2016 College Conference Preview: Summit League

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

Members: IPFW, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota State, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State, Western Illinois.
Team to Beat: Oral Roberts. Excluding its brief two-year stay in the Southland Conference from 2013-14, ORU has been the Summit League’s preeminent baseball program since the late 1990s. The Golden Eagles returned to the Summit last year and all they did was go 25-5 in league play, winning the regular-season title for the 15th time in the last 16 seasons in which they’ve been a Summit member. This year’s squad returns just two of last year’s top six hitters, though one of them is lineup centerpiece Matt Whatley (.355/.437/.528), but ORU’s coaching staff mined the junior college ranks hard and expects to still have plenty of athleticism to roll out in 2016. The rotation likewise will feature two newly arrived junior college transfers in righty Logan Michaels and lefty Taylor Varnell, complimenting sophomore righty Bryce Howe (4-2, 3.93).
Player of the Year: Matt Whatley, c, Oral Roberts. A second-team Freshman All-American in 2015, Whatley brings not only a dangerous bat but also quality athleticism for a catcher, as he led ORU with 16 stolen bases last year to go with his five homers and .355 average.
Pitcher of the Year: Preston Church, lhp, Western Illinois. Church doesn’t have overpowering stuff, working in the upper 80s with his fastball, but he nonetheless racked up 71 strikeouts in 73 innings last year and heads up the Leathernecks’ rotation entering 2016.
Freshman of the Year: Will McAffer, rhp, South Dakota State. McAffer pitched for the Canadian Junior National Team in high school and turned down the Reds as a 32nd round pick last year to come to South Dakota State, where he brings a live arm with a fastball in the low 90s.
Notable Storylines: South Dakota State will look to build on last year’s second-place finish behind a solid lineup led by sophomore catcher Luke Ringhofer (.321/.441/.455) and junior first baseman Matt Johnson (.292/.387/.438). The challenge will be in replacing two of their weekend starters, where McAffer and Kansas State transfer Landon Busch will be key. . . . IPFW has never had a winning record in Summit League play since joining the conference in 2007, but the Mastodons should break that dry spell this year thanks to a senior laden lineup that includes perhaps the conference’s best one-two punch in terms of power in shortstop Greg Kaiser (.357/.392/.628, 10 HR) and outfielder Shane Trevino (.318/.371/.509, 6 HR). . . . Nebraska-Omaha is eligible for the postseason for the first time after completing its transition period following a move up from Division II. The Mavericks have competed in the Summit since 2013 and won regular-season titles in both 2013 and 2014—while ORU was away in the Southland—but weren’t allowed to compete in the conference or NCAA tournaments. They’ll look to bounce back from last year’s fourth-place finish behind returning all-conference performers Cole Gruber (.399/.495/.486) and Clayton Taylor (.308/.403/.490).
Tournament: Four teams, double-elimination, May 25-28 at Johnson Stadium in Tulsa, Okla.

1. Brent Williams, 1b, Oral Roberts
2. Chase Stafford, 3b, Oral Roberts
3. Greg Kaiser, ss, IPFW
4. Logan Michaels, rhp, Oral Roberts
5. Preston Church, lhp, Western Illinois
6. Ryan Froom, rhp, South Dakota State
7. Joe Mortillaro, rhp, Western Illinois
8. Cole Gruber, of, Nebraska-Omaha
9. Nathan Garza, rhp, Oral Roberts
10. Kyler Stout, rhp, Oral Roberts

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