2021 Conference USA Preview

Image credit: Walker Powell (Courtesy of Southern Miss)

Conference USA will go into the 2021 season in the same place it was in 2020, which is to say that it’s a league in search of things. 

It’s in search of the next team from the league to truly compete for a national title, in search of a third team, behind Southern Mississippi and Florida Atlantic, to become a postseason stalwart, and in search of a team or group of teams that have been mired near the bottom of the standings to begin to break out and make a move up the standings. 

It would be greedy of the conference to expect it to begin to find all of those things this season, but it’s probably reasonable to expect progress toward those goals this season. There may not be a national title contender in the league, but there are a couple of serious postseason contenders that could challenge USM and FAU and there are signs of certain programs traditionally found at the bottom of the league beginning to wake up.  

In a season when most conferences are either keeping a status quo conference schedule or are adding games, Conference USA has done the latter, but not to the same degree as many others. It is increasing the total of conference games to 32, but it is arriving there by playing eight four-game weekends. 

The conference has also switched to a divisional format as a way to further minimize travel for teams throughout the season. 

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Parker Bates, OF, Louisiana Tech

In reality, any number of Louisiana Tech players could be the favorite for this award, including outfielder Steele Netterville and second baseman Taylor Young, but Bates, a fifth-year senior, gets the nod in large part thanks to his monster season in 2020. Last year, he hit .422/.531/.891 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs, putting him among the national leaders in a number of categories. The La Tech offense will be a team effort with so much talent returning, but that depth is also precisely what could help Bates put up another big year, as he won’t have to carry the load alone. 

Pitcher of the Year: Walker Powell, RHP, Southern Mississippi

Powell’s teammate, third-year sophomore righthander Gabe Shepard, has better stuff than Powell and is a deserving honoree in his own right, but Powell is the choice because of his impressively long track record of success as a workhorse. A key contributor since his freshman season, the righthander has a 3.02 ERA in 250.1 innings of work, and he was particularly excellent in 2020, putting up a 1.24 ERA and a 22-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 innings. In a starting rotation filled with big arms, it’s Powell who will serve as USM’s No. 1.  

Newcomer of the Year: Slade Wilks, OF, Southern Mississippi

The No. 148-ranked player on the BA 500 going into the draft, Wilks is on the USM campus in 2021 thanks in large part to the shortened draft. He’s projected to be the Golden Eagles’ starting right fielder, and his plus power will make him a threat from day one. Defensively, he’s a good runner and has enough arm to handle the position, which will also provide the team value in that regard. Simply put, USM looks to have a cornerstone player in Wilks for the next couple of seasons. 

Projected Order of Finish (2020 record)

West Division

1. Southern Mississippi (12-4)

The Golden Eagles have been the class of Conference USA in recent years, and while typically they have had at least one team, usually Florida Atlantic, hot on their heels in the standings, this is a team that could end up putting some daylight between itself and the rest of the league thanks to the talent it has accumulated. The pitching staff is particularly exciting, with a rotation featuring fifth-year senior righthander Hunter Stanley (1.42, 12.2 IP), a converted closer who can reach 95 mph with his fastball, fifth-year senior righthander Walker Powell (3-0, 1.24), a steady veteran who has a 3.02 ERA in 250.1 career innings, third-year sophomore righthander Gabe Shepard (0-1, 3.97), who can reach 97 mph with his heater, and second-year freshman righthander Ben Ethridge (3-0, 2.29), who was outstanding as a first-year pitcher last season with the help of a fastball that sits 90-92 mph. Fourth-year sophomore lefthander Ryan Och (5.87, 7.2 IP), who battled through injuries last season, will anchor the bullpen.  

