Image credit: Stetson slugger Brandon Hylton (Photo courtesy of Stetson)
The Atlantic Sun has earned a reputation as a pitching-first league, and having it’s top four pitching prospects going into last season—Jacksonville’s Trent Palmer and Chris Mauloni, Liberty’s Noah Skirrow and Stetson’s Robbie Peto—end up in pro baseball over the summer will only help further that reputation.
Coming into this season, the conference is once again loaded with excellent pitching. Some, like Stetson hurlers Daniel Paret and Chase Costello, are prospects on the level of that quartet from last season. Others, like Florida Gulf Coast’s Mason Studstill and Liberty’s Mason Meyer, are simply incredibly productive college pitchers capable of leading a pitching staff. There are also those like Kennesaw State’s Jared Rine, who are looking to keep up momentum from what appeared to be a breakout 2020 season.
Once again, the top of the conference should be hotly contested. Among the top contenders from last season, Jacksonville lost a lot of talent both to pro baseball and to transfer, which may mean that it is due for a step back in 2021, but otherwise, all of the usual suspects like Stetson, Florida Gulf Coast and Liberty should be in the mix.
Like a number of other conferences, the Atlantic Sun will play under a slightly altered schedule format in 2021. The league will be split into two divisions geographically. The North Division features Bellarmine, which will be in its first season in Division I, Liberty, Lipscomb, North Alabama and Kennesaw State. The South Division includes Florida Gulf Coast, Stetson, Jacksonville and North Florida. Each team will play 24 conference games, with the top two teams from each division moving on to the conference tournament.
The 2021 season will also be the last year with just this particular set of teams, as the Atlantic Sun will expand prior to next season. Central Arkansas will join from the Southland Conference, with Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State on the way from the Ohio Valley Conference.
Player of the Year: Terence Norman, OF, Kennesaw State
A first-team all-conference honoree in 2018 and 2019, all Norman has done since arriving at Kennesaw State is hit. Including the abbreviated 2020 season, he’s never hit worse than .315 in any of his four seasons on campus, and his best work came in 2019, his most recent full season. That year, he hit .350/.431/.481 with 13 doubles, five home runs and 40 RBIs. The fifth-year senior will be a spark plug in a deep KSU lineup that will provide him plenty of protection.
Pitcher of the Year: Mason Studstill, RHP, Florida Gulf Coast
After spending one year at Miami and another at the junior college level, Studstill has found a home as the Friday starter at Florida Gulf Coast, a role he has held each of the last two years. In that time, the righthander has gone 8-2, 2.30 with a .167 opponent batting average and 131 strikeouts in 109.2 innings of work. He’s lauded for his competitive nature, but his stuff is notable as well, including a fastball that sits 92-94 mph and touches 95. Even in a pitching-first league like the Atlantic Sun, Studstill stands above the rest.
Newcomer of the Year: Mason Miller, LHP, Florida Gulf Coast
As the No. 108 prospect in the BA 500 going into last June’s draft, Mason Miller almost certainly wouldn’t have ended up at Florida Gulf Coast if the draft was longer than five rounds. But now he is at FGCU, where a big arm like his will have a chance to shine right away. An athletic lefthander with a mature body, Miller came out of high school running his fastball up to 93 mph with some movement thanks to a three-quarters delivery and a high-RPM curveball in the high 70s to play off of it. Perhaps the coaching staff moves him slowly as he gets adjusted to the college game, but expect Miller to have a major role on the staff by the time the business end of the season rolls around.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)
1. Stetson (11-4)
The Hatters have operated as a pitching and defense outfit in recent years with great success to show for it, and they have the pieces to win that way again this season, even with the departure of ace Robbie Peto. Third-year sophomore lefthander Daniel Paret (0.00, 7 IP) got just one start in the books last season, and he’ll go into this season on the shelf, but once he’s healthy, he’s one of the best arms in the conference, as evidenced by his winning the Atlantic Sun freshman of the year award in 2019. Second-year freshman righthander Nick Durgin (2-0, 1.63) was perhaps on his way to winning that same award in 2020 and will lead the rotation in Paret’s stead. Third-year sophomore righthander Chase Costello, a transfer from Louisiana State, looks to round out the rotation, with steady fourth-year junior lefthander Chris Gonzalez (1-2, 4.61) also in the mix. Fourth-year junior righthander Garner Spoljaric (0.00, 9.2 IP) will close games, supported by third-year sophomore righthander Danny Garcia (3.15, 20 IP), who has a 1.71 career ERA in 79 innings.
