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2020 Horizon League College Baseball Preview

Illinois-Chicago and Wright State have dominated the Horizon League throughout the 21st century. Over the last 20 years, the two programs have combined for 16 conference titles.

As a new decade begins, it looks like the 2020 race will again come down to those two teams. Wright State has won back-to-back titles, but the Flames last season won the Horizon League Tournament and have been to regionals in two of the last three years. And after Wright State lost a large part of last season’s core, UIC has an opportunity this spring to climb back atop the standings.

While the rest of the league continues to chase the two powerhouses, there is reason for optimism. Wisconsin-Milwaukee is coming off an impressive season that ended just shy of a regionals berth and Northern Kentucky slugger Griffin Doersching this summer stepped into the spotlight by winning the College Home Run Derby. Those teams will look to this season to build on that momentum.

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Tyler Black, 3B, Wright State

Black last season hit .353/.469/.600 with seven home runs and eight stolen bases to earn Freshman All-America honors as a second baseman. Now, Black will be asked to take on a bigger role for the Raiders as a sophomore following the loss of several key members of the lineup. Black will also move to third base, replacing Seth Gray, who was a fourth-round draft pick. Listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, he can impact the game in a lot of ways but one of the things that stands out the most is his disciplined approach at the plate, which helped him walk 38 times and strike out 18 as a freshman.

Pitcher of the Year: Jacob Key, RHP, Illinois-Chicago

Key last season was named Horizon League pitcher of the year after going 7-8, 3.75 with 90 strikeouts in 105.2 innings. Listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, the senior doesn’t have overpowering stuff but has a knack for pitching well in big moments. His changeup is his best pitch and he executes his pitches with impressive consistency.

Freshman of the Year: Nick Lopez, INF/RHP, Illinois-Chicago

Lopez and his older brother Cristian both arrived at UIC this fall, Nick coming directly from California prep powerhouse JSerra High and Cristian via Cypress (Calif.) JC. Both brothers have the ability to make an impact this spring and Nick has two-way potential. A switch-hitter, he has some power and good defensive versatility to go with a promising sinker-slider combination on the mound.

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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)

1. Illinois-Chicago (29-23, 18-11)

The Flames last season swept through the Horizon League Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years and sixth time in program history. From that team, UIC lost Scott Ota and Ryan Hampe, its top two hitters, and closer Alex Padilla, among other key contributors. Still, the Flames have the talent to win the regular-season title for the first time since 2017 and make back-to-back regional appearances for the first time since 2007-08. As it typically does with coach Mike Dee’s teams, it will all start on pitching and defense. Senior righthander Jacob Key (7-8, 3.75), the reigning Horizon League pitcher of the year, returns to lead the rotation. While Padilla is gone, UIC feels good about getting back seniors Sam Menegat (2-2, 2.70) and Ryan O’Reilly (1-0, 4.10), who will take on setup roles. A strong crop of newcomers will give the staff a boost, including junior college transfers Cristian Lopez and Joey Morris and freshmen Teague Conrad and Nick Lopez. Without Hampe and Ota, the Flames will have a new-look heart of the order and likely just won’t have as powerful of a lineup. But what they may lack in thump this season, they should make up for with a deeper, more athletic group.  Redshirt junior catcher Joshua Figueroa (.294/.353/.406) gives them someone they can rely on both offensively and defensively. Senior shortstop Matt Bottcher (.279/.356/.322) and junior infielder Ryan Lin-Peistrup (.282/.367/.389) are both experienced hands and steady fielders, as well. UIC faces a daunting early season schedule with trips to No. 13 Auburn, No. 1 Vanderbilt and UC Santa Barbara on successive weekends to open the year but if it can get through that gauntlet, it’ll be more than ready to take on the Horizon League.

2. Wright State (42-17, 22-8)

The Raiders produced an excellent season under first-year coach Alex Sogard. They won the Horizon League by 3.5 games and posted their fifth 40-win season as a Division I program. Wright State stumbled in the Horizon League Tournament, however, and went 0-2 to end their season without an NCAA Tournament appearance. From that team, the Raiders lost four players to the draft, including Horizon League player of the year Peyton Burdick. Between the draft and graduation, there are some holes to fill this season. The good news is that Freshman All-American Tyler Black (.353/.469/.600, 7 HR) returns to anchor the lineup and redshirt sophomore shortstop Damon Dues (.307/.466/.448, 28 SB) is also back. The lineup otherwise will have a new look as Wright State will look to less experienced players to step up. Two to watch are redshirt juniors Quincy Hamilton (.200/.325/.277) and Zane Harris (.284/.371/.441), who both have solid tools. On the mound, righthander Bradley Brehmer (7-0, 4.50) is back after a solid freshman season in the rotation. The Raiders will look to redshirt junior righthander Daniel Kreuzer and redshirt senior righthander Austin Cline to bounce back from injury and take on significant roles on staff. Wright State still easily has one of the most talented rosters in the Horizon League but Sogard will have his work cut out for him early in the season figuring out how best to arrange his lineup and pitching staff.

