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2021 Ohio Valley Conference Preview

Christian Edwards Jsucourtesy

Things are changing in the Ohio Valley Conference. After this season, both Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky will be off to the ASUN Conference. In an 11-team conference, losing two members isn’t any sort of existential crisis on its own, but from a baseball standpoint, it represents a potential big shift in the current pecking order.

Jacksonville State, already one of the most consistent teams in the league, just completed a new stadium, and with the inherent advantage of being the league’s southernmost member, looked poised to be the class of the OVC well into the future. The Gamecocks will certainly be the team to beat once again this season.

Eastern Kentucky, meanwhile, probably had its best team in nearly a decade in 2020, and while Edwin Thompson departed after the season to become the coach at Georgetown, EKU made an inspired hire in bringing in former South Alabama assistant Chris Prothro and the Colonels should be a contender again in 2021.

But those two teams won’t be the only contenders in what could be a tight race in the top tier of the OVC standings this season, with teams like Belmont, Southeast Missouri State and Murray State all talented enough to make a run and stake a claim to starting off the newest chapter of the OVC in the catbird seat.

The conference will play a standard 30-game conference schedule made up of 10 three-game series, but those series will be played out over two days rather than three, with a doubleheader scheduled each weekend.

Here are five questions for the OVC that will be answered over the course of the 2021 season. 

Will Jacksonville State capture one final piece of OVC hardware?

Thanks to a talented, experienced returning lineup and a pitching staff that is a mix of guys with high-end stuff with something to prove and proven pitchers with less stuff, Jacksonville State will go into its final season as a member of the OVC the favorite to win the regular-season title.

The lineup welcomes back productive veterans like fourth-year junior first baseman Alex Strachan (.367/.367/.533), fifth-year senior center fielder Tre Kirklin (.328/.373/.537), fifth-year senior catcher Alex Webb (.313/.397/.469) and fourth-year junior shortstop Cole Frederick (.288/.351/.379), all of whom are realistic conference player of the year candidates.

Fourth-year junior shortstop Isaac Alexander (.156/.206/.203) is also an important player to have back. He’s a steady glove at the position and his poor offensive numbers last season aren’t indicative of his ability with the bat. Third-year sophomore right fielder Carson Crowe (.220/.359/.320) is a wild card in the lineup as a hitter with big-time power. In 2019, he clubbed nine doubles and six home runs despite starting just 36 games.

The Gamecocks’ Friday starter will be fourth-year junior righthander Christian Edwards (8.44, 5.1 IP), who has as much potential as any pitcher in the conference. After three years of serving as a reliever, he’ll be moving to the rotation for the first time, where the challenge will be holding his stuff, which includes a fastball he throws from 95-98 mph, deeper into games. To really make good on his potential in this role, he will also have to limit his walks, which have been an issue for him throughout his career.

Fifth-year junior lefthander Dylan Hathcock (2-1, 3.68), a steady member of the weekend rotation for the last two seasons, will follow Edwards, and fourth-year junior righthander Colin Casey (0.00, 9 IP), who the coaching staff says had the best fall of any pitcher on the roster, will round out the weekend. JSU is scheduled to play a pretty aggressive midweek schedule throughout the season, including games against regional contenders like Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Samford and Troy, and for those games, it will turn to third-year sophomore righthander Isaiah Magwood (0-1, 2.60), who throws his fastball 93-95 mph with a good slider.

The bullpen will be a strength for the Gamecocks as well, with the return of fifth-year senior righthander Corley Woods (1.06, 17 IP), a sidewinder with a ton of experience in the program, and fourth-year sophomore righthander Trey Fortner (0.00, 11.1 IP), a former weekend starter whose stuff has ticked up lately to where his fastball now runs 90-94 mph.

No team short of 2018 Tennessee Tech gets through the OVC without getting beat up a little bit here and there, and the additional wonkiness of doubleheaders every weekend brings a bit more uncertainty into the picture, but Jacksonville State is built as well any team in the conference to withstand that and come through with a trophy on the other side.

Can Belmont pick up where it left off in 2020?

In 2019, Belmont went 18-12 in the OVC, the team’s best record since going 22-8 in 2013, the first season as a part of the conference. In 2020, the Bruins raced out to a 12-4 start, showing that perhaps the best was yet to come.

Can they keep the ball rolling into 2021?

Their pitching staff sure seems to suggest that they can. The Bruins will roll into 2021 with a rotation consisting of third-year sophomore righthander Joshua South (2-0, 2.42), who features a four-pitch mix including a fastball from 89-91 mph and touching 93, fourth-year junior righthander Logan Bowen (1-1, 2.31), whose fastball sits 90-93 mph and touches 95, and second-year freshman lefthander Andy Bean (1-0, 3.50), who should benefit from the experience he earned early on last season.

The quality goes beyond the rotation, however, with the return of third-year sophomore righthander Aaron Hubbell (2-1, 3.32) to potentially serve in a swing role, and two key relievers in fourth-year junior righthanders Kyle Brennan (1.45, 18.2 IP) and Chandler Schultz (3.60, 10 IP).

