Southland Conference Preview
Sam Houston State (Photo courtesy of John Weast Photography)
Team to Beat: Sam Houston State.
Returning 23 players from last year’s 44-win team that upset Texas Tech to advance to super regionals the first time in school history, the Bearkats enter 2018 with plenty of positive momentum and heightened expectations. Led by a trio of veteran hitters in designated hitter Blake Chisolm (.343/.466/.551) and outfielders Andrew Fregia (.302/.356/.450) and Hunter Hearn (.326/.395/.447), Sam Houston State should continue to be a strong offensive team. The Bearkats finished second in the Southland last year with a team batting average of .301, led the league in runs (443) and will begin this season with a lineup that could feature as many as eight upperclassmen. On the mound, redshirt sophomore Riley Gossett returns after missing the 2017 season due a lat injury. Before taking a medical redshirt last year, Gossett was a weekend starter as a freshman and ended the season 7-0 with a 2.64 ERA. Gossett should be joined in the rotation by fellow righthander Hayden Wesneski, who won a team-high 10 games as a freshman. Redshirt senior lefthander Seth Ballew should bring some experience to the Bearkats’ rotation, while sophomore closer Nick Mikolajchak looks to build on a freshman season in which he totaled 13 saves and logged some key innings during Sam Houston’s run to the super regionals.
Player of the Year: Taylor Schwaner, 3B, Southeastern Louisiana.
The reigning Southland player of the year, Schwaner is an advanced hitter who returns for his senior year after hitting .332/.453/.668 with a conference-best 72 RBIs a year ago. Schwaner is best known for his ability to hit for both power (16 home runs as a junior) and average, but the 6-foot, 200-pound third baseman also showed good speed with 17 stolen bases in 20 attempts last season.
Pitcher of the Year: Bryan Warzek, LHP, New Orleans.
A second-team all-conference selection as a sophomore, Warzek enters his junior season as a key cog in the New Orleans rotation. Warzak, a 6-foot, 190-pound lefthander, had a conference-best 2.12 ERA among qualified pitchers in 2017 and recorded more strikeouts (94) than hits allowed (90) in 101.2 innings.
Freshman of the Year: Jack Rogers, 1B//LHP, Sam Houston State.
A 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman from Spring, Texas, Rogers has a chance to make an impact both on the mound and in the batter’s box for Sam Houston in 2018. After showing advanced offensive tools and solid barrel control in the fall, Rogers has a chance to start for the Bearkats at first base, although he also has the athleticism and arm strength to play one of the corner outfield spots if needed. Rogers’ arm strength also plays on the mound, where he can reach the low 90s with his fastball and shows feel for three offspeed pitches.
Look Out For: Cal Poly Shows Upside With Strong Opening Weekend
Cal Poly's impressive Opening Weekend, highlighted by an upset of Vanderbilt, showed how good it can be. The Mustangs are a team to watch in the NCAA Tournament picture.
Despite Sam Houston State’s headline-grabbing run to last year’s Super Regionals and Southeastern Louisiana earning an NCAA Tournament berth for three consecutive years, it was McNeese State that finished atop the Southland regular season conference standings a year ago. The Cowboys finished with a 22-8 conference record, but missed the NCAA Tournament after winning just one game in the conference tournament and finishing with an RPI outside the top 40. This year, McNeese State returns lineup anchors Shane Selman (.333/.367/.615) and Joe Provenzano (.336/.437/.498), who combined for 20 home runs and more than 110 RBIs last year. The Cowboys should also be a good defensive team, which should help a pitching staff that returns Rhett Deaton (8-3, 3.78), Bryan King (3-4, 6.35), Aidan Anderson (3-2, 7.78) and Tyler Wesley (2-2, 5.82) — all of whom have previous starting experience. Junior college transfer Cayne Ueckert is a potential hard-throwing, strike-thrower who could help the Cowboys at the back of the bullpen.
Looking for its fourth consecutive appearance to the NCAA Tournament, Southeastern Louisiana returns reigning Southland player of the year Tyler Schwarner and all-conference outfielder Drew Avans, the latter of whom is an above-average defender who hit .312/.449/.442 with 29 stolen bases last season. A trio of junior college transfers in infielder Cody Grosse and outfielders Bryce Steckler and Nathan Pilutti should help the Lions improve on their .255 team batting average from a season ago, which ranked 12th among Southland teams. On the mound, Southeastern Louisiana will rely on returning weekend starters Carlisle Koestler (4-5, 5.03) and Corey Gaconi (7-5, 3.08), while also welcoming back 2016 Southland relief pitcher of the Year Kade Granier, who missed nearly all of 2017 with a shoulder injury. Senior righthander Josh Green sits 90-94 mph with his fastball, while also using a quality curveball and changeup for strikes, and should slide into the closer’s role nicely as one of the top pitching prospects in the conference.
Conference Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination. May 23-36, Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas.
2018 Top 10 Prospects
1. Andrew Fregia, OF, Sam Houston State
2. Tyler Gray, RHP, Central Arkansas
3. Josh Green, RHP, Southeastern Louisiana
4. Taylor Schwaner, 3B. Southeastern Louisiana
5. Shane Selman, OF, McNeese State
6. Riley Gossett, RHP, Sam Houston State
7. David Fry, 1B, Northwestern State
8. Cayne Ueckert, RHP, McNeese State
9. Joe Provenzano, 2B, McNeese State
10. Hunter Hearn, OF, Sam Houston State