The top hitters from an improved Stetson lineup are back, including third-year freshman first baseman Brandon Hylton (.357/.451/.476) and fourth-year junior Eric Foggo (.316/.394/.579), a former corner infielder who looks slated for right field this season. Both broke out in 2020 and will look to keep things rolling this season. The Hatters should also get instant production from a pair of grad transfers in shortstop Jackson Olson (.217/.345/.217) from Hartford and Maine’s Hernen Sardinas (.288/.327/.442), who will DH. Olson has a .288 career average, so he’s a better hitter than his 2020 numbers suggest, and with him and fifth-year senior Jorge Arenas together, the Hatters will have a pair of shortstop-quality defenders up the middle.
2. Florida Gulf Coast (9-7)
The ceiling for the Florida Gulf Coast pitching staff is as high as any in the conference. It’s led by fifth-year senior righthander Mason Studstill (3-0, 1.17), one of the most accomplished pitchers in the Atlantic Sun. Behind him in the rotation, FGCU will deploy second-year freshman Ronaldo Gallo (1-1, 4.15), a 6-foot-6 righthander whose fastball has been up to 94 mph, and second-year freshman righthander Dominic Coombe (11.88, 8.1), a transfer from St. John’s who can run his heater up to 95 mph. Then there’s freshman lefthander Mason Miller, the No. 108 prospect in the country going into the 2020 draft. He may be brought along slowly, but there’s a chance for him to gain velocity on his low-90s fastball as he grows and his breaking ball has elite spin and plus potential overall. Fifth-year senior righthander Hunter McGarry (2.53, 21.1 IP) and fourth-year junior lefthander Gus Carter (5.87, 15.1 IP) bring experience to their roles in the bullpen.
The road for the Eagles to hit better than the .244/.337/.345 team slash line from last season begins with the likes of fifth-year senior second baseman Cameron Krzeminski (.324/.390/.514), fourth-year sophomore left fielder Brian Ellis (.321/.493/.429) and second-year freshman DH Kyle Machado (.320/.400/.460) repeating what they showed in 2020, and it probably also involves third-year sophomore right fielder Joe Kinker (.143/.254/.286) and fifth-year senior shortstop Richie Garcia (.258/.338/.371) bouncing back from seasons that were subpar at the plate by their standards. Look for junior college transfer Alejandro Rodriguez to bring a spark to the lineup after putting up good numbers the last two years at Eastern Florida JC.
3. Liberty (10-7)
The Flames return everyone except third baseman and top hitter Ben Highfill in the lineup and every projected starter is a junior or senior. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they will have to show improvement after hitting .239 as a team last season in order to get back into postseason contention. Fourth-year junior catcher Brady Gulakowski (.267/.313/.467) brings plus power to the plate and good catch and throw skills to his position. He could be the Flames’ best power bat, but he will be somewhat limited early in the season as he recovers from an offseason injury. If it’s not him, it could be third-year sophomore first baseman Logan Mathieu, who missed all of last season but had seven homers and 52 RBIs in 2019. Speaking of bounce backs, fourth-year junior second baseman Will Wagner is a good candidate. He came into last season as a potential Atlantic Sun player of the year but then hit .083/.154/.083 in just four games, as he was limited by injury. Fifth-year senior shortstop Cam Locklear (.316/.466/.439), a starter since stepping on campus, is a slick defender who has also developed into a threat at the plate. Right fielder Jake Wilson (.288/.339/.365), a graduate transfer from Bowling Green State, is similar to Locklear in that he’ll provide value in both facets.
