2017 Conference Previews: Atlantic 10 Conference

Tyler Wilson (Courtesy of Atlantic 10)

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

Members: Davidson, Dayton, Fordham, George Mason, George Washington, La Salle, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Richmond, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, Virginia Commonwealth.

1. Deon Stafford, c, Saint Joseph’s
2. Tyler Wilson, lhp, Rhode Island
3. Keenan Bartlett, rhp, Richmond
4. Ryan Kelly, rhp, Saint Joseph’s
5. Logan Farrar, of, Virginia Commonwealth
6. Nick Johnson, rhp, Rhode Island
7. Martin Figueroa, c, Rhode Island
8. Chris Hess, 2b, Rhode Island
9. James Morisano, c, Saint Louis
10. Brandon Schlimm, rhp, St. Bonaventure

Team to Beat: Rhode Island. The Rams turned heads last spring when they defeated host South Carolina in the first game of the Columbia Regional, 5-4, behind a sterling 125-pitch effort from ace Tyler Wilson. While the Rams went on to lose their next two games, that initial win put a bow on a 31-26 (21-6 A-10) season and could be a harbinger for future success. Wilson (13-1, 2.29) is back for his junior year and gives the Rams an edge every Friday night. Junior righthander Nick Johnson (2-1, 3.16) slots in behind him, converting from last year’s bullpen role. He pitches at 88-92 mph with a swing-and-miss breaking ball. Senior righthander Ben Wessel (6-4, 4.36) rounds out the rotation. Offensively, the Rhode Island will trot out a veteran lineup, led by senior switch-hitting catcher Martin Figueroa (.333/.394/.553, 8 HR) and junior second baseman Chris Hess (.306/ .380/.528, 6 HR). With their returning depth and a legitimate ace on Fridays, the Rams are in prime position to repeat as conference champions and earn their third regional bid in program history.

Player of the Year: Deon Stafford, c, Saint Joseph’s. The reigning conference player of the year, Stafford hit a gaudy .395/.486/.702 with a program-record 18 home runs last season, then went on to have a strong showing in the Cape Cod League over the summer, where he ranked as the No. 11 prospect. Athletic with plus power and a plus arm behind the plate, Stafford is the conference’s top prospect and player.

Pitcher of the Year: Tyler Wilson, lhp, Rhode Island. Wilson went 13-1, 2.29 with 122 strikeouts to 33 walks in 102.1 innings last season, earning A-10 pitcher of the year honors for the second straight year. He’s the top pitching prospect in the conference and one of the top southpaws in the country, working anywhere from 88-94 mph with a slider and changeup. He seems poised to win his third straight pitcher of the year award.

Freshman of the Year: Garrett Acton, rhp, Saint Louis. Drafted in the 35th round by the White Sox, Acton led his Lemont (Ill.) High team to a state championship in his senior spring. Touching as high as 94 mph with a promising changeup, Acton has the highest upside of a solid recruiting class for the Billikens.

Notable Storylines: A year after advancing to super regionals against Miami, Virginia Commonwealth put up a 38-19 overall record (16-9 A-10) last season, but the Rams came up short in the conference tournament and didn’t make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. The Rams have a couple of holes to fill offensively, but VCU should be deep on the mound this season. The rotation is led by junior righthander Sean Thompson (6-1, 3.28), while A-10 freshman of the year Michael Dailey (6-0, 1.57) will start on Saturdays and senior lefthander Brooks Vial (8-4, 4.05) on Sundays. At the back end, senior closer Sam Donko (3-2, 2.63) led the country with 20 saves last year and should help shorten games for VCU . . . Saint Louis brought in 16 newcomers to complement its existing talent and should be in position to compete with the top teams in the conference. Junior college transfers Aaron Case, a speedy center fielder, Carter Hanford, a powerful third baseman, and Nick Reeser, a first baseman with above-average contact skills, should all start right away and play key roles. Senior two-way player Devin Mahoney could be the team’s most important player, as he’ll DH (.331/.388/.483) and start on Fridays (4-3, 3.61). He works 88-91 mph on the mound from the left side with a funky delivery, creating deception . . . Led by Stafford, Saint Joseph’s should also be in the running for top team in the conference. The Hawks return their entire weekend rotation, led by sophomore righthander Tim Brennan (7-2, 2.59) and have a power closer in Ryan Kelly (1-1, 2.36). The lineup around Stafford is an experienced group, too, with a projected eight upperclassman starters.

Tournament: Seven teams, May 24-27 at Billiken Sports Complex in St. Louis.

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