2020 Sun Belt Conference College Baseball Preview

Both Sun Belt Conference divisions last season produced tight races as no team was able to establish supremacy for much of the season. While that made for an entertaining league to watch, it did the conference no favors on Selection Monday and only tournament champion Coastal Carolina advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

The Sun Belt this year should be in a better position to produce multiple regionals bids. Coastal again is brimming with talent and it will be pushed in the East Division by Georgia Southern, South Alabama and Troy. The West Division again appears to be wide open, with Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas-Arlington looking like co-favorites to start the season.

Off the field, the Sun Belt has endured an emotionally difficult offseason. Louisiana coach Tony Robichaux died in early July after a heart attack. He was beloved around the program and won more than 1,000 games during his career. At the end of January, Coastal Carolina announced coach Gary Gilmore has a large mass on his liver that doctors believe may be cancerous, pending further tests.

News like that puts baseball in perspective going into the 2020 season.

Player of the Year: Hayden Cantrelle, SS, Louisiana-Lafayette.

Drafted by the Yankees out of high school, Cantrelle has been a regular in the Ragin’ Cajuns lineup since he arrived on campus. He’s built an impressive track record for hitting, both with Louisiana and in the Cape Cod League. Last year, he hit .309/.426/.504 with nine home runs and 28 stolen bases and then carried that momentum into the summer on the Cape, where he hit .315/.427/.438 with three home runs and 19 stolen bases. He’s the best hitter and the best prospect in the conference.

Pitcher of the Year: Drake Nightengale, RHP, South Alabama.

Nightengale last year transferred to USA after two seasons at Pearl River (Miss.) JC and quickly established himself as one of the conference’s top pitchers. He went 6-2, 3.52 with 91 strikeouts in 71.2 innings. Listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Nightengale has a good feel for his four-pitch mix and knows what he needs to do to get outs.

Freshman of the Year: William Sullivan, 1B, Troy.

Sun Belt teams typically bring in large junior college classes and this year was no exception. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t impressive freshmen in the conference. Troy landed two good ones in Sullivan and infielder Kyle Mock. Sullivan gets the nod here as he’s coming off a strong senior year against high-end competition in the Orlando area. He’s a physical lefthanded hitter with impressive power potential who can make an impact this spring for the Trojans.

Projected standings (2019 records)

East Division

1. Coastal Carolina (36-26-1, 15-13)

After an outstanding 2018 season that saw them host a regional in Springs Brooks Stadium for the first time, the Chanticleers took a bit of a step back during the regular season in 2019. They finished two games behind Georgia Southern in the East Division race. But they bounced back in the Sun Belt Tournament, coming out of the loser’s bracket, to claim the title for the second straight year. Coastal has the talent this season to add another title, though they’ve already been met with some adversity this offseason. First, Preseason All-American center fielder Parker Chavers underwent shoulder surgery in December that will keep him out through at least the first half of the season. Then, last weekend, Coastal announced coach Gary Gilmore has a large mass on his liver that doctors believe may be cancerous, pending further tests. With that hanging over the Chants, baseball feels less important, but they do have significant upside. Senior shortstop Scott McKeon (.340/.399/.484) will lead the offense in Chavers’ absence. The rest of the lineup isn’t as experienced but isn’t lacking on talent. Sophomore infielder Nick Lucky (.234/.346/.344) was one of the headliners of Coastal’s Top 25 recruiting class a year ago and will now be asked to take on a bigger role. Redshirt junior Fox Leum, a junior college transfer, is the latest power bat to step in at first base for the Chants. The pitching staff is where the biggest upside is, however. Righthanders Zach McCambley (6-3, 5.21) and Garrett McDaniels (0-3, 8.35) have some of the best stuff in the conference but will need their results to take a step forward. Coastal will likely need a few weeks to sort out its best lineup and alignment on the mound. Once it gets through those growing pains, it should be a force when conference play begins.

2. South Alabama (30-26, 16-14)

The Jaguars have missed the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons but look to be ready to make their return to regionals in 2020. Senior righthander Drake Nightengale (6-2, 3.52) last year established himself as one of the best pitchers in the league and gives the Jaguars a reliable Friday starter. Outfielder Ethan Wilson (.345/.453/.686, 17 HR) is a superstar in the making and is coming off a Freshman All-American season. The Jaguars have a strong grouping of talent around that pair of stars. Offensively, redshirt junior outfielder Michael Sandle (.320/.397/.511) and senior Kaleb DeLa Torre (.301/.391/.478), who will move from third to first base, give the Jaguars two more experienced hitters in the heart of the order. The pitching staff behind Nightengale isn’t as experienced but has solid upside. Junior righthander JoJo Booker (4-3, 4.19) has been up to 96 mph and has flashed the stuff that made him a fourth-round pick out of high school but hasn’t put it all together yet. If he does and South Alabama hits on a few of its junior college transfers like Matt Boswell, Tyler Samaniego and Miles Smith, it has a staff that will stack up favorably with anyone in the conference. Even if they don’t, the Jaguars still have enough to contend in the Sun Belt.