Liberty is building a pitching staff in 2021 without last season’s ace Noah Skirrow, who signed as a free agent in the offseason, and fellow weekend starter Joe Adametz, who will miss the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. And yet, there is potential with this unit. Fourth-year junior lefthander Mason Meyer (1-3, 3.38) has pitched a ton of big innings in the program and will slide up to assume the Friday starter role. Freshman righthander and Saturday starter Trey Gibson is obviously unproven, but his ceiling is extremely high. Maine grad transfer lefthander Trevor DeLaite (0.00, 4 IP) is a dependable veteran arm to round out the rotation.
4. Lipscomb (11-5)
Lipscomb has the look of a solid, well-rounded team capable of keeping up the momentum from 2020, when it went 11-5 with a series win over Ohio State and gave Alabama its lone loss. The Bisons led the Atlantic Sun in homers last season and should hit for plenty of power again this season, led by fourth-year junior first baseman Malik Williams (.297/.387/.500, 4 HR). Fifth-year senior second baseman Haddon Adams (.328/.416/.547) had three homers a year ago, but is more of a spark plug type by nature than a masher, as evidenced by his nine steals in 2020. Fourth-year junior center fielder Maddux Houghton (.295/.387/.377) is a dynamic offensive threat who also went six-for-six in stolen bases last year. On the mound, fourth-year junior Max Habegger (2-0, 1.80), a lanky 6-foot-9 lefthander, gives Lipscomb a true Friday guy and the healthy return of third-year sophomore lefthander Noah Thompson, who went 4-5, 4.39 as a weekend starter in 2019 before missing 2020 due to injury, will help give the rotation some depth. Third-year sophomore righthander Tyler Guilfoil (0.00, 13 IP) was dominant last season and will return to a key bullpen role this season.
5. Kennesaw State (10-8)
After leading the Atlantic Sun in batting average in 2020, the Owls once again have the upside to have the best offense in the conference. Fifth-year senior right fielder Terence Norman (.315/.397/.315), a two-time first-team all-conference performer, goes into the season as a favorite to win conference player of the year honors. Around Norman, second-year freshman catcher Nick Hassan (.431/.463/.549), third-year sophomore first baseman Nick Colina (.324/.447/.378), fifth-year senior center fielder Alex Carballo (.323/.468/.597) and fifth-year senior left fielder Garrett Hodges (.319/.380/.458) will look to repeat standout 2020 performances. After a disappointing 2020, fourth-year junior shortstop Tyler Simon (.210/.329/.306) will look to return to his 2018 and 2019 form, when he hit a combined .306/.378/.424. Third-year sophomore DH Tyler Tolve (.262/.366/.311) has the defensive versatility to catch and play the outfield and is KSU’s best position player prospect. Pitching is more of a question mark after the Owls struggled to get quality starts last season, but there is hope that a pair of transfers in the rotation will adequately support third-year sophomore righthander Jared Rine (1-1, 3.37), who was the team’s most effective starter in 2020. One is lefthander Jake Rice, a junior college transfer whose fastball was clocked as high as 96 mph in the fall. The other is North Carolina transfer righthander Andrew Grogan, who had a 4.84 ERA in 44.2 innings for the Tar Heels in 2019. How well that pair makes the transition will have a lot to do with how well KSU pitches in 2021.
6. Jacksonville (9-9)
Jacksonville’s personnel losses after last season were as significant as any in the conference. The Dolphins lost their top two hitters in Scott Dubrule and Anthony George, a lineup regular in catcher Jacob Southern, their top starter in Trent Palmer, another veteran starter in A.J. Jones and their closer in Chris Mauloni. Most of those players are now either in pro baseball or transferred up to a bigger program, which shows just how talented JU was last season, but it means that it will have quite a bit of rebuilding to do. The pitching staff should still be solid with a veteran weekend rotation made up of sixth-year junior righthander Mike Cassala (1-2, 3.18), fourth-year junior righthander Austin Temple (2-1, 0.71) and fifth-year senior righthander Tyler Santana (0-3, 5.12). Meanwhile, Jacksonville will be looking for new stars to emerge in a lineup that lost the only two players who hit better than .270 last season, plus three of the four players who hit at least one home run. Fifth-year junior first baseman Christian Coipel (.259/.386/.552) hit five of the team’s nine total home runs last season and should again be a primary run producer. Fifth-year senior center fielder Ruben Someillan (.270/.378/.349) will be a catalyst at the top of the order. Sixth-year senior shortstop Dakota Julylia (.150/.235/.150) will look to return to his 2019 form, when he hit .313 with more walks (20) than strikeouts (14), but even if he doesn’t, he’s the type of steady defender who can help JU win games with his defense.
