2017 Conference Previews: Southern Conference

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index 

Members: Citadel, East Tennessee State, Furman, Mercer, UNC Greensboro, Samford, Virginia Military Institute, Western Carolina, Wofford.

Team to Beat: Western Carolina. The Catamounts made their first NCAA trip since 2007 last year, topping Mercer with a thrilling walk-off win in the Southern Conference tournament final. They started last year slow before coming together once conference play began, but with six regulars in the lineup and two weekend starters back, they ought to be stronger out of the gate this time. Western won’t have any shortage of senior leadership, starting with outfielder Matt Smith (.388/.495/.582, 10 HR), the star of last year’s SoCon tourney run and the team’s best pure hitter, along with fellow outfielder Bryson Bowman (.326/.442/.661, 19 HR), their top power threat who chose to come back as a senior after being a 33rd-round pick in last year’s draft. The Cats should also benefit from a full season from junior shortstop Brett Pope (.323/.408/.379), who was limited by a hand injury to 31 games last year but was a key contributor in the postseason. As is the case with most SoCon teams, the Catamounts are built to win by outscoring opponents, but they do have a good amount of experience on the mound. Senior lefty Bryan Sammons (8-3, 5.74) leads the rotation, and versatile senior righthander B.J. Nobles (2-2, 4.07, 5 SV) has experience as both a starter and closer and could fill either role in 2017.

1. Will Gaddis, rhp, Furman
2. Trey Truitt, of, Mercer
3. Hagen Owenby, c, East Tennessee State
4. Bryson Bowman, of, Western Carolina
5. Dillon Stewart, of, UNC Greensboro
6. Aaron Maher, of, East Tennessee State
7. Charlie Madden, c, Mercer
8. Alex Hansen, of, Mercer
9. Matt Smith, 1b/of, Western Carolina
10. Chris Cook, ss, East Tennessee State

Player of the Year: Hagen Owenby, c, East Tennessee State. Owenby showed his considerable raw power in winning last year’s college home run derby at TD Ameritrade Park—not to mention the 17 long balls he hit for ETSU—but he’s a solid all-around hitter as well and a good athlete behind the plate.

Pitcher of the Year: Will Gaddis, rhp, Furman. The SoCon is a tough league to pitch in, but Gaddis thrived thanks to his command of a four-pitch mix, going 10-3, 3.45 on his way to winning the league’s pitcher of the year honors for 2016. He kept up the momentum last summer in the Cape Cod League, albeit in limited innings after a heavy spring workload, and should be a horse for Furman again this spring.

Freshman of the Year: Branden Fryman, ss, Samford. The son of former big league all-star Travis Fryman, Branden passed on signing as a 37th-round pick in last year’s draft to go to Samford, where his advanced defense should help get him in the lineup right off the bat.

Notable Storylines: Mercer has won SoCon regular season titles in each of its first two seasons in the conference, but now the Bears face life after Kyle Lewis, last year’s College Player of the Year. The lineup should still pack a punch though, with Preseason All-American junior outfielder Trey Truitt (.335/.430/.636, 17 HR) and senior second baseman Ryan Hagen (.316/.419/.488, 8 HR) taking over as the offensive centerpieces. Junior college transfer Alex Hanson slides into Lewis’ spot in center field and should hit at the top of the order. The one-two punch in the rotation of senior righthander Ryan Askew (6-3, 3.90) and sophomore righthander Kevin Coulter (8-3, 4.41) should be as good as any in the league as well . . . UNC Greensboro enjoyed its best season since 2003 last year, spending much of the season in first place and ending up tying for second while posting 38 wins. The Spartans did it primarily on the strength of a lineup that led the nation in team batting average (.346), and they should be just as deep and balanced with all but two regulars from that group returning. Among them is the team’s top power threat in senior outfielder Dillon Stewart (.335/.455/.665, 14 HR) and sparkplug leadoff man Ben Spitznagel (.385/.459/.474). Center fielder Andrew Moritz (.400/.454/.570) starred as a freshman last year before being lost to a broken foot after 41 games. Do-everything reliever Andrew Wantz (6-1, 2.97, 4 SV), who shared last year’s SoCon pitcher of the year award with Gaddis, is the key returnee on the mound . . . East Tennessee State, which joined the SoCon at the same time Mercer did, hasn’t made the same mark the Bears have so far—ETSU has finished ninth and fifth in its first two seasons—but it’s nonetheless made itself at home among the league’s heavy-hitting offenses. ETSU was one of the six SoCon teams to finish among the top 15 nationally in home runs last season, led by Owenby’s 17. Owenby and well-rounded junior outfielder Aaron Maher (.315/.401/.525, 9 HR) will lead what should be another dangerous offense, but if the Buccaneers are going keep moving up the standings, they’ll need a lot more out of a pitching staff that finished dead last in the conference in ERA (6.82). If senior righthander Blake Smith (4-4, 5.58), the team’s best arm, can keep up the improvement he showed in the fall, the Bucs would become a much tougher team to handle over the course of a weekend.

Tournament: Nine teams, play-in game followed by double-elimination. May 23-28 at Fluor Field in Greenville, S.C.

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