3. Troy (31-29, 16-14)

Following a trip to regionals in 2018, Troy took a bit of a step back last season as it reset. The Trojans still finished tied for second in the competitive East Division and reached 30 wins for the fifth straight season. Troy this season has a chance to make a return to the NCAA Tournament thanks to a veteran roster that features 11 seniors and some high-end talent. Junior outfielder Rigsby Mosley (.356/.430/.554, 7 HR), the Trojans’ leading hitter, and senior shortstop Drew Frederic (.318/.410/.527, 11 HR, 20 SB) return to headline the offense. Outfielders Logan Cerny (.267/.336/.495, 9 HR, 13 SB) and Dalton Sinquefield (.307/.379/.431) give the Trojans two more experienced players in the lineup and they’ll also mix in talented freshmen Kyle Mock and William Sullivan. On the mound, junior righthander Levi Thomas (8-2, 4.24) is ready to move to the front of the rotation and senior righthander Lance Johnson (4-1, 2.80)—who has a chance to set the program record for appearances—returns to anchor the bullpen. If junior college transfers like Tyson Ellis, Orlando Ortiz-Mayr and D.J. Wilkinson are ready to contribute right away and former ace Cory Gill bounces back from shoulder surgery, the pitching staff could have good depth.

4. Georgia Southern (35-24, 18-12)

The Eagles last season won the East Division and then marched to the Sun Belt Tournament championship game. Georgia Southern fell to Coastal Carolina, however, and despite owning wins against Auburn, Georgia and West Virginia, it didn’t quite have the RPI for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, bringing an unfortunate end to its season. The Eagles should remain in contention at the top of the division this season as they return some key pieces from that team. Seniors Steven Curry (.346/.470/.437) and Mason McWhorter (.321/.382/.567, 12 HR), their top two hitters, are back to anchor the lineup. Slugger Noah Ledford (.291/.380/.510, 11 HR) also returns after a strong freshman season. Georgia Southern has some holes to fill on the mound. Senior righthander Tyler Owens (7-1, 4.26) gives it an experienced arm in the rotation, but it must replace ace Seth Shuman, who was drafted in the sixth round last season. Georgia Southern last year had a formidable two-headed monster in the bullpen in Cole Whitney and Hayden Harris. Whitney is gone, but Harris (3-1, 3.24, 8 SV) returns and the junior lefthander is a strong weapon for the Eagles. The Eagles dipped into the junior college ranks heavily in their recruiting class to replenish their depth on the mound and will need some of the newcomers to step up. If they do, the Eagles have the makings of another strong team.

5. Appalachian State (22-31, 13-16)

The Mountaineers have made steady progress under coach Kermit Smith, who enters his fourth season with the program. Their 13 conference wins last season were their most since 2013, when they were still in the Southern Conference. Sophomore Luke Drumheller (.337/.401/.452), and juniors Tyler Leek (.323/.387/.535) and Kendall McGowan (.305/.370/.524, 8 HR, 11 SB), App State’s top hitters last season, return to anchor the offense. The pitching staff has a few more holes to fill. Starters Brandon Boone and Will Sprinkle and bullpen ace Kaleb Bowman are all gone. Righthander Tyler Tuthill (6-7, 4.36) returns to the rotation after an impressive freshman season and senior closer Andrew Papp (1-1, 3.38, 6 SV) is back as well. Improving a defense that ranked ninth in the league in fielding (.963) will be important for the Mountaineers. Taking the next step as a program to become one of the top four teams in the competitive East Division won’t be easy, but Smith has App State moving in the right direction.