The lineup will have to move on without veteran Matthew Guidry, a steady defender and a hitter with some pop in his bat and excellent plate discipline, but it should be just fine. Better than fine, actually. Among those returning are third-year sophomore DH Charlie Fischer (.322/.400/.542), who packs solid power, second-year freshman shortstop Dustin Dickerson (.291/.375/.400), a slick defensive player who really limits his strikeouts at the plate, and fifth-year junior left fielder Gabe Montenegro (.290/.387/.339). Add to that mix freshman right fielder Slade Wilks, the most talented first-year player in the conference and a power threat from the moment he stepped up on campus, and you have the makings of a deep, versatile lineup. Being the favorite in C-USA is the baseline here, but if things really break right, this is a group that could challenge to get back in the regional hosting mix. 

2. Louisiana Tech (11-6)

As good as the Bulldogs have been under Lane Burroughs, they are still looking for their first postseason appearance in his tenure. With as much roster balance as any team in the conference and all of the key pieces from last year’s team back, La Tech’s breakthrough could come in 2021. The lineup is probably the first thing that catches your eye about this team, as it returns a core of players who put up massive numbers last season. That group includes fifth-year senior center fielder Parker Bates (.422/.531/.891), fourth-year junior right fielder Netterville (.407/.500/.797), fourth-year junior shortstop Alex Ray (.380/.396/.500), sixth-year senior third baseman Hunter Wells (.324/.417/.465), second-year freshman catcher Jorge Corona (.321/.377/.491) and fourth-year junior second baseman Taylor Young (.309/.420/.588). That’s a lineup that won’t hurt for power production, speed, athleticism or defensive ability.  

But don’t sleep on Louisiana Tech’s pitchers just because the lineup is outstanding, as this is also a team that led the conference in ERA by a wide margin last season, albeit in a season that ended before we could make a lot of side-by-side comparisons between clubs. All three members of the weekend rotation are back in fourth-year sophomore lefthander Jonathan Fincher (2-2, 2.66), fifth-year senior righthander Tyler Follis (0-0, 3.79) and fourth-year junior righthander Jarret Whorff (3-0, 3.47). La Tech will have to find a fourth starter somewhere along the way, but that fourth guy doesn’t have to do anything special in order for this to be one of the steadier rotations in the league. In the bullpen, fifth-year senior lefthander Kyle Griffen (3.10, 20.1 IP), as a pitcher with 150 career innings under his belt, provides a nice security blanket on the back end. There’s little doubt that the Bulldogs have the talent to be a postseason team in 2021. 

3. Rice (2-14)

Rice is currently involved in a rebuilding project to get the program headed back in the right direction, but at the same time, it has a relatively veteran team this season that could bring improvement to a team that really struggled against a tough schedule last season. Much of that experience is concentrated in the lineup with the return of fifth-year senior third baseman Braden Comeaux (.349/.404/.535), fifth-year senior left fielder Cade Edwards (.262/.351/.354), fifth-year senior first baseman Bradley Gneiting (.262/.308/.328) and fourth-year junior catcher Justin Collins (.217/.362/.304), a toolsy catcher who will look to bounce back from a tough 2020 season. The veteran nature of the lineup only increases with the addition of second baseman Will Karp (.489/.571/.933), a graduate transfer from Division III Haverford (Pa.) who was a pleasant surprise for the coaching staff in the fall, and Louisiana State transfer shortstop Hal Hughes (.154/.200/.154), a top-notch defender who will look to make strides at the plate. Mississippi transfer center fielder Connor Walsh, a second-year freshman, while not a veteran, will bring additional ability to a lineup that has real upside. There is also much optimism about freshman right fielder Guy Garibay and his ability to be a difference-maker right away. The key to Rice showing improvement this season lies on the mound, where there are more questions to be asked. The Owls will go into the season with a rotation that includes fifth-year senior righthander Roel Garcia (0.00, 2 IP), whose fastball sits 90-94 mph and who has been effective for the Owls at times when he has been healthy, third-year sophomore righthander Blake Brogdon (0-3, 4.19), Pennsylvania graduate transfer Mitchell Holcomb (1-1, 3.46) and true freshman Dillon Janac, a 6-foot-5 righthander who threw his fastball at 89-92 mph during the fall. Fourth-year junior righthander Alex DeLeon (8.69, 19.2 IP), the team’s former Friday starter, and third-year sophomore lefthander Brandon Deskins (3.38, 13.1 IP) will be among those tasked with closing out games.

