2018 Conference Previews: Southern Conference

(Tom Priddy/Four Seam Images)

Southern

Team to Beat: Mercer.

Since joining the conference for the 2015 season, Mercer has established itself as a SoCon powerhouse. The Bears have won the regular-season title in all three seasons they have been a member and have their eyes on another championship this spring. Mercer will be strong on the mound with nearly the whole staff returning. Lefthander Austin Cox (4-2, 5.69) and righthander Kevin Coulter (5-3, 4.86) will anchor the rotation with relief ace Robert Broom (8-2, 2.04) and closer Nick Spear (6-2, 2.92, 8 SV) ready to slam the door at the back of the bullpen. Senior catcher J.T. Thomas (.357/.454/.624, 12 HR), the team's leading hitter last year, is back and has improved defensively. Mercer's whole outfield returns for their senior seasons. Right fielder Trey Truitt (.263/.373/.413, 6 HR) leads the group and is ready to put a subpar junior year behind him. If he can recapture the form he showed his first two seasons at Mercer, he will be one of the top senior signs in the country. The Bears will have a new-look infield, but have recruited well to fill those holes. Mercer's pitching should help it stand out during the regular season but could truly be a separator at the conference tournament in Flour Field. Mercer has been upset in the tournament in each of the last two years and will be eager to get back to regionals this spring.

Player of the Year: J.T. Thomas, C, Mercer.

Thomas starred for Mercer last year as a junior after transferring from Chattahoochee Valley (Ala.) JC. He led the Bears in nearly every offensive category while serving as the team's DH and backup catcher. Now, he will take over behind the plate. He's worked to improve his receiving and can be a solid defender there to go with his outsized offensive presence.

Pitcher of the Year: Josh Winder, RHP, Virginia Military Institute.

Winder last year went 7-6, 3.59 with 112 strikeouts and 19 walks in 107.2 innings. He set single-season program records for both strikeouts and innings pitched. Listed at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Winder isn't overpowering, but he does a good job of locating his fastball to both sides of the plate and mixing in an effective slider, allowing him to consistently work deep into games.

Freshman of the Year: Josh Madole, 1B, UNC Greensboro.

Madole, listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, has a smooth lefthanded swing that should help him make a smooth transition to college baseball. He has power potential and is a solid defender at first base.

Notable Storylines:

UNC Greensboro last year claimed the SoCon Tournament title for the first time since joining the conference for the 1998 season to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years. The Spartans finished the year 36-24 and have won at least 35 games in back-to-back seasons for the third time in program history. UNCG returns a strong core of players from that team, including four starters that hit more than .300 and every pitcher who threw more than 10 innings. Junior outfielder Andrew Moritz (.392/.450/.513, 16 SB) is a key piece at the top of the order for the Spartans and senior shortstop Tripp Shelton (.314/.387/.480) is one of the team's anchors. UNCG has been in contention for the regular-season title in each of the last two years, losing on the final day of the season to Mercer in 2016 and falling 3.5 games short last year. With such an experienced team this year, the Spartans should again be able to challenge the Bears at the top of the standings.

Longtime Citadel coach Fred Jordan retired at the end of last season after 26 years as head coach ending an impressive career. He won 831 games and 12 conference championships with the Bulldogs. To replace Jordan, Citadel hired Tony Skole away from East Tennessee State, where he has been head coach for 18 years. Skole played on Citadel's 1990 College World Series team and is a member of the school's athletics hall of fame for his playing career in both baseball and football. He takes over at his alma mater following a 16-35 season for the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, ETSU hired Stony Brook assistant coach Joe Pennucci to take over the program following a 30-29 season. Pennucci spent the last 12 seasons at Stony Brook and was a part of the Seawolves' Cinderella run to the 2012 CWS.

Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Trey Truitt, OF, Mercer
2. Josh Winder, RHP, Virginia Military Institute
3. Austin Cox, LHP, Mercer
4. J.T. Thomas, C, Mercer
5. Andrew Moritz, OF, UNC Greensboro
6. Jack Maynard, RHP, UNC Greensboro
7. Austin Edens, 1B, Samford
8. Tripp Shelton, SS, UNC Greensboro
9. Cody Shelton, RHP, Samford
10. Robert Broom, RHP, Mercer

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