2017 Horizon League Preview

Trevor Swaney (Photo by Carl Kline)[/caption] 
SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

Members: Illinois-Chicago, Northern Kentucky, Oakland, Valparaiso, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wright State, Youngstown State.

Team to Beat: Wright State. In each of the last two years, the Raiders advanced to regional finals as a No. 3 seed, before falling to national seeded teams (Illinois in 2015, Louisville in ’16). The core of those teams, however, is gone, as is head coach Greg Lovelady, who was hired away by Central Florida after last season. Despite those departures, the road to the Horizon League title again runs through Wright State. Jeff Mercer, who spent the last three seasons as Lovelady’s top assistant coach, was promoted to head coach and will look to keep the good times going at his alma mater. While there are plenty of new faces at Wright State, they bring back some key returners, such as sophomore righthander Caleb Sampen (9-4, 2.76), the reigning Horizon League freshman of the year, and sophomore outfielder J.D. Orr (.346/.396/.420), the team’s leading hitter last season. The Raiders also have several talented players who will now get a chance to seize starting roles this season. Outfielders Alex Anders and Zach Weatherford, as well as lefthander Zane Collins and righthander Ryan Weiss will get a chance to show what they’re capable of this spring. There are sure to be some growing pains, but if they, or any of the other inexperienced Raiders, take advantage of their opportunity, Wright State should playing its best baseball by the end of the season.

1. Daulton Varsho, c, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
2. Derek Hendrixson, rhp, Wright State
3. Mickey McDonald, of/3b, Illinois-Chicago
4. Trey Ganns, lhp/1b, Northern Kentucky
5. Daniel Sexton, lhp, Wright State
6. Zach Stern, 1b, Oakland
7. Jeremy Randolph, rhp, Wright State
8. Connor Ryan, rhp, Illinois-Chicago
9. Adam Ruess, rhp, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
10. Gabe Snyder, 1b, Wright State

Player of the Year: Daulton Varsho, c, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Varsho broke out as a sophomore last season, leading the Horizon League in batting (.381), slugging (.610), hits (88) and total bases (141), while also handling the everyday catching duties for the Panthers. As a result, he became just the second sophomore in the last 20 years to be named Horizon League player of the year. Varsho’s impressive year continued during the summer in the Northwoods League, where he hit .321/.427/.588) and was named the No. 3 prospect in the circuit. Listed at 5-foot-9, 192 pounds, Varsho is undersized, but has excellent feel at the plate and athleticism behind it.

Pitcher of the Year: Caleb Sampen, rhp, Wright State. Named Horizon League freshman of the year last season, Sampen returns to lead Wright State’s rotation this spring. His fastball sits in the low 90s with sinking action, and he mixes in a quality curveball and changeup. Sampen got big-game experience last year, as he threw a complete game in the Horizon League Tournament championship game and won an elimination game against Ohio State in the Louisville Regional.

Freshman of the Year: Jacob Key, rhp, Illinois-Chicago. Named a finalist for Tennessee’s Mr. Baseball award last season, Key will pitch in an important role on weekends for UIC, either at the back of the bullpen or as a starter. His fastball sits around 90 mph now, but he should add more velocity as he grows into his 6-foot-2 frame. He is a good athlete and throws plenty of strikes.

Top 25 Teams: None.

Other Projected Regional Teams: None.

Notable Storylines: Wisconsin-Milwaukee was runner-up in the Horizon League standings last season and will likely be Wright State’s leading challenger for the league title again this spring. The Panthers will have to replace outfielder Luke Meeter, the program’s all-time hits leader, and righthander Brian Keller, the 2016 Horizon League pitcher of the year. But with Varsho back to anchor the lineup and most of the pitching staff back, Milwaukee should again be stout. Senior righthander Adam Reuss (2-4, 3.79) will move to the front of the rotation, while talented righthanders Elijah Goodman (5-1, 2.73) and Jake Sommers (2-2, 5.82) will be asked to step into larger roles as sophomores.

Oakland fired head coach John Musachio, who had led the program for nine season, after going 21-27 and finishing fifth in the league last year. While that move was not particularly unusual, athletic director Jeff Konya’s decision to hire co-head coaches to replace Musachio was. Jacke Healey, the Golden Grizzlies’ top assistant coach for the last three season, was promoted, and Colin Kaline, the grandson of Hall of Famer Al Kaline, was hired from Florida Southern, where he had been an assistant coach for three seasons. Together they will work to turn around a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 1997. Senior first baseman Zach Sterry (.301/.365/.466, 4 HR) is coming off a big summer in which he led the Valley League in home runs (13), RBIs (41) and ranked third in batting (.350). If he can carry that momentum into the spring, he would anchor a lineup that returns three of its top four hitters.

Youngstown State also made a coaching change after going 14-38 and finishing last in the league last season. Dan Bertolini takes over the program after spending the last eight seasons as the head coach of Mercyhurst North East (Pa.) JC, where he is the winningest coach in program history. Bertolini faces a rebuilding job at Youngstown State, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2005. The Penguins lost their top two hitters, but will have an experienced pitching staff. Their whole rotation returns, led by sophomore lefthander Collin Floyd (2-7, 6.52). Also back is senior righthander Kevin Yarabinec (5-2, 4.15), their team’s top reliever.

Tournament: Six teams, May 24-27 hosted by the regular season champion.

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