4. Texas-San Antonio (10-7)

The Roadrunners have some holes to plug after they were adversely affected by transfers this offseason. One of their top hitters, Bryan Sturges, left for Texas A&M, while top reliever Palmer Wenzel made the move to Texas. In the lineup, the likes of fourth-year junior outfielder Dylan Rock (.365/.449/.508), third-year sophomore Leyton Barry (.353/.414/.627), fifth-year senior Griffin Paxton (.327/.400/.385) and fourth-year junior Joshua Lamb (.302/.333/.358) will look to do heavy lifting and mitigate the departure of Sturges. On the mound, fifth-year senior righthander Shane Daughety (3-1, 3.92), fifth-year senior righthander Hunter Mason (4.32, 16.2 IP) and fourth-year junior righthander Pepper Jones (2.19, 12.1 IP), among others, will lead the way. Heading into just his second season, coach Patrick Hallmark has brought in a lot of talent from a lot of different places and levels, and now it’s just a matter of fitting the puzzle pieces together. 

5. Alabama-Birmingham (7-9)

Interim coach Perry Roth took over in May for Brian Shoop, who retired after 14 seasons at the helm. UAB’s lineups of late have been the type that like to make things happen on the bases, and with fourth-year sophomore outfielder Jess Davis (.290/.342/.435) and second-year freshman infielder Chandler Simpson (.256/.353/.279) back in the fold, that should be the case again. Simpson stole eight bases last season to lead the team, while Davis, who had six in 2020, swiped 48 in 2019. The top four hitters from last season, fourth-year junior outfielder Caleb Floyd (.333/.409/.513), fourth-year sophomore first baseman Thomas Johns (.325/.438/.550), fifth-year senior catcher J. Paul Fullerton (.317/.414/.517) and fifth-year senior outfielder Colton Schultz (.290/.362/.500) are also back. On the mound, replacing top reliever Mac McCarty will be a challenge, but the Blazers do return their three best starters from last season in fifth-year senior lefthander Austin Bohannon (0-2, 2.66), fifth-year junior righthander Tanner Rusk (0-0, 4.02) and third-year sophomore righthander Tyler O’Clair (1-1, 5.21). 

6. Middle Tennessee State (7-10)

If you’re looking for the biggest reasons for optimism for MTSU in 2021, you should look first on the mound, where it returns the three best starters from last season in fourth-year junior righthander Aaron Brown (1-3, 3.63), fourth-year junior lefthander Peyton Wigginton (1-1, 3.58) and fourth-year junior righthander Zach Keenan (2-1, 3.06). In the lineup, the Blue Raiders also bring back top-end performers in fifth-year junior shortstop Fausto Lopez (.328/.373/.410), fourth-year junior center fielder Nathan Sanders (.323/.371/.477) and fourth-year junior first baseman D.J. Wright (.298/.406/.439). If other players in the lineup step up into the starring roles in 2021 and help support what should be a solid pitching staff, MTSU could be feisty. 

East Division

1. Florida Atlantic (10-6)

It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again. The level of consistency FAU has achieved under coach John McCormack, and Kevin Cooney before him, is impressive, and as the 2021 season draws closer, the Owls don’t show any real sign of slowing down. As has often been the case, this team will be paced by an offense that should have little trouble scoring runs. Back in the fold are third-year sophomore left fielder Mitchell Hartigan (.308/.433/.500), fourth-year junior center field Jackson Wenstrom (.286/.375/.500), an army veteran who at 25 years old has arrived as one of the better players on the roster while also playing on the football team, fifth-year senior right fielder Bobby Morgensen (.274/.378/.468), a physical presence at the plate, and third-year sophomore catcher Nicholas Toney (.262/.304/.548), who has a big arm behind the plate and power in the batter’s box. Third-year sophomore third baseman B.J. Murray is a breakout candidate to watch (.203/.299/.373). He’s had the physicality and the tools from the moment he arrived at FAU, but he has yet to put it all together in the spring. Freshman first baseman Nolan Schanuel could also provide an instant jolt to the lineup. He’ll be able to contribute at the plate right away, and McCormack and the staff see him developing power over time. Also don’t forget fourth-year junior DH Jared DeSantolo (.167/.423/.222). Injuries hampered him a bit last season, but he was a Cape Cod League all-star in 2019 and has a .310 career batting average.  

