SEE ALSO: College Preview Index
Team to Beat: Alabama State. The Hornets last season became the first team in the country to go undefeated (24-0) in conference play since 2012 and then swept through the conference tournament to reach regionals for the first time as a Division I program. Following the season, head coach Mervyl Melendez was hired away by Florida International, and top assistant Jose Vazquez was promoted to head coach. Vazquez kept the rest of Alabama State’s staff intact, easing the transition process. And while another undefeated season is unlikely, the Hornets are again the team to beat in the SWAC. While leading hitter Dillon Cooper graduated, he is the lone member of the regular lineup not to return this season. The lineup again features senior Carlos Ocasio, the reigning SWAC player of the year, as well as junior Ray Hernandez (.289/.360/.597, 16 HR) and sophomore Eriq White (.346/.441/.461, 10 SB). Alabama State has more holes to fill on the mound after losing Angel Alicea, Joseph Camacho and Hunter McIntosh. But senior righthander Tyler Howe (10-3, 1.69) won the SWAC ERA title last season and will now move to Friday nights. Senior righthander Brandon Caples (3-1, 3.76) will move from the bullpen to the rotation, while junior Joseph Estrada will take his powerful right arm to the pitching staff after playing the outfield the last two years. Alabama State’s deep, experienced lineup should give its pitchers time to adjust to their new roles.
|2017 TOP 10 PROSPECTS|
|1. Ray Hernandez, 3b, Alabama State|
|2. Yamil Pagan, of, Alabama State|
|3. Carlos Ocasio, of/2b, Alabama State|
|4. Dondrayas Harris, of, Southern|
|5. Cornelius Copeland, ss, Jackson State|
|6. Joseph Estrada, rhp/of, Alabama State|
|7. Miguel Yrigoyen, rhp, Jackson State|
|8. Daniel Barnett, 3b, Grambling State|
|9. Bryce Brown, of, Jackson State|
|10. Jaqueese Moore, of, Arkansas-Pine Bluff|
Player of the Year: Carlos Ocasio, 2b, Alabama State. An all-around threat, Ocasio (.330/.418/.593, 13 HR, 19 SB) did a little bit of everything to claim SWAC player of the year honors last season. After playing the outfield for the first three years of his college career, he will move to second base this season. Ocasio’s athleticism allows him to impact the game in multiple ways.
Pitcher of the Year: Tyler Howe, rhp, Alabama State. Camacho and Howe were the two starting pitchers named first-team all-SWAC last season. Howe will now be asked to lead the rotation, a task he is ready for. His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he throws a lot of strikes and comes right after hitters.
Freshman of the Year: Aaron Barkley, rhp/c, Mississippi Valley State. A two-way talent, Barkley is most likely to make an impact on the mound this year with senior catcher Alex Bravo again behind the plate for the Delta Devils. Barkley’s attacking mentality on the mound is well suited to a role in the back of the bullpen.
Bubble Watch: LSU, North Carolina Bolster Hosting Cases
As conference tournaments continue, we look at NCAA Tournament bubble winners and losers from Friday.
Top 25 Teams: None.
Other Projected Regional Teams: None.
Notable Storylines: Arkansas-Pine Bluff won its third-straight West Division title last year with a 21-5 mark (22-25 overall) and will look to extend its streak this season. Seniors Aderly Perez (.353/.402/.497) and Jaqueese Moore (.347/.457/.405), and sophomore Julian Jones (.340/.394/.585), the team’s three leading hitters, all return, giving the lineup a strong core. Senior righthander C.J. Lewington (2-5, 3.73) is the Golden Lions’ top returning pitcher . . . Grambling State finished last year on a seven-game losing streak, allowing Arkansas-Pine Bluff to pull away for another division title. But the Tigers are ready to challenge again this season. Senior third baseman Daniel Barrett (.408/.504/.647, 9 HR) finished third in the SWAC batting race last season and returns to lead the offense. Grambling’s pitching staff will again feature redshirt senior righthander Issac O’Bear (7-3, 4.85) . . . Jackson State finished second in the East division last season and returns 20 lettermen from that team. The Tigers will have to replace catcher Carlos Diaz, who signed as a nondrafted free agent with the Cubs, but return senior shortstop Cornelius Copeland (.422/.537/.631), last year’s batting champion. Senior righthander Miguel Yrigoyen (9-3, 4.61) gives the Tigers an experienced arm in the rotation.
Tournament: Eight teams, May 17-21 at Barrow Stadium, MLB Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans.