2017 Conference Previews: Conference USA

Willy Amador (Photo courtesy of Rice)

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index  

Members: Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, Texas-San Antonio, Western Kentucky.

Team To Beat: Rice. The Owls’ streak of 20 straight seasons with a regular season and/or conference tournament championship was snapped last year, as Florida Atlantic claimed the regular season title and Southern Mississippi won the tournament. Rice will look to start a new streak in 2017, led by sophomore shortstop Ford Proctor (.336/.428/.471), a first-team All-Freshmen honoree, and junior closer Glenn Otto (9-2, 2.26, 8 SV). Rice returns its top four hitters from last season, including Proctor. The rotation will have a new look, however, with righthander Jon Duplantier and lefthander Blake Fox both moving on to pro ball. The pair combined to throw 220.1 innings last season and their departure creates plenty of opportunity for Rice’s young pitchers. Junior righthanders Willy Amador (2-2, 5.36) and Dane Meyers (1-2, 6.68), and sophomore righthander Jackson Pathasarathy (1-0, 1.32) figure to take on more prominent roles on staff this spring. If head coach Wayne Graham and new pitching coach John Pope are able to sort the staff out, Rice has the talent to again climb to the top of CUSA.

Player of the Year: Zach Rutherford, ss, Old Dominion. A career .313 hitter for the Monarchs, Rutherford has built a strong track record of success in college. He built on that reputation in the Cape Cod League this summer, where he was teammates with Rice shortstop Ford Proctor, who will challenge him for CUSA player of the year honors this spring. Rutherford is a solid defender and an above-average athlete, capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways.

Pitcher of the Year: Glenn Otto, rhp, Rice. Otto was Rice’s bullpen ace last season, a role he will fill again this spring after spending the summer pitching for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Capable of working multiple innings in relief, he gives the Owls a weapon they can turn to in the late innings to shorten games. Otto’s fastball sits in the low 90s, touching 95 mph, and he pairs it with a curveball that can be a swing-and-miss offering.

Freshman of the Year: Matt Wallner, of/rhp, Southern Mississippi. Named Mr. Minnesota Baseball last year, Wallner was originally committed to North Dakota and had to find another college destination when the Fighting Hawks’ program was shuttered at the end of last season. He landed at Southern Mississippi, where his tools will play both on the mound and in the outfield. Drafted in the 32nd round by the Twins as a pitcher, Wallner’s fastball sits around 90 mph, but he also has a powerful bat and impressive athleticism. Other

Projected Regional Teams 

 Florida Atlantic: The Owls have been to 10 regionals in the 64-team era, beginning in 1999, and coach John McCormack has them positioned well for a third straight trip and fourth in five years. Junior righthander Marc Stewart (6-0, 3.58, 78 IP/45 SO) returns to a lefty-heavy rotation including Walters State (Tenn.) CC transfer Jake Miednik, the NJCAA pitcher of the year, plus holdovers Sean Labsan (5-1, 1.96, 46 IP/39 SO) and Nick Swan (3-0, 3.09, 35 IP/22 SO). Righthander Alex House (2-1, 3.13) also is expected to move into a rotation role. Righthander Mark Nowatnick (3.38 ERA, 21 IP) brings a power arm back to set up senior closer Cameron Ragsdale (15 SV, 28 IP/21 SO). In addition to his mound duties, Labsan (.268/.349/.436) is one of the team’s top sluggers; his five homers rank second among returners to fifth-year senior first baseman Esteban Puerta (.307/.401/.500, 10 HR). The Owls hope to have a healthier season than last year, when McCormack was recovering from a bout of cancer in his mouth and catcher Kevin Abraham missed the season due to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Abraham is back, having been declared cancer-free last June; he’s healthy and expected to play after a clean MRI in December. He’s another veteran to a veteran lineup that has new starters at shortstop, where sophomore Tyler Frank (.285/.401/.365) will relocate to replace All-American C.J. Chatham, who was drafted in the second round. Frank spent most of the year at catcher but filled in for the injured Chatham in regional play, hitting a game-winning homer against Stetson in the process. Outfielder Jared Shouppe, the son of Florida A&M coach Jamey Shouppe, could be an impact addition in right field as he returns from injury.

 Southern Mississippi: Scott Berry’s seventh season as head coach was the club’s best with a 41-20 mark, and Berry says this will be the program’s deepest, most versatile roster in a decade. Senior Dylan Burdeaux, who has played right field and first base in recent years, is slated for first this year after the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder hit .335/.421/.529 last season. At times he leads off; at others he hits third. The returns of Conference USA tournament MVP outfielder Daniel Keating (.303/.401/.486) and thick-bodied junior third baseman Taylor Braley (.323/.450/.688, 10 HR) would help keep Burdeaux at the top of the lineup. As usual, defense is crucial for the Golden Eagles’ pitching staff, which usually lacks power arms but fills up the strike zone. Sophomore closer Nick Sandlin (3-3, 2.38, 12 SV) returns as the latest in USM’s long line of low-slot relievers that stretches back to ex-big leaguer Chad Bradford (1996) through Collin Cargill (2008-11), who rejoined the program as director of baseball operations.

