2021 Horizon League Preview
The Horizon League has been dominated by Wright State and Illinois-Chicago during the 21st century, as the two programs have combined for 16 conference titles.
The Raiders and the Flames will again be the class of the league in 2021. Wright State especially looks like it has the talent to run through the conference, as it has done in each of the Horizon League’s last two seasons.
But there is intrigue beyond the duopoly atop the standings. Youngstown State showed early last season it is ready to climb out of the cellar, after finishing in last place in six of the last seven seasons. Oakland has entered a new era under first-year coach Jordon Banfield. Purdue-Fort Wayne is in its first year in the league.
The Horizon League this year will play a 40-game conference schedule, made up of 10 four-game weekends spread out over 12 weeks. While teams are allowed to play non-conference games at the start of the season, once conference play has begun, they are not allowed.
Here are the questions facing the league this spring.
Will Wright State win another title?
The Raiders won six of the last 10 Horizon League regular-season championships, including 2018 and ’19. They may have been on their way to another title in 2020 after going 6-9 in the early going against a punishing schedule—including a midweek win at Louisville and a series win at Tennessee.
Wright State brings that group back in full and has the most talented team in the Horizon League. Second baseman Tyler Black (.239/.340/.370), a 2019 Freshman All-American, headlines the lineup and is the league’s top draft prospect. Shortstop Damon Dues (.316/.426/.395) could also be drafted, and center fielder Quincy Hamilton (.357/.471/.452, 3 SB) has also drawn professional interest. Veteran catcher Konnor Piotto (.333/.417/.452) provides another experienced hitter in the lineup.
On the mound, righthanders Jake Schrand (1-0, 1.26, 1 SV) and Bradley Brehmer (0-4, 6.41) return to lead the staff. Schrand worked out of the bullpen in 2020 but has the veteran experience to lead the rotation, while Brehmer, a 23rd-round pick out of high school in 2018, has the most upside of any pitcher in the conference. Freshmen Julian Greenwell, Justin Hornschemeier and Jay Luikart all have big upside and figure to take on important innings right away.
Wright State has the look of a complete team and should again be the best in the Horizon League. If it finds its groove by the end of May, it will make for a dangerous matchup in the postseason.
Can UIC keep pace with Wright State?
The Flames won the 2019 Horizon League Tournament and entered 2020 as the title favorites. Whether they would have lived up to that billing is unknowable and their meat-grinder of an early season schedule makes it hard to draw any conclusions about their 2020 campaign, as their first nine games came at Auburn, Vanderbilt and UC Santa Barbara.
The good news for UIC is that it returns the bulk of its key contributors from 2020. Shortstop Matt Bottcher (.254/.302/.322, 6 SB) and catcher Joshua Figueroa (.250/.298/.523, 3 HR), both fifth-year players, return to anchor the lineup and keep the Flames strong up the middle.
Fifth-year senior righthander Jacob Key (1-2, 5.68), the 2019 Horizon League Pitcher of the Year, is back at the front of the rotation. He has plenty of experience and a solid four-pitch mix—he’s now added a cutter to his arsenal—everything he needs to anchor the pitching staff. Righthander Cristian Lopez (1-0, 3.46) and lefthander Joey Morris (0-1, 3.68) also add experience to the staff, while righthanders Tanner Shears and Jeff Zack, both junior college transfers, figure to get in the mix.
While Wright State is the most talented team in the league, UIC’s experience cannot be overlooked. The Flames might not be the favorites, but they’ll stay in contention in 2021.
Can Youngstown State build on its 2020 momentum?
The Penguins in 2020 scored one of the biggest upsets of Opening Weekend as they won a series at Houston, beating the Cougars in extra innings on back-to-back days. Results were more mixed from there—YSU got swept at College of Charleston before winning series at Abilene Christian and North Carolina Central—to finish at 7-7.
Still, that represented a leap forward for the Penguins. They won just 13 games in 2019 and have not topped 20 wins since 2010. Had the 2020 season continued, YSU would have blown past its 2019 win total and should have flown past the 20-win milestone as well.