FAU has traditionally had pitching staffs heavier on quality depth and versatile pieces rather than singular talents, and that looks to be the case again in 2021. The Owls have a number of pitchers who should be effective this season, even if none of them are likely to be conference pitcher of the year candidates. Third-year sophomore righthander Jacob Josey (1-1, 4.29) will lead the rotation. He’s an excellent athlete who was FAU’s starting shortstop as a freshman. His stuff has ticked up, with his fastball now up to 93 mph, which bodes well for his chances to be a workhorse. Junior college transfer righthander Javi Rivera, the projected No. 2 starter, has the biggest arm on the staff, with a fastball up to 97 mph. If he throws more strikes than he has in the past, he could be dominant. Two other pitchers will be key for the Owls. One is fifth-year junior lefthander Matt Sparling (0.00, 3 IP), whose stuff the staff describes as electric when he’s healthy. Having him healthy would give the rotation depth. The other key arm is fourth-year junior righthander Mike Entenza (0.55, 16.1 IP), a slider specialist who was nothing short of outstanding out of the bullpen last season. With a lineup like theirs, the floor is extremely high for his FAU team. If the pitching comes together, it can challenge USM for the league title. 

2. Old Dominion (12-4)

There is a lot to like about this ODU team, which is coming off of putting up a 12-4 record last season. The lineup hit .302 as a team last year, good for second in the conference, and returns a lot of key pieces from that group. Chief among them are fifth-year senior left fielder Kyle Battle (.367/.487/.667), a versatile athlete who can play all three outfield positions and can beat you in a lot of ways with his bat, and fourth-year junior shortstop Tommy Bell (.295/.413/.475), a plus defensive shortstop who swings the bat well and can surprise some with his pop. Some of the most exciting returning players are also among the younger talents on the roster, like second-year freshman second baseman Chris Dengler (.340/.507/.440), a good defensive player who can make things happen with his speed on offense, and third-year sophomore right fielder Andy Garriola, who established himself as one of the most exciting power hitters in the country as a freshman before missing last season. 

All three returning weekend starters are back as well. That group is led by fourth-year junior righthander Ryne Moore (2-1, 1.93), a bulldog on the mound who sets the tone for the weekend with the way he competes. He’ll be followed by fourth-year junior righthander Hunter Gregory (2-0, 1.69), a big arm whose fastball sits in the low to mid 90s, and fifth-year junior righthander Nick Pantos (2-1, 5.12), who features a sinker in the low 90s. That group will be joined by freshman lefthander Jacob Gomez, a polished pitcher whose fastball sits in the mid to high 80s. The bullpen should be a strength with the return of third-year sophomore righthander Aaron Holiday (2.45, 11 IP), who works with a fastball in the mid 90s with a wipeout breaking ball, and second-year freshman lefthander Noah Dean (0.00, 5.1 IP), who collected 12 of his 16 outs via strikeout a season ago. The Monarchs are a real dark horse C-USA title contender going into the season. 

