Big East Conference Preview

Mike Donadio

Members: Butler, Creighton, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, Xavier.

Tournament: Four teams, May 25-28 at TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha

2017 Top 10 Prospects
1. Zac Lowther, lhp, Xavier
2. Zach Schellenger, rhp, Seton Hall
3. Shane McCarthy, rhp, Seton Hall
4. Keith Rogalla, rhp, Creighton
5. Chris Morris, rhp, Seton Hall
6. Garrett Schilling, rhp, Xavier
7. Troy Dixon, c, St. John’s
8. Michael Donadio, of, St. John’s
9. Hunter Schryver, lhp, Villanova
10. Rollie Lacy, rhp, Creighton

Team to Beat: Xavier. The Musketeers finished strong last year, winning their last eight games against Big East opponents in the regular season and conference tournament to win both titles. Xavier kept its momentum rolling in the NCAA Tournament, where it reached the Nashville Regional final before falling to UC Santa Barbara. The Musketeers return 26 lettermen from that team, led by ace lefthander Zac Lowther, and will again be formidable this spring. They will have to replace shortstop Andre Jerrigan and catcher Dan Rizzie, the conference’s player of the year in the regular season and tournament, respectively. Junior Nate Soria (.260/.311/.377) will return to starting behind the plate, a role he held when Rizzie was sidelined by injury in 2015, while Chris Given (.293/.384/.408) will slide from second base to shortstop. Xavier will also have to deal with higher expectations this season after mostly filling the underdog role since joining the Big East in 2014. “I’ve never been in that position in my coaching career,” coach Scott Googin said. “The ‘X’ goes from your hat to your back. The notoriety, the accolades, the press has been awesome but you’ve got to go out and play.”

Player of the Year: Mike Donadio, of, St. John’s. The senior has been a fixture in St. John’s lineup since he stepped on campus and is a three-time first-team all-Big East selection. He has appeared in all 167 of the Red Storm’s games during his career, starting all but two. A career .314 hitter, Donadio hit .315/.420/.452 in 2016 and has a good feel for the barrel and understanding of the strike zone.

Pitcher of the Year: Zac Lowther, lhp, Xavier. After a solid sophomore season (7-5, 3.09), Lowther put himself on the map with a strong start in regionals against Vanderbilt (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R) and then established himself as a prospect to watch with his performance in the Cape Cod League. He led the circuit with 54 strikeouts in 36 innings, despite not having premium secondary stuff. Instead, he gets swings and misses with his heavy low-90s fastball. His ability to pound the zone and generate weak contact gives Xavier an ace on Friday nights.

Freshman of the Year: Nick Mondak, lhp, St. John’s. There are innings available for any of the Red Storm’s talented freshmen arms if they can claim them and while they landed some pitching prospects in this recruiting class that are a little more high profile than Mondak, he might be the most ready for the rigors of the college game. His fastball-changeup combination should play right away, as will his strike-throwing ability.

Top 25 Teams: None.

Notable Storylines: Creighton last year earned its first Top 25 ranking since 2007 and was in the mix for an at-large bid late in the season. But it was unable to beat Xavier down the stretch, losing four times to the Musketeers in the final three weeks to finish as runner-up in both the regular season and conference tournament and fall out of the NCAA Tournament mix. The Bluejays were an older team last year and return just 14 lettermen, but with righthanders Rollie Lacy (9-2, 3.15) and Keith Rogalla (5-3, 3.21) in the rotation and closer David Gerber (11 SV, 1.50 ERA) returning, Creighton should once again contend for the conference title. . . St. John’s returns some key members of its lineup, including Donadio, second baseman Josh Shaw, the 2016 Big East freshman of the year, senior catcher Troy Dixon, the New England Collegiate League MVP. Their success will be critical as the Red Storm’s younger pitching staff finds its way. St John’s brought in a strong recruiting class that ranked just outside the Top 25. It was heavy on high-end pitching, and how quickly young arms like Mondak, lefthander Jeff Belge (No. 68 on the BA 500) and righthander Gavin Hollowell (No. 384) make the transition to college will determine how far the Red Storm go this spring . . . Seton Hall’s pitching staff will be a significant draw for scouts this spring. Junior closer Zach Schellenger (6 SV, 70 SO) has the biggest stuff of the group and averaged 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings last spring. He can be a bit wild, but his fastball reaches the upper 90s to go with a sharp slider. Junior righthander Shane McCarthy (6-4, 2.38) threw the first perfect game in program history last April and gives Seton Hall a true Friday night starter. Junior righthander Chris Morris (0-2, 3.76) is ready to take a step forward as he joins the rotation. Sophomore lefthander Cullen Dana (7-2, 2.75) won’t be draft eligible until 2018, but stepped right into the rotation as a freshman and impressed . . .  The Big East welcomes two new head coaches to its ranks this season as Dave Schrage was hired from South Dakota State to take over at Butler from Steve Fraley, and Villanova promoted Kevin Mulvey from pitching coach to replace Joe Godri. Villanova (20-32) and Butler (12-40) have room for improvement after finishing sixth and seventh in the conference last year.  

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