2021 Southland Conference Preview
If the one set of Southland Conference series we saw in 2020 were any indication, we might have been in for a wild ride. Sam Houston State lost two of three at home to Houston Baptist. Central Arkansas took two of three from Southeastern Louisiana and got a no-hitter from Gavin Stone along the way. Stephen F. Austin was the only team off to a 3-0 start.
While a season with the standings turned upside down wasn’t out of the question, it more likely meant that the SLC was once again going to be a battle up and down the standings, as it has been more often than not of late. One or two teams might have pulled away from the pack, but the rest would probably have been pretty messy, like it was in 2019, when three games is all that separated fifth and 11th in the final standings.
Going into 2021, McNeese State is the conference favorite, just as