3. Charlotte (9-8)

You can say this for sure about Charlotte: it is going to be one of the most fascinating teams to follow in 2021. In a year when many teams brought back rosters mostly intact, the 49ers brought in 27 new players to compete with 19 returners. On top of that, it went outside of the box in its summer ball plans, sending 18 pitchers to train together in St. Louis rather than having them throw innings in traditional summer leagues. It’s that pitching staff, and particularly the four starting pitchers lined up to begin the season, that inspires the most confidence in Charlotte’s upside this season. That group of four is third-year sophomore righthander Bryce McGowan (2-2, 5.57), whose fastball sits 92-95 mph and touches 97 along with a good slider, second-year freshman lefthander Christian Lothes (0.00, 2.2 IP), who works with a fastball up to 96 mph, a mid-80s slider and a good changeup, junior college transfer righthander Andrew Lindsey, who boasts advanced pitchability and a fastball up to 95 mph, and junior college transfer Austin Marozas, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound righthander who pairs a fastball up to 95 mph with a good changeup. The bullpen suffered a blow with the loss of righthander Colby Bruce to Tommy John surgery, and the coaching staff sees the late innings as their team’s biggest question mark. Among returners in the lineup, second-year freshman left fielder Dominic Pilolli (.403/.481/.567) and second-year freshman third baseman David McCabe (.238/.388/.317) are the ones to be most excited about. Pilolli’s numbers speak for themselves, while McCabe, with a 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame, excellent plate discipline and emerging power, is seen as the team’s best position player prospect for the draft. The likes of junior college transfer shortstop Jack Dragum and Tennessee transfer second baseman Austin Knight promise to bring additional athleticism to the lineup. It’s possible that it doesn’t totally bear fruit in 2021, but if you are looking for C-USA programs on the clear upswing, Charlotte definitely fits the bill. 

4. Florida International (10-5)

As always, the Florida International roster is loaded with big-time arms, and that will give it a chance to win every series on the schedule. That group includes fifth-year junior righthander Tyler Myrick (0-2, 6.50), whose fastball sits 94-97 and who has been a steady pitcher in the rotation when he’s been healthy, fourth-year junior righthander Christian Santana, who didn’t pitch last season but whose fastball sits 92-94 mph, and junior college transfer righthander Jermaine Vanheyningen, a raw reliever whose fastball runs up to 100 mph. Alabama transfer lefthander Garret Rukes, a four-year contributor with the Crimson Tide, brings a wealth of experience as well. At the same time, the Panthers bring back some proven pieces in the lineup, including fifth-year senior left fielder Juan Teixeira (.482/.508/.643), fourth-year junior right fielder Justin Farmer (.375/.435/.589), fifth-year senior second baseman Derek Cartaya (.367/.472/.400), second-year freshman catcher Ben Rozenblum (.306/.435/.367) and third-year sophomore center fielder Alec Sanchez (.294/.406/.353). Shortstop Steven Ondina and outfielder Mario Zabala headlined FIU’s 25th-ranked recruiting class and give the Panthers two of the most dynamic newcomers in the conference. If they acclimate quickly to college baseball, they have the ability to give FIU a big boost. 

5. Western Kentucky (10-6)

Western Kentucky has a veteran lineup that should give opposing pitchers few breaks. Players back from a team that hit .287 last season include fifth-year senior catcher Matt Phipps (.368/.463/.474), fifth-year senior second baseman Jack Wilson (.343/.450/.537), sixth-year senior DH Davis Sims (.333/.386/.524), third-year sophomore left fielder Jackson Swiney (.333/.522/.667), fifth-year senior center fielder Ray Zuberer (.328/.417/.541), fifth-year senior first baseman Richard Constantine (.296/.358/.423) and fifth-year senior shortstop Kevin Lambert (.259/.358/.328), whose value mostly comes from being the most sure-handed shortstop in the conference. That lineup alone should keep WKU competitive in most games, but it also has a pitching staff with some high-end potential. Fifth-year junior righthander Michael Darrell-Hicks (2-1, 4.82) will lead the rotation with a fastball that runs from 88-92 mph and touches 94. The No. 2 starter, fourth-year junior righthander Sean Bergeron, is a big-bodied workhorse who pounds the strike zone. Alabama transfer righthander Ryan O’Connell (0.00, 4.1 IP), a fourth-year junior, earned the third spot in the rotation, which will be rounded out by sixth-year senior Colby Taylor, who has missed most of the last two seasons. In fourth-year sophomore righthander Jake Kates (1.04, 17.1 IP), the Hilltoppers have a proven bullpen arm who has been getting the most draft interest of anyone on the staff. If the pitching staff lives up to its potential and stays healthy, WKU could easily outperform its preseason projection. 