Given all that, Belmont will probably be a pitching-first team this season, but that’s not to say that there isn’t star power in the lineup.

Fourth-year junior third baseman Logan Jarvis (.371/.452/.645), fourth-year junior catcher Jackson Campbell (.339/.441/.768) and third-year sophomore right fielder John Behrends (.306/.398/.431) will lead that unit, a group that hit .270/.379/.434 last season.

As good as all of the proven veterans are, the Belmont coaching staff was also heartened by what they saw from some of their younger players in the fall, which means that the team’s depth may end up being even better than we realize looking at it today. All of that makes the Bruins very real contenders for a title when it’s all said and done.

What can we expect in Chris Prothro’s first season at Eastern Kentucky?

Prothro, formerly an assistant coach at South Alabama, takes over a talented EKU team, but just not a team quite as talented as the one that went 12-2 last season.

After the season, catcher A.J. Lewis signed as a free agent with the Rockies. Righthander Jacob Ferris, the team’s most effective starter last season, transferred to Louisville. Another top hitter, Nick Howie, is gone, as is starting third baseman and steals leader Christian Lucio.

Still, the return of fourth-year junior Daniel Harris (.460/.541/.680), who will move from second base to third base, and third-year sophomore shortstop Logan Thomason (.362/.422/.517) will give EKU a solid core around which to build a lineup, and second-year freshman DH Kendal Ewell (.167, 6 AB), is a potential breakout star with light-tower power.

It’s a similar story on the mound, where the Colonels have questions to answer, but having back fourth-year junior righthander Louis Davenport (4.20, 15 IP), who pitches at 90-93 mph with his fastball but can touch 94 or 95, is a good place to start.

Perhaps EKU missed the championship window being wide-open last season, but with the talent it has back, that window isn’t completely closed.

How deep is the candidate pool for player of the year?

Because the OVC can be such an offense-happy league, there is always a good chance that a relatively unproven player pops up and grabs the award with a career year, but going into this season, there is a relatively deep well of players to look at as potential winners.

The list has to start with Tennessee Tech’s fourth-year junior first baseman Jason Hinchman (.414/.485/.793), who slugged 24 home runs in 2019. It was a performance reminiscent of former TTU great Kevin Strohschein, who won this award three times in his career.

With the season he put up in 2020, Daniel Harris from EKU is also high on the list, and you can’t overlook the JSU trio of Tre Kirklin, Alex Webb and Cole Frederick.

Jordan Cozart, a fifth-year senior second baseman at Murray State, appeared to break through in a big way last season, hitting .417/.486/.750 with much improved plate discipline. He’s a candidate along with MSU teammate Brock Anderson (.274/.342/.742), a fifth-year senior outfielder who smashed eight home runs in 2020.

Southeast Missouri State’s would-be best candidate, Justin Dirden, signed as a free agent over the summer, but fifth-year senior shortstop Tyler Wilber (.406/.494/.696) is a contender for the award in his own right.

A player on the rise is third-year sophomore shortstop Trey Sweeney (.351/.439/.456) of Eastern Illinois. He broke through as a star last season, and then went out in the Coastal Plain League over the summer and hit .397/.481/.676.

While it’s anyone’s guess who ends up being the OVC’s player of the year, it’s a guarantee that whoever it is will finish with eye-popping numbers, as they always do in this league.

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.

Which power arm has the inside track on winning pitcher of the year?

Considering that the strongest word association with the OVC is probably offense, it might surprise you that the league isn’t hurting for power arms in 2021, and the eventual pitcher of the year is likely to come from that same subset of hurlers.

If Jacksonville State’s Christian Edwards successfully makes the transition to the rotation and shows better command, he certainly has the stuff to be the best pitcher in the conference.

Southern Illinois-Edwardsville’s Collin Baumgartner (1-1, 3.05), a fourth-year junior righthander, should also be in the mix. He works with a fastball that sits 94-96 mph with a mid-80s slider and a changeup. He has gotten continually better during his time at SIUE and will look to end his college career with a bang.

Something similar can be said about Dylan Dodd (2-1, 3.37), a fifth-year senior lefthander at Southeast Missouri State. He commands the strike zone with a fastball up to 97 mph and a changeup.

While they don’t quite have the velocity of the previous three, the Belmont duo of Joshua South and Logan Bowen are both easily talented enough to take home the hardware and they’ve both proven to be quite successful in the OVC already.

It’s hazardous being a pitcher in the OVC, so it’s always a particular pleasure to watch the most talented of the bunch successfully navigate the rigors of the schedule on the way to being named the best in the conference. The 2021 season has given us quite the group to watch blossom.

Top 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Collin Baumgartner, RHP, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
  2. Christian Edwards, RHP, Jacksonville State
  3. Dylan Dodd, LHP, Southeast Missouri State
  4. Logan Bowen, RHP, Belmont
  5. Trey Sweeney, SS, Eastern Illinois

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