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2021 Atlantic 10 Conference Preview



The Atlantic 10 is always worth watching because it has a history, despite its status as a one-bid league, of periodically producing teams that end up making noise in the postseason. Think 2015 Virginia Commonwealth, which won the Dallas Regional, or 2017 Davidson, which made a Cinderella run to win the Chapel Hill Regional.

At least on paper, a couple of teams stand out as having that type of upside in the A-10. In particular, VCU, with a well-balanced club that has enjoyed a lot of success in recent years, and Fordham, which has an impressive collection of talent on the mound, wouldn’t be out of place competing nationally with some of the best in the country.

As is the case in so many other conferences, the schedule is a little bit different this time around. To cut down on travel, the league has been split into two divisions. The South Division consists of Davidson, Dayton, George Mason, George Washington, Richmond, Saint Louis and VCU. The North Division features Fordham, La Salle, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Saint Joseph’s and St. Bonaventure.

Each team will play 24 games against teams from their division, although that doesn’t keep A-10 teams from scheduling foes from the opposite division and utilizing them as nonconference games. George Mason, for example, has both La Salle and St. Bonaventure on its schedule before conference play officially gets underway. 

Also changing is the conference tournament. Not only are just the top two teams from each division going to make the cut, but the tournament will be hosted at the home stadium of the team with the best record in the league. And that’s where the divisional format can really play a role.

On paper, the South Division is much tougher. That could mean that if one team rips through the South Division with a gaudy record and also has some impressive nonconference wins, there’s an outside chance that it can get the A-10 closer to an at-large bid than it has been in a while. But more likely what it means is that the team that wins the North, mostly likely Fordham or Rhode Island, is going to have the inside track on hosting the conference tournament thanks to a softer schedule.

Here are five questions to answer heading into a most unique A-10 season.

Should VCU still be considered the favorite?

The Rams were the favorite in last season’s preview, and despite the loss of a stalwart in infielder Paul Witt, who signed as a nondrafted free agent, they’re the favorite once again. Not only do they boast a well-rounded club that can beat teams in many different ways, but it also seems like a safe bet based on the program’s recent track record. They’ve been a contender more often than not since joining the A-10 and have won two of the last three regular-season titles.

The way VCU has used its pitchers in the last couple of years is both fascinating and effective. In addition to using the traditional three-man rotation on weekends, the Rams will often bring back one of their top two starters to start midweek games. It’s also more or less a given that starters will throw no more than five innings in any start, and it’s not uncommon for VCU relievers to pile up innings totals that one would normally associate with starting pitchers.

The top two arms on the staff, who accounted for 12 starts in the team’s 17 total games, are back in sixth-year senior righthander Michael Dailey (0-0, 2.28) and fifth-year junior righthander Justin Sorokowski (0-1, 1.29). The latter started 20 games in this unique arrangement back in 2019 and put up a 3.47 ERA. The former has battled injury throughout his VCU career, but has a 3.45 ERA in 190.1 innings of work. Second-year freshman righthander Mason Delane (1-2, 3.14) is set to be the third starter on the weekends after serving in that role a season ago.

Using this piggy-backing system, it’s also crucial that VCU has workhorses in the bullpen, which it does in fourth-year junior righthander Edwin Serrano (2.45, 18.1 IP), who could also earn starting assignments, and third-year sophomore righthander Danny Watson (3.77, 14.1 IP).

The loss of Witt, who was a .326 hitter in 187 games, is a big one, but the return of fifth-year senior DH Steven Carpenter (.393/.500/.554) and fifth-year senior left fielder Brandon Henson (.321/.446/.736), both of whom are names to watch in the race for A-10 player of the year, should help offset the loss of Witt’s production.

What will also help the VCU lineup remain productive is a return to form for fourth-year junior first baseman Liam Hibbits (.161/.262/.196). He struggled out of the gate last season, but in 2019, he hit .366/.450/.546 with 17 doubles, six home runs and 60 RBIs, which helped him earn first team all-conference honors.

There are individual units around the A-10 that are better than what the Rams bring to the table, but there is perhaps no team as well-rounded, and there certainly aren’t any that have been as successful in recent years.

Will the A-10 pitcher of the year come from the Fordham roster?