6. Georgia State (15-41, 6-24)

The Panthers had languished for the last few years, not posting a winning season since 2015, but it wasn’t until last season that they bottomed out with their fewest wins since 1994. Following the season, Georgia State parted ways with Greg Frady, who spent 13 seasons as coach and has the most wins in program history, and hired Brad Stromdahl to take over the program. Stromdahl spent five seasons as an assistant under Frady before he was tabbed in the fall of 2011 to start NAIA Georgia Gwinnett’s program from scratch. He quickly built a powerhouse and led the Grizzlies to the NAIA World Series three times. He’ll now try to revive the Panthers. They’ll have experience up the middle with senior catcher Dalton Davies (.261/.390/.328), senior second baseman Daino Deas (.266/.315/.344), junior shortstop Griffin Cheney (.300/.368/.369) and sophomore center fielder Josh Smith (.273/.350/.327) all returning. It won’t be a powerful lineup, but the Panthers have some speed and athleticism. On the mound, they face the difficult task of improving a 7.00 team ERA, the worst mark in the conference, while replacing ace Hunter Gaddis, who was drafted in the fifth round. Sophomores Joseph Brandon (1-5, 9.53), Seth Clark (2-2, 8.21) and Ryan Watson (6-5, 7.08) all got experience last spring and will be asked to step up this season. Stromdahl isn’t walking into a turnkey operation and some growing pains this season should be expected.

West Division

1. Texas-Arlington (32-26, 17-12)

The Mavericks last won the West Division in 2017 and enter this year’s wide-open race as favorites. They return a veteran-laden team with 18 players entering at least their fourth season of college baseball. UTA returns seven regulars in the lineup, including senior outfielder Connor Aube (.354/.402/.529, 16 SB) and redshirt senior shortstop Josh Minjarez (.307/.361/.482, 9 HR). Last season’s lineup had good depth to it and with so much experience returning, it should be one of the conference’s better offenses this spring. UTA is not as experienced on the mound and it must replace starters Ka’ikepono Anderson and Drew Gooch and closer Andrew Gross. Junior righthander David Moffat (4-4, 4.33) returns to the rotation and righthander Cade Winquest (5-1, 5.01) got some starting experience as a freshman. The Mavericks will have to find some new pitchers to step up, particularly in the bullpen where Gross ranked second in the nation with 17 saves. But coach Darin Thomas will have options and the benefit of a wealth of experience throughout the team.

2. Louisiana-Lafayette (28-31, 15-15)

Louisiana has been through a difficult offseason. Tony Robichaux, the winningest coach in program history, died in early July after suffering a heart attack. He had been the Ragin’ Cajuns coach for 25 years and led them to their first-ever College World Series appearance in 2000. He was a beloved figure around the program and moving on without him won’t be easy. That task falls to Matt Deggs, who spent three years as an assistant coach under Robichaux before a successful run as head coach at Sam Houston State. Deggs inherits a team that is coming off its first losing season since 2012 but has solid talent, starting with shortstop Hayden Cantrelle (.309/.426/.504, 9 HR, 28 SB). He impacts the game in many ways and has established himself as the conference’s top prospect. Senior center fielder Brennan Breaux (.295/.426/.381, 11 SB) gives the team another experienced player up the middle. They do have some significant holes to fill after losing four key regulars in the lineup. Louisiana hit the junior college ranks hard and returns three players who missed last season due to injuries. It may take the lineup some time to come together, but Deggs is a highly regarded offensive coach and will get the Cajuns’ bats going before long. They’ll have a new look on the mound, as well, after bringing in a larger crop of junior college transfers. Righthander Carter Robinson last year was the junior college pitcher of the year at Mesa (Ariz.) JC and will step right into the rotation. Righthanders Conor Angel, Dane Dixon and Jeff Wilson all have impact potential coming out of the junior college ranks. If Louisiana hits on its transfers, there’s tremendous upside for Deggs’ first season.

3. Texas State (36-20, 20-10)

The Bobcats last spring won the Sun Belt’s regular season title for the first time since joining the league and spent much of the season around the NCAA Tournament bubble. But they went 0-2 in the Sun Belt Tournament, scuttling their hopes for their first regional bid since 2011. Following the season, Ty Harrington retired after 20 seasons as head coach. Steven Trout, who had spent six seasons as an assistant coach in San Marcos, was promoted to replace him. He takes over a team with solid returning talent in the lineup. Redshirt senior outfielder Will Hollis (.320/.452/. 520), junior shortstop Dalton Shuffield (.330/.393/.427, 10 SB), senior second baseman Jaxon Williams (.318/.432/.425) and junior outfielder John Wuthrich (.311/402/.565, 8 HR) give the Bobcats a strong, veteran core in the lineup. On the mound, Texas State has some holes to fill after losing its entire rotation to the draft. Senior righthander Zachary Leigh (3-1, 4.41, 6 SV) will move from the back of the bullpen to the front of the rotation. Junior college transfer Trevis Sundgren is a solid option to move into the rotation and seniors Wes Engle, who missed 2019 due to injury, and Garrett Hermann (4-2, 5.64) will get a shot as well. Texas State is talented enough to overcome the losses and remain in contention in the division.

