Mid-American Conference Preview

Zach Willeman (Courtesy of Kent State) 

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

East: Bowling Green State, Buffalo, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Ohio. 
West: Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo, Western Michigan.

Tournament: Eight teams, May 24-27 at Sprenger Stadium in Avon, Ohio.

Team to Beat: Kent State. Led by All-American lefthander Eric Lauer, the Golden Flashes went 43-14 last year and cruised to the regular-season MAC title. But while Kent State posted its best record since 1992, its season ended when Western Michigan upset it in the championship game of the MAC Tournament. Even without Lauer, who was drafted 25th overall by the Padres, the Golden Flashes again enter the season as conference favorites. Senior outfielders Luke Burch (.357/.423/.468, 22 SB), the team’s leading hitter last year, and Mason Mamarella (.303/.394/.362, 12 SB) will be counted on offensively. Lefthander Eli Kraus (9-1, 2.64), a first-team all-MAC selection, returns to the rotation, where he will be joined by righthander Zach Willeman (14 SV, 2.70 ERA) as he transitions from closing. Kent State’s staff could receive a boost if lefthander Jake Latz receives clearance to play this spring after transferring from Louisiana State. But even without Latz’s power arm, the Golden Flashes have plenty of firepower.

2017 Top Prospects
1. Jake Latz, lhp, Kent State
2. Zach Willeman, rhp, Kent State
3. Colin Brockhouse, rhp, Ball State
4. Daniel Jipping, of, Central Michigan
5. Logan Harasta, rhp, Buffalo
6. Dazon Cole, of/rhp, Central Michigan
7. Dylan Rosa, 1b/3b, Kent State
8. C.J. Alexander, 1b/of, Ball State
9. Colton Follett, lhp, Central Michigan
10. Tanner Allison, of/lhp, Western Michigan

Player of the Year: Daniel Jipping, of, Central Michigan. Jipping has twice earned all-MAC honors and enters his junior season following a strong summer in the Northwoods League, where he hit .314/.373/.540 with 13 home runs. Listed at 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, the righthanded hitter is a physical presence in the Chippewas’ lineup with the tools to hit for power.

Pitcher of the Year: Zach Willeman, rhp, Kent State. Lauer is just the latest pitcher to develop into an elite MAC starter under the tutelage of associate head coach Mike Birkbeck, the 2012 Assistant Coach of the Year. His next protege is Willeman, a hard-throwing righthander who will move this season from the back of the bullpen to the front of the rotation to succeed Lauer as the Golden Flashes’ ace. Willeman can run his fastball up to 96 mph and mixes in a power curveball. The combination of him and Kraus, a first-team all-MAC selection last year, will make Kent State tough to beat on weekends.

Freshman of the Year: Jake Wilson, of, Bowling Green State. Drafted in the 39th round by the Red Sox last year, Wilson chose to head to college instead of signing. He plays well defensively in center field, where he gets good reads, has the speed to cover ground well and has a strong arm. Listed at 6-foot, 164 pounds, Wilson has room to get stronger, which will help him hit for more power. But he should be able to quickly help the Falcons offensively.

Top 25 Teams: None.

Notable Storylines: Ball State had its most talented team in years last season, featuring MAC player of the year Alex Call. The Cardinals went 32-26 and finished first in the MAC West, but they faltered down the stretch, losing their last two weekend series and then getting swept out of the conference tournament. Call, drafted in the third round by the White Sox, was one of three players from the team who were drafted (and signed) in the top 12 rounds last year, leaving some holes for coach Rich Maloney to fill this year. Still, Ball State looks like it should be able to rebound and finish near the top of the division. Senior shortstop Alex Maloney (.305/.399/.408, 12 SB), Rich’s son, returns to anchor the Cardinals infield, while senior Caleb Stayton (.377/.482/.614 11 HR) moves behind the plate after an all-MAC season at first base last year. Senior righthander B.J. Butler (6-1, 1.84) will move from the back of the bullpen to starting on Friday nights to lead the pitching staff. The Cardinals also received a boost when hard-throwing righthander Colin Brockhouse (3-5, 5.18) decided to return for his junior season instead of signing with the Pirates, who selected him in the 37th round as a draft-eligible sophomore . . . Miami (Ohio) finished second in the MAC East last season, six games behind Kent State, but the RedHawks are poised to take a step forward this spring. They are led by a strong sophomore class featuring righthander Cole Gnetz (4-2, 3.75) and catcher Hayden Senger (.269/.336/.431, 5 HR). Redshirt-junior first baseman Ross Haffey (.355/.439/.599, 11 HR) brings experience and a power bat to the lineup . . . Western Michigan made a Cinderella run through the MAC Tournament last spring with lefthander Keegan Akin leading the way. The Broncos upset Kent State to earn their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1989. Akin was drafted in the second round by the Orioles, the highest a Bronco had been drafted since the Indians took John Kasper in the second round in 1967. Replacing him will be a tough task for Western Michigan, but sophomore shortstop Connor Smith (.336/.363/.379), the MAC freshman position player of the year, gives the Broncos a player to build around. . . Toledo went 19-38-1 last season, its worst record since 2005, but the Rockets should see improvement this spring as they bring back their whole rotation and closer. Seniors Steven Calhoun, Ross Achter and Sam Shutes give Toledo plenty of experience in the rotation, while sophomore lefthander Michael Jacob (8 SV, 3.43 ERA) gives them an aggressive strike-thrower at the back of the bullpen. If the Rockets can find an answer at shortstop after two-time MAC defensive player of the year Deion Tansel was drafted in the 32nd round by the Rays, they could be a team to watch in the West.

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