If you were forced to select one team in the league for the pitcher of the year to come from, Fordham would be among the safer bets right now because it’s a team with multiple realistic candidates, even after it lost one such pitcher, John Stankiewicz, as a nondrafted free agent signing.

The most obvious candidate is fourth-year junior lefthander Matt Mikulski (2-1, 1.29), who got off to an excellent start in 2020 after pitching well in the Cape Cod League the previous summer and putting up a 4.06 ERA in 82 innings for the Rams during the 2019 season. A top-200 prospect for the 2021 Draft, Mikulski uses a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball in the low 90s and a curveball that flashes plus.

There is also third-year sophomore righthander Cory Wall (5.29, 17 IP), who has pitched in a swing role for Fordham thus far. Last season, he struck out 20 in 17 innings of work. Wall has the stuff to be a dominant arm, and one of the best in the A-10, provided he earns his way into the rotation.

The same can be said for third-year sophomore Garrett Crowley (6.35, 11.1 IP). The lefthander impressed as a member of a stacked Tulsa Drillers team in the Texas Collegiate League last year, striking out 31 batters in 21.2 innings of work, using a fastball that reaches the mid 90s. He has strictly been a reliever for the Rams thus far, but he worked as a starter for Tulsa and took to it well, suggesting he could be ready to take on a more prominent role this season.

A wild-card entry in this discussion is fifth-year senior righthander Alvin Melendez (0.90, 10 IP), who is a two-way contributor. He’s been a very effective reliever throughout most of his college career, but in 2019, he did start some games for the Rams. If he can put up absurd numbers in relief that make people stand up and take notice, or if he ends up thriving in a hybrid role, you can’t count him out as a potential honoree, given his track record.

Whether one of these Fordham pitchers wins the award or not, having this type of pitching talent available certainly makes the Rams an A-10 title contender and the type of team that you absolutely do not want to see in your regional if it can get there.

How wide open is the player of the year race?

The short answer is that it’s extremely wide open, especially after a number of players who would have been candidates are no longer in the conference for one reason or another.

Brett Centracchio, formerly a slugging first baseman at Davidson, transferred to North Carolina. Another candidate from Davidson, second baseman Matt Frey, transferred to Michigan. Jake MacKenzie, Fordham’s spark plug of a player who stole 87 bases in three seasons, signed as a nondrafted free agent. The same is true of VCU’s Witt and Rhode Island first baseman Jackson Coutts, who hit .451 in 2020.

It’s as good a bet as any, given all of that, that the eventual conference player of the year will be someone who comes out of nowhere to win it, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t intriguing candidates to point to.

The aforementioned Melendez, with his two-way ability, is someone to watch. In addition to being a key reliever for the Rams last season, he hit .392 as a regular in the lineup.  So are Carpenter, Henson and Hibbits from VCU. Saint Louis has a pair of players who should be in the mix in fourth-year junior third baseman Kyle Fitzgerald (.477/.500/.750) and fifth-year senior right fielder Jake Garella (.304/.368/.449). The former really broke out in his first season on campus last year and the latter is a career .330 hitter with 55 doubles across four seasons.

It would be a particularly good story if the award ended up going to La Salle’s third-year sophomore catcher Tatem Levins (.321/.409/.491) in the program’s final season, and if he hits like he did in 2020 for all of 2021, he’ll be in the hunt.

Speaking of players who will look to keep up momentum from last season, St. Bonaventure also has two players to watch in fourth-year junior outfielders Brendyn Stillman (.519/.594/1.259) and Tyler Kelder (.387/.406/1.097). Last season, the pair combined for 13 home runs in just seven games.

And don’t forget the player who was picked as player of the year in last season’s preview, Dayton third baseman Riley Tirotta (.228/.323/.333). The fourth-year junior got off to a slow start in 2020, but he’s a toolsy player who can do it all. The season prior, he led the team in doubles with 14, was tied for second in homers with five and was tied for first in stolen bases with 18.

While no clear favorite exists right now, that should only make watching the competition play out all the more fun.

Does Davidson take a step back with the losses in its lineup?

