Missouri Valley Conference Preview
Team to Beat: Dallas Baptist.
After a fourth consecutive season with 40+ wins in 2017 (42-21) Dallas Baptist brings back a strong group of hitters and pitchers in 2018 that should allow the Patriots to reclaim the top spot of the Missouri Valley Conference in 2018 and advance to the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year. Austin Listi's bat will be missed, but coach Dan Heefner has a number of talented offensive pieces returning in his 14th season at the helm. Center fielder Jameson Hannah (.328/.411/.530), the team's top draft prospect, has been an impact player since his freshman season and should continue to change games on both sides of the ball during his junior year, while left fielder Devlin Granberg (.359/.439/.564) returns after becoming the first DBU player to win the league's hitting title. With more at-bats he could help replace some of Listi's power production-Granberg hit seven homers in 181 at-bats as a junior.
The Patriots have enviable depth behind the plate between senior Matt Duce (.333/.424/.554) and junior Garrett Wolforth (.289/.366/.466), who should split time. The former is a legit middle-of-the-order bat who was drafted by the Mets in the 14th round in 2017 while the latter is a big, switch-hitter with great catch-and-throw ability and made first team all-Missouri Valley Conference and the league's all-defensive team. On top of all of the offensive depth, Dallas Baptist returns its entire starting rotation, though the team will look for sophomore RHP Ray Gaither (6-4, 5.11), junior LHP Jordan Martinson (9-4, 4.78) and junior RHP M.D. Johnson (6-2, 4.43) to all take steps forward. Junior LHP Kody Funderburk is a big two-way addition to the team after transferring from Mesa (Ariz.) JC. He has a chance to win the Friday night job with a swing-and-miss fastball and add even more thump to the lineup while playing first base.
Player of the Year: Jeremy Eierman, SS, Missouri State.
Eierman (.313/.431/.675) has the ability to follow in Jake Burger's shoes brilliantly, and actually outpaced his former teammate with 23 home runs last spring and led the team and was second in the conference in slugging. Eierman-a first-team Preseason All-American-is the No. 17 draft prospect and has done nothing but hit since coming to Missouri State including a nine-homer freshman campaign in 2016. Defensively, he has one of the best arms of any infielder in the conference and earned votes as the league's best defensive shortstop as well as having some of the best raw power. He already has more than enough talent and offensive ability to end the season as the player of the year, but could take an additional step if he is able to cut down the strikeouts (67 in 2016, 61 in 2017) during his junior season.
Pitcher of the Year: Dylan Coleman, RHP, Missouri State.
Coleman (8-3, 4.80) led the conference in strikeouts (106) and helped push the Bears to a regular-season title after ranking among the league's top 10 pitchers in opposing batting average (.229) and innings pitched (99.1). His stuff played in the Cape Cod League last summer as well, striking out 10 batters in 7.2 innings despite a 5.70 ERA. Coleman does have a penchant for walking batters-5.18 BB/9 over two seasons in the MVC-but progressed in that area from his freshman year to his sophomore season. He received votes from league coaches for the best fastball in the conference.
Freshman of the Year: Blayne Jones, SS, Dallas Baptist.
Jones and fellow freshman Jimmy Glowenke will battle it out for the starting shortstop position with Dallas Baptist this year, though both players should get plenty of at-bats and playing time at other infield spots regardless of who wins out. With Jones, Heefner has an athletic player with a strong arm and solid defensive actions, with a bat that has a chance to do some damage as he adjusts to the college game. Glowenke might be the more polished defender at the moment, but Jones offers more upside offensively, giving him the nod here. Jones played quarterback in high school, throwing for more than 2,500 yards and 40 touchdowns with Muenster (Texas) High.
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Valparaiso will compete in the conference for the first time this spring after finishing fourth with a 24-29 overall record as a member of the Horizon League in 2017. The Crusaders replace Wichita State, which left the MVC to join the American Athletic Conference. Coach Brian Schmack has a veteran infield that can hopefully anchor the team in its debut season, but youth on the mound and was predicted to finish last in the conference's preseason coaches' poll. Valparaiso is the second team to enter the league in recent years. DBU joined the league in 2014 after Creighton left for the Big East Conference. Valparaiso will have a tough time matching DBU's success, however, and the overall strength of the conference will likely fall in immediate aftermath of Wichita State's departure.
After winning the league in 2017 and advancing to a super regional, Missouri State might not take kindly to their predicted No. 2 finish in the aforementioned coaches' poll. The Bears typically have had odd-year magic in recent seasons, as their best seasons have come in 2015 and 2017. But they also should be able to avoid bottoming out this year, as they did in 2016, when they finished last in the league. With Eierman anchoring the lineup and Jake Fromson (8-3, 2.25), the 2017 MVC pitcher of the year, and Dylan Coleman back to lead the pitching staff. Will that be enough to keep up with Dallas Baptist's high-octane offense? That's the real question.
Indiana State's outfield will be interesting to watch this season as each spot should be filled with new(ish) faces. Junior Chris Ayers (.272/.362/.395) brings the most Sycamores experience of the group after starting 29 games in 2017, but dealt with an injury during part of the season. Two junior college transfers could get the bulk of the playing time in center and right field in Luke Fegen and Roberto Enriquez, respectively. Indiana State is already predicted to finish third by the league's coaches following a third-place finish in 2017, but how the outfield trio performs will factor heavily into the team's success.
Tournament: Eight teams, double elimination, May 23-26, at Horner Ballpark, in Dallas.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Jeremy Eierman, SS, Missouri State
2. Jameson Hannah, OF, Dallas Baptist
3. Devlin Granberg, OF, Dallas Baptist
4. Dylan Coleman, RHP, Missouri State
5. Matt Duce, C, Dallas Baptist
6. Garrett Wolforth, C, Dallas Baptist
7. Triston Polley, LHP, Indiana State
8. Ethan Larrison, RHP, Indiana State
9. Kody Funderburk, LHP/1B, Dallas Baptist
10. Owen Miller, SS, Illinois State