7. North Florida (4-12)
If North Florida is an improved team over what was seen in a small sample in 2020, it stands to reason that it’s offense did a good amount of heavy lifting, because there is upside on that unit. Fourth-year junior shortstop Abraham Sequera (.385/.444/.436), who doubles as a solid defensive player at the position with good range and arm strength, will look to pick up where he left off last season. Fourth-year junior first baseman Trey Spratling-Williams (.176/.283/.314) has power to all fields and could develop into a bopper in the middle of the order. There is also hope that graduate transfer catcher Alex Kachler will provide a spark. He was a career .364/.456/.581 hitter at Division III Methodist (N.C.) before arriving at UNF. The Ospreys’ rotation is short on track record and will have to prove itself as the season goes on. Fifth-year senior righthander Brandon Reitz (1-3, 10.35) is projected to lead the rotation. He struggled early in 2020, but was solid in 2019, putting up a 4.58 ERA in 70.2 innings. He’ll be followed by fifth-year junior righthander Max McKinley, who has lost most of the last two seasons to Tommy John surgery, and second-year freshman lefthander Tony Roca (1-0, 3.31), who was very good in his limited first look last season. If the rest of the pitching staff can get to the late innings with a lead, UNF will be in good shape with the return of fifth-year senior lefthander Eddie Miller (5.74, 15.2 IP), who had a 1.31 ERA and eight saves in 2019.
8. Bellarmine (first year in Division I)
There is always a bit of mystery about how a team will compete in its first season as a member of Division I, and this Bellarmine team is no exception. At a minimum, it has one of the league’s most exciting players and best prospects in fourth-year junior outfielder Matt Higgins (.378/.464/.467), who enjoyed a breakout season in 2019 when he hit .419/.498/.702 with 18 doubles, 13 home runs and 63 RBIs. Sixth-year senior third baseman Josh Finerty (.365/.468/.635) will provide Higgins with some support. Bellarmine ace’s from last season, Brandon Pfaadt, was drafted in the fifth round, so there is even more mystery about what can be expected from the Knights’ pitching staff. Fifth-year senior righthander Deylen Miley (1-0, 4.05) and fifth-year senior lefthander Shane Barringer (2-1, 4.12), however, are coming off of solid seasons behind Pfaadt in the rotation. Fifth-year senior righthander Jacob Nagel (0.00, 8 IP) has held a number of roles in his career at Bellarmine and has a 4.33 ERA in 151.2 innings.
9. North Alabama (3-13)
In 2020, it appeared that North Alabama’s pitching staff took a step forward, putting up a 4.91 ERA over four weeks of play after it had a 6.03 mark in 2019. Fifth-year senior lefthander Chase Best (1-3, 3.86) is back after serving as UNA’s most effective starting pitcher last season. Also back is fifth-year senior righthander Hunter Davidson (1-2, 4.63) who transitioned well into the rotation last season and ended up leading the team in strikeouts. On the flip side, though, the offense really struggled in 2020, hitting .192/.306/.249. No player hit better than .258 and just four regulars hit over .200. Fourth-year junior third baseman Reid Homan (.258/.314/.290) should once again be a catalyst, as he has been each of the last two seasons. Last season, he was 11-for-11 in stolen bases, which placed him in a tie for 10th in the country in steals. As the Lions continue to transition into full Division I membership, it’s all about looking for progress in their ability to compete more consistently in the Atlantic Sun.
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