murray State. He has a good feel for hitting and should grow into more power as he physically matures.
Tennessee Tech last season went 41-21 (23-7 OVC) and won the conference by a comfortable 4.5-game margin. Led by their powerful offense, the Golden Eagles swept through the OVC Tournament, scoring 38 runs in three victories, to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. Tennessee Tech opened regionals with a shocking 3-1 upset of Florida State before back-to-back losses ended its tournament run. The Golden Eagles have some key pieces to replace from that team, especially on the mound, as righthanders Jake Usher and Michael Wood, its top two starters, both graduated. But Tennessee Tech's offense figures to again be formidable as it returns leading hitter Trevor Putzig (.394/.441/.568) and powerful outfielder Kevin Strohschein (.292/.351/.511, 14 HR). Righthanders Travvis Moths (5-1, 3.88) and Ethan Roberts (1-4, 3.97, 13 SV) were very effective at the back of the bullpen last year. If a couple more pitchers emerge for the Golden Eagles, they should again contend for the conference championship.
Construction continues at Jacksonville State's Rudy Abbott Field. The project was scheduled to be completed in time for Opening Day, but poor winter weather has delayed its completion. In the meantime, Jacksonville State will continue to play its home games at Choccolocco Park in nearby Oxford, Ala., as it did last season. The Gamecocks last season went 30-26 and finished third in the OVC. They return 18 players from that team, including leading hitter Clayton Daniel (.328/.393/.393). The senior second baseman is coming off an all-star summer in the Cape Cod League, where he hit .316/.379/.420, and will be again counted on to lead the Gamecocks' lineup.
Tennessee-Martin had a late shakeup to its coaching staff when Rick Robinson resigned in December after three seasons as head coach. The Skyhawks replaced him by promoting Ryan Jenkins to interim head coach for the 2018 season. Jenkins was hired in July as hitting coach and was in his first year as a full-time assistant coach. Jenkins, 31, was a volunteer assistant coach at College of Charleston in 2017 and spent three seasons as a student assistant/strength and condition coach at Auburn. He will now be tasked with getting the Skyhawks on track after they last season went 22-29.
Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Dylan King, RHP, Belmont
2. Niko Hulsizer, OF, Morehead State
3. Reid Leonard, SS, Morehead State
4. Kevin Strohschein, OF, Tennessee Tech
5. Clayton Daniel, 2B, Jacksonville State
6. Tyler Vaughn, RHP, Belmont
7. Brandon Gutzler, OF, Murray State
8. Tristen Gagan, 1B, Southeast Missouri State
9. Ethan Roberts, RHP, Tennessee Tech
10. Joe Duncan, OF, Eastern Illinois