That team is now back nearly intact. The Penguins bring back every regular from the lineup, led by shortstop Phillip Glasser (.291/.371/.345) and first baseman Steve D’Eusanio (.291/.371/.545, 4 HR). Third baseman Blaze Glenn (.174/.235/.196) also returns and while he had a slow start to 2020, he’s hit 20 home runs and stolen 36 bases in 122 career games. If he gets back on track, it will further strengthen the lineup.
Veteran lefthanders Colin Clark (1-1, 3.38) and Collin Floyd (2-1, 2.74) return at the front of the rotation. Floyd, a sixth-year senior, has been a starter throughout his career for the Penguins and could finish the year as the program’s all-time strikeout leader. Veteran righthanders Gary Clift (2-0, 0.93, 2 SV) and Joel Hake (0-1, 1.42, 1 SV), the program’s all-time appearance leader, return to anchor the bullpen. YSU needs some more pitchers to step up around that core—perhaps righthander Matt Gorsky, who sat out last year while transferring from Ohio, will do so—but it’s a good start.
If anyone is to challenge Wright State and UIC at the top of the conference, YSU is most likely to do so.
How will Oakland perform under first-year head coach Jordon Banfield?
The pandemic slowed the pace of coaching changes last summer and led many schools that did have an opening to fill the job internally, often on an interim basis. Oakland, however, bucked those trends when it hired Jordon Banfield as head coach. Banfield, 34, spent the last two seasons as Akron’s associate head coach and now takes over a program an hour from his hometown of Ann Arbor.
The Golden Grizzlies are coming off a 2-10 campaign and lost their final 10 games of the season. They have finished better than fourth place in the standings just twice in 13 seasons in the Horizon League, making for a challenging rebuild.
Banfield dipped heavily into the transfer market for his first recruiting class, bringing in several junior college and four-year transfers. Those newcomers will immediately step into important roles, including catcher Brooks Asher (Kansas), shortstop Lorenzo Ellison (Iowa), outfielder Lamar Miller (Lamar (Colo.) JC) and Friday starter Jacob Wosinski (Akron). Oakland also brings back first baseman Michael Stygles (.395/.500/.526), its leading hitter, and slugger Blake Griffith (.310/.396/.500).
Oakland’s new-look roster certainly has upside and makes for an interesting roster-building experiment in a year when developing chemistry has been complicated by the pandemic. If it all comes together, the Grizzlies could make a significant jump in 2021.
What can opponents expect from Purdue-Fort Wayne in its first season in the league?
PFW this year moves from the Summit League, where it played since 2009, to the Horizon League. The Mastodons have never made the NCAA Tournament, though they did come close in 2015-16, as they made back-to-back appearances in the Summit League Tournament championship game. They struggled through their last few years in the Summit League, however, going 13-77 in conference play from 2017-19 and finishing last in all three seasons.
Now, PFW gets a fresh start in the Horizon League under second-year coach Doug Schreiber. It is coming off a 5-10 season but returns some key players in the lineup. Second baseman Aaron Chapman (.382/.411/.500) topped the Summit League in hitting in 2020 and is back to lead the Mastodons lineup. Center fielder Garrett Lake (.333/.422/.407), shortstop Jack Lang (.290/.353/.403) and catcher Dylan Stewart (.381/.509/.452, 5 SB) all return as well, giving them experience up the middle.
Any improvement for the Mastodons in 2021 will likely come from their pitching staff after posting an 8.18 team ERA. Fifth-year senior righthander Cameron Boyd (2-2, 5.87) is back to lead the rotation and fourth-year junior righthander Michael Madura (0-0, 4.60) returns after a solid season in the bullpen. But they’ll need some other pitchers to step up around them.
The Horizon League is geographically a better fit for PFW. Instead of being by far the easternmost school in the Summit League, it is now centrally located in the Horizon League. It remains to be seen whether it will be a better fit competitively in baseball. The Mastodons aren’t ready to compete with Wright State and UIC at the top of the league, but don’t have to fall into the cellar in their new league.
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