4. Arkansas-Little Rock (29-28, 18-11)

Little Rock is building under coach Chris Curry, who is entering his sixth season at the program’s helm. The Trojans last year finished second in the West Division and have qualified for the Sun Belt Tournament in each of the last four years, something that had happened only seven times overall in the program’s first 23 years in the conference before Curry’s arrival. They’ll have a new-look lineup this spring after losing five regulars off last year’s team. The good news is that redshirt junior catcher Kale Emshoff is back after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. He hit .273/.377/.415 in 2018 and now looks ready to take a significant step forward. He has big raw power and has Sun Belt player of the year upside if he puts it all together this spring. If he can do that and some of Little Rock’s junior college transfers provide immediate impact, the lineup doesn’t have to take a step back despite its losses. On the mound, ace Chandler Fidel is gone, but junior righthander Hayden Arnold (5-3, 4.17) and redshirt senior righthander Jose Torres (2-4, 5.37) have experience pitching in the rotation. Senior righthander Dillon Delgadillo (1-0, 3.77) will take over as closer and senior righthander Eli Sievert, who was limited by injury in 2019, could give the staff another high-end arm if he’s able to bounce back and play a bigger role.

5. Louisiana-Monroe (27-31, 12-17)

In coach Michael Federico’s second season, ULM last year produced its best season since 2012, the only time in the last decade it had a winning record or reached regionals. The Warhawks have made steady progress under Federico and have the makings of another solid team this year. ULM will have a new-look lineup after losing four regulars, including Chad Bell, whose 21 home runs last season led the conference, and leading hitter Trent Tingelstad. But seniors Andrew Beesley (.329/.410/.427, 14 SB) and Ryan Humeniuk (.253/.362/.431, 7 HR, 17 SB) return. With 17 players entering at least their fourth year of college baseball on the roster, the Warhawks will still have an older lineup, even if it does have several new faces. On the mound, seniors Ty Barnes (5-3, 5.69) and Kayleb Sanderson (3-4, 5.89) return with plenty of starting experience, and seniors Conner Deeds (2-2, 5.13) and Landon Longsworth (1-0, 5.55) will anchor the bullpen. ULM will need to improve its 6.45 team ERA, which ranked 11th in the Sun Belt, but it is moving in the right direction overall.

6. Arkansas State (26-29, 11-19)

The Red Wolves started the 2019 season red hot and were 19-9 overall and 7-2 in the Sun Belt at the end of March. That was the high-water mark for the season, however. Arkansas State went just 7-20 the rest of the way and finished in last place in the West Division. It’ll look to bounce back in 2020. Senior Sky-Lar Culver (.316/.398/.493), the team’s leading hitter, returns, as does redshirt senior center fielder Drew Tipton (.276/.393/.350, 27 SB). The lineup around them will look very different after A-State brought in a large junior college class. The pitching staff will have more familiar faces. Seniors Chandler Coates (4-5, 5.13), Zach Jackson (6-5, 4.46) and Zech Jarrard (2-4, 4.93) combined to appear in 55 games last year and all return. Seniors Jack Jumper (2-3, 1.87) and Kollin Stone (1-2, 3.30, 6 SV) return to anchor the bullpen.

Top 20 2020 Draft Prospects

1. Hayden Cantrelle, SS, Louisiana-Lafayette
2. Parker Chavers, OF, Coastal Carolina
3. Kale Emshoff, C, Arkansas-Little Rock
4. Zach McCambley, RHP, Coastal Carolina
5. JoJo Booker, RHP, South Alabama
6. Rigsby Mosley, OF, Troy
7. Conner Angel, RHP, Louisiana-Lafayette
8. Scott McKeon, SS, Coastal Carolina
9. Michael Sandle, OF, South Alabama
10. Hayden Harris, LHP, Georgia Southern
11. Levi Thomas, RHP, Troy
12. Carter Robinson, RHP, Louisiana-Lafayette
13. Daulton Shuffield, SS, Texas State
14. Drake Nightengale, RHP, South Alabama
15. Orlando Ortiz, RHP, Troy
16. Fox Leum, 1B, Coastal Carolina
17. Eli Sievert, RHP, Arkansas-Little Rock
18. Connor Aube, OF, Texas-Arlington
19. John Wutrich, OF, Texas State
20. David Moffat, RHP, Texas-Arlington

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