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Team to Beat: Wright State.
Jeff Mercer's tenure as head coach started last season with a bang as Wright State upset then-No. 10 Clemson on Opening Weekend and moved into the Top 25 for the first time in program history. The Raiders finished the year 38-21 (21-9 HS) but were edged by Illinois-Chicago for both the regular season and tournament titles. Wright State has the team this season to get back atop the league standings. Its rotation of righthanders Ryan Weiss (8-1, 2.13) and Caleb Sampen (9-4, 2.76 in 2016) and lefthander Zane Collins (7-5, 2.83) has the potential to be the best in program history. Weiss and Collins were both all-stars this summer in the Cape Cod League and Sampen, the 2016 conference freshman of the year, is back healthy after missing last season. All three could be top-10 round draft picks this year. Behind them, Wright State has plenty of depth on the mound. Closer Derek Hendrixson (3-1, 1.77, 9 SV) returns and the Raiders have some talented emerging righthanders in junior Bear Bellomy, sophomore Daniel Kreuzer and freshman Jake Schrand. Offensively, Wright State returns senior second baseman Matt Morrow, its leading hitter, and redshirt senior Gabe Snyder (.289/.379/.570, 13 HR), its leading power threat. It also gets back outfielder Peyton Burdick, who hit in the three-hole in 2016 as a freshman, but missed last season due to injury, and adds slugger Kyle Casserly, who sat out last season after transferring from West Virginia. As a result, the Raiders' lineup should have more depth and versatility to it this year. Wright State reached regional finals in back-to-back years in 2015-16 and could again make noise in the NCAA Tournament with this year's team.
Player of the Year: Matt Morrow, 2B, Wright State.
Morrow, a senior, has been in a regular in the Wright State lineup throughout his career and led the team in hitting last year with a .333/.427/.487 line. He is a consistent threat at the top of the order and gets things started offensively for the Raiders.
Pitcher of the Year: Ryan Weiss, RHP, Wright State.
Weiss broke out in 2017 as a redshirt freshman and went 8-1, 2.13 with 80 strikeouts in 88.2 innings. He built on that success over the summer in the Cape Cod League, where he went 2-0, 2.52 and posted a 27-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings. Listed at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Weiss throws his fastball in the low 90s with a sharp slider and mixes in a changeup and curveball.
Freshman of the Year: Ryan Lin-Peistrup, SS, Illinois-Chicago.
A Chicago native, Lin-Peistrup was a two-sport star at Loyola Academy, helping the Ramblers win a state title in football and also starring on the diamond. His athleticism translates well to baseball and he is a solid defender at shortstop. He is still developing as a hitter, but has a knack for putting the barrel on the ball.
Illinois-Chicago last year went 38-17 (22-8 HL) and won the Horizon League Tournament to make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2008. Six players were drafted off that team, including the conference player of the year Rob Calabrese (10th round, Giants) and pitcher of the year Jake Dahlberg (Cardinals, 21st round). All of UIC's draftees went on to sign, leaving it with several holes to fill this season. While the Flames returns just two players from their everyday lineup, they will have more experience on the mound. Righthander Reid Birlingmair (7-5, 3.10) will lead the rotation and closer Alex Padilla (2-1, 0.45, 10 SV) is back to anchor the bullpen. With Birlingmair and Padilla leading the way, the Flames' stout pitching staff should give the new-look lineup time to gel.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which last year went 22-32 (10-18 HL), must this season replace All-American catcher Daulton Varsho, who was last June drafted 68th overall by the D-backs. Varsho was the second-highest draft pick in HL history, behind only Brad Hennessey, who was taken with the 21st overall pick out of Youngstown State in 2001. While the Panthers lost their best player, they do return senior third baseman Ben Chally (.327/.394/.421) and sophomore shortstop Trevor Schwecke (.306/.330/.407), who provide a solid core to build around offensively.
The Horizon League suffered the trickle-down effect of Wichita State joining the American Athletic Conference, as Valparaiso left the league to join the Missouri Valley Conference. The HL tapped Indiana-Purdue Indianapolis, which has not sponsored baseball since 2001, to replace Valparaiso. The latest reshuffling of the HL leaves it with six baseball-playing members, the minimum required for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Ryan Weiss, RHP, Wright State
2. Caleb Sampen, RHP, Wright State
3. Peyton Burdick, OF, Wright State
4. Aaron Ackerman, C, Illinois-Chicago
5. Zane Collins, LHP, Wright State
6. Reid Birlingmair, RHP, Illinois-Chicago
8. Matt Morrow, 2B, Wright State
9. Austin Schulfer, RHP, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
10. Alex Padilla, RHP, Illinois-Chicago