6. Marshall (5-10-1)

Marshall has the pieces back in the lineup to have a solid offensive attack led by fifth-year senior first baseman Zach Inskeep (.328/.391/.393), fifth-year junior third baseman Peter Hutzal (.328/.371/.379), fourth-year junior shortstop Geordon Blanton (.292/.356/.431), fourth-year junior left fielder Jordon Billups (.279/.343/.361) and third-year sophomore center fielder Luke Edwards (.274/.333/.419). Of that group, Blanton, Billups and Edwards are also plus defenders to go along with having been productive at the plate last season. The Herd will lead its rotation with a high-end talent in third-year sophomore righthander Brady Choban (1-2, 6.62), who the coaching staff describes as a freak athlete whose fastball has been up to 95 mph. But overall in the rotation, Marshall will be looking for consistency from a group that, including Choban, plus true freshman righthander Zac Addkison, fourth-year junior lefthander Ray Pacella (0.00, 1 IP) and third-year sophomore righthander Ryan Capuano (0-2, 6.39), is filled with pitchers who struggled last season or are unproven. Fourth-year junior righthander Nick Jodway (1.50, 6 IP) could be a breakout star in the bullpen. The biggest arm on the staff, Jodway has been up to 97 mph with his fastball to go along with a sinker from 90-92 mph and a slider in the mid 80s. 

Top 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Bryce McGowan, RHP, Charlotte
  2. Gabe Shepard, RHP, Southern Mississippi
  3. Connor Walsh, OF, Rice
  4. Christian Lothes, LHP, Charlotte
  5. Jess Davis, OF, Alabama-Birmingham
  6. Andy Garriola, OF, Old Dominion
  7. Jermaine Vanheyningen, RHP, Florida International
  8. Tyler Myrick, RHP, Florida International
  9. Nicholas Toney, C, Florida Atlantic
  10. Roel Garcia, RHP, Rice
  11. Brady Choban, RHP, Marshall
  12. Dylan Rock, OF, Texas-San Antonio
  13. B.J. Murray, 3B, Florida Atlantic
  14. Andrew Lindsey, RHP, Charlotte
  15. Javi Rivera, RHP, Florida Atlantic
  16. Hunter Stanley, RHP, Southern Mississippi
  17. Austin Marozas, RHP, Charlotte
  18. Justin Collins, C, Rice
  19. Brock Helverson, RHP, Florida Atlantic
  20. David McCabe, 3B, Charlotte

Top 2022 Draft Prospects

  1. Slade Wilks, OF, Southern Mississippi
  2. Noah Dean, LHP, Old Dominion
  3. Reed Trimble, OF, Southern Mississippi
  4. Dominic Pilolli, OF, Charlotte
  5. Dustin Dickerson, SS, Southern Mississippi
  6. Dante Visconti, RHP, Florida Atlantic
  7. Ben Ethridge, RHP, Southern Mississippi
  8. Geo Rivera, RHP, Old Dominion
  9. Joey DiChiaro, LHP, Old Dominion
  10. Jorge Corona, C, Louisiana Tech

Best Tools

Best Pure Hitter: Taylor Young, Louisiana Tech
Best Power HItter: Andy Garriola, Old Dominion
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Taylor Young, Louisiana Tech
Best Athlete: Jackson Wenstrom, Florida Atlantic
Fastest Runner: Jess Davis, Alabama-Birmingham
Best Baserunner: Jess Davis, Alabama-Birmingham
Best Defensive Catcher: Justin Collins, Rice
Best Defensive Infielder: Kevin Lambert, Western Kentucky
Best Infield Arm: Kevin Lambert, Western Kentucky
Best Defensive Outfielder: Parker Bates, Louisiana Tech
Best Outfield Arm: Bobby Morgensen, Florida Atlantic
Best Fastball: Gabe Shepard, Southern Mississippi
Best Breaking Ball: Gabe Shepard, Southern Mississippi
Best Changeup: Nick Pantos, Old Dominion
Best Control: Walker Powell, Southern Mississippi

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