3. Wisconsin-Milwaukee (35-21-1 18-11)

The Panthers’ 35 wins last season were the fourth most in program history and they came one win away from advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. Milwaukee has some key pieces to replace from that team, including shortstop Trevor Schwecke and closer Jake Sommers, who were both drafted and signed, and leading hitter Tyler Bordner. Milwaukee has an older roster, including 10 players who are in at least their fourth season of college baseball. Among that group are redshirt seniors Joe Vyskocil (.330/.403/.527, 8 HR) and Mike Ferri (.262/.333/.340), who will be asked to lead the lineup. Milwaukee will need a couple players to step up to replace Bordner and Schwecke, who also provided solid defense. On the mound, junior righthander Mike Edwards (4-4, 4.06), the team’s top starter, is back to lead the way. Redshirt senior righthander George Swedie (0-1, 4.09) and junior righthander Patrick Tomfohrde (1-0, 4.84, 4 SV) give the staff two more experienced arms. The Panthers will need some players to emerge this spring but don’t need to take a big step back in 2020.

4. Northern Kentucky (15-42, 12-18)

After finishing in last place in the league in 2018, the Norse took a step forward in 2019 for a fourth-place finish. The offseason produced another success for the Norse when slugger Griffin Doersching won the College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park. Doersching (.230/.329/.503, 13 HR) brings serious power to the lineup and junior infielder Andrew Bacon (.269/.379/.461, 6 HR) also returns, giving NKU a solid offensive presence. Whether NKU can take another step forward in 2020, however, will be dependent on how well the team can improve its run prevention after posting a 7.94 team ERA and a .957 fielding percentage. Junior righthander Kyle Service (2-8, 6.90), the Norse’s top starter, returns and they’ll hope junior righthander Bryson Lonsbury, a junior college transfer, provides a boost in the rotation.

5. Oakland (11-37, 9-18)

The Golden Grizzlies have a pair of cornerstones in second baseman Mario Camilletti (.306/.457/.400, 10 SB) and junior righthander Beau Keathley (3-7, 3.77). Both earned all-conference honors last season and are coming off solid summers—Camilletti in the Northwoods League and Keathley in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Camilletti has good speed and a patient approach—this summer he walked more than twice as often as he struck out. Keathley is a sidearmer who is tough to square up and held opponents to a .189 batting average last spring. They’ll need some of their teammates to step up around them, especially on the mound after Oakland finished last in the league in ERA with a 8.65 mark, but it’s a good starting point.

6. Youngstown State (13-41, 7-20)

The Penguins last year finished last in the Horizon League, the seventh time in nine years they landed in the cellar. Youngstown State does have some reason for optimism going into 2020 thanks to the returners in its lineup. Junior outfielder Jeff Wehler (.290/.373/.441, 6 HR, 30 SB), the team’s leading hitter, is back, as is senior third baseman Blaze Glenn (.246/.379/.441, 9 HR, 18 SB), the team’s biggest power threat. To take a step forward this spring, however, the Penguins must improve on the mound. They combined for a 7.66 team ERA in 2019. Sophomore righthander Travis Perry (2-5, 6.89) and junior lefthander Colin Clark (1-9, 7.00) return in the rotation.

Top 2020 Draft Prospects

  1. Daniel Kreuzer, RHP, Wright State
  2. Jake Schrand, RHP, Wright State
  3. Mario Camilletti, 2B, Oakland
  4. Damon Dues, SS, Wright State
  5. Joshua Figueroa, C, Illinois-Chicago
  6. Beau Keathley, RHP, Oakland
  7. Cristian Lopez, RHP, Illinois-Chicago
  8. Joe Vyskocil, 1B, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  9. Jacob Key, RHP, Illinois-Chicago
  10. Griffin Doersching, 1B, Northern Kentucky
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