Davidson lost two key pieces from its lineup via transfer, with Centracchio now at North Carolina and Frey at Michigan. It also lost catcher Zach Nussbaum (.270/.413/.324), who graduated and moved on from the program.

That’s a pretty good amount of turnover in a year when most teams aren’t dealing with a ton of turnover, but thanks to a talented pitching staff, it’s probably foolhardy to expect much of a step back from the Wildcats this season.

The weekend rotation spots are filled with big arms, all of whom were in the same role last season. Third-year sophomore righthander Gabe Levy (3-1, 0.91) will throw on Fridays. He uses a four-pitch mix headlined by a high-spin fastball that sits 90-94 mph and touches 95 and a upper-80s slider.

The Saturday spot will go to third-year sophomore righthander Blake Hely (3-0, 1.44), who took a big jump from 2019, when he had a 10.59 ERA in 17 innings, to last season, when he looked like a part of perhaps the best one-two rotation punch (along with Levy) in the A-10. He pitched with a sinking fastball from 91-93 mph last fall, but also touched 95.

The third spot will go to third-year sophomore righthander Alex Fenton (3-0, 3.51), who, like Hely, went from a bullpen piece who had his share of struggles in 2019 to a solid member of the rotation in 2020. His best pitch is his slider, which registered up to 3,000 rpm last summer in the Coastal Plain League, but he also has a fastball that sits 89-92 mph and can touch 94.

It would not be a surprise to see any of those three make a play for pitcher of the year in the conference alongside the group from Fordham. The lineup has key returners in place, most notably fifth-year senior third baseman Alex Fedje-Johnson (.298/.492/.319) and fourth-year junior DH Ruben Fontes (.250/.412/.481), but this looks like a team that will be its best self if the pitching staff is leading the way. And in that scenario, it can compete at the top of the league with VCU and Fordham.

Horton, Cade 2 (Courtesy Of Oklahoma)

2022 MLB Draft: Oklahoma RHP Cade Horton Uses College World Series To Rocket Up Draft Boards

In a draft class that has been decimated on the college side (and has started losing pitchers on the prep side as well), Horton is potentially filling a demographic vacuum ahead of the July draft.

What can we expect in La Salle’s final season?

In late September, La Salle announced baseball was among seven sports that would be eliminated at the end of the academic year, and while efforts are underway to try to save the program and make it more sustainable in the future, the 2021 season is slated to be the Explorers’ last.

The storybook version of this tale would end with La Salle, frustrated with the decision to do away with baseball, going on a miracle run deep into the postseason. But La Salle is a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 1985 and has more often than not struggled to get over .500 in league play since joining the A-10 prior to the 1996 season.

So while you can probably write off the wilder scenarios on the spectrum of outcomes, there is still some intriguing talent on this roster that could help the Explorers push to make one final conference tournament.

It starts with Levins, the 2019 A-10 Rookie of the Year and one of the best prospects in the league. His combination of plate discipline and power is one that could carry the lineup for long periods of time. Fourth-year junior center fielder Jack Cucinotta (.240/.367/.460), who can also play third base, brings some power and speed to the table. In 2019, he slugged seven home runs and went a perfect 11-for-11 in stolen bases. Fifth-year senior infielder Alfonse Sadallah (.310/.431/.357) and fifth-year senior first baseman/outfielder Ryan Guckin (.306/.327/.367) are also coming off of productive 2020 seasons.

How well the pitching staff holds up might be more of the question, although La Salle will start with a nice piece in fourth-year junior lefthander Colin Scanlon (0-2, 3.22), who provides a good story of a pitcher who has gotten progressively better in his time on campus, eventually arriving to the Friday starter role. Second-year freshman lefthander Jordan Morales (2.16, 8.1 IP) and third-year sophomore righthander Manny Corporan (1-2, 4.63) are two more proven returning arms.

Expectations are understandably modest for La Salle going into the season, but teams have a way of playing over their heads when they’re playing angry and feel like they don’t have anything to lose, and that alone makes it a team to watch.

Top 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Matt Mikulski, LHP, Fordham
  2. Cory Wall, RHP, Fordham
  3. Garrett Crowley, LHP, Fordham
  4. Riley Tirotta, 3B, Dayton
  5. Gabe Levy, RHP, Davidson

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