Notable Storylines: New coaches in CUSA include Lane Burroughs, a former assistant at Southern Mississippi, who takes over as Louisiana Tech’s head coach. He replaces Greg Goff, who moved on to Alabama; Burroughs spent the last four seasons at Northwestern State, going 113-113 in four seasons, three of them winning years. The other new coach is Florida International’s Mervyl Melendez, who has a 537-437 mark in 17 seasons between Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State. He comes to FIU after guiding Alabama State to a 38-17 mark last year and its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since moving to Division I. Melendez replaces Turtle Thomas, who posted a .538 winning percentage in nine seasons, but three of his final four seasons wound up at .500 or below . . . Middle Tennessee has to sort out some roles and newcomers on the pitching staff, but everyone in this year’s lineup can be termed a returning starter for the Blue Raiders. The top option is senior shortstop Riley Delgado (.388/.492/.437), a bat-control, on-base specialist who struck out just 12 times in 206 at-bats last season. A reliable defender who made just eight errors last year, Delgado has steady hands at shortstop, but he’ll need more help considering that last year’s club went just 5-24 in CUSA play . . . Marshall won a school-record 34 games and finished second in CUSA last season, earning coach of the year honors in CUSA for Jeff Waggoner, yet the Thundering Herd was left out of the NCAA tournament due mostly to an RPI of 64. The Herd loses six senior pitchers from last season’s staff but most of the lineup—which hit 60 homers after combining for 56 the previous four seasons—comes back to do more damage. The group includes junior third baseman Tyler Ratliff (.327/.368/.579, 12 HR) and senior first baseman Tommy Lane (.296/.402/.514), who both hit seven homers in league play last season. After throwing fewer than six innings last season, Ratliff is expected to pitch in an expanded relief role this year . . . UAB’s top prospect was caught up in the school’s dissolution (and return) of its football program. Center fielder Brewer Hicklen (.289/.413/.408, 22 SB) will play wide receiver in the fall when the Blazers return to the gridiron, unless he’s drafted high enough to give up football for pro baseball. The 6-foot-2, 208-pounder has turned in 6.5-second 60-yard times and has an idea of the strike zone, as his 38 walks ranked fifth in the league.

Tournament: May 24-28, Biloxi, Miss.

2017 Top 20 Prospects 2018 Top 10 Prospects Top Freshmen
1. Zach Rutherford, ss, Old Dominion 1. Ford Proctor, ss, Rice 1. Matt Wallner, of/rhp, Southern Miss
2. Glenn Otto, rhp, Rice 2. Tyler Frank, ss, Florida Atlantic 2. Zack Smith, c, Charlotte
3. Dane Myers, rhp, Rice 3. Dominic DiCaprio, c, Rice 3. Addison Moss, rhp/of, Rice
4. Tyler Ratliff, 3b/rhp, Marshall 4. Josh Shapiro, lhp, Marshall 4. John Wilson, lhp, Old Dominion
5. Ricardo Salinas, rhp, Rice 5. Jackson Parthasarthy, rhp, Rice 5. Kevin Lambert, 3b, Western Kentucky
6. Brewer Hicklen, of, Alabama-Birmingham 6. Eric Keating, rhp, Florida Atlantic 6. Cody Carroll, rhp, Southern Miss
7. Kaleb Duckworth, of, Western Kentucky 7. Patrick Murphy, lhp, Marshall 7. Nick Prather, rhp, Florida Atlantic
8. Jacob Niggemeyer, rhp, Marshall 8. Karan Patel, rhp, Texas-San Antonio 8. Wyatt Featherston, of, Western Kentucky
9. Tristan Gray, ss/3b, Rice 9. Hunter Slater, of, Southern Mississippi 9. Nick Siber, rhp, Rice
10. Dylan Bordeaux, of/1b, Southern Miss 10. Nick Sandlin, rhp, Southern Miss 10. Nick MacDonald, rhp, FIU
11. Ryan Chandler, of, Rice    
12. Alex House, rhp, Florida Atlantic    
13. Stephen Kerr, rhp, Florida Atlantic    
14. Brent Diaz, c, Louisiana Tech    
15. J.C. Escarra, 1b/c, Florida International    
16. Charlie Warren, of, Rice    
17. Tyler Miednik, lhp, Florida Atlantic    
18. Jackson Sowell, of, Western Kentucky    
19. Cody Puckett, rhp, Middle Tennessee State    
20. Casey Sutton, rhp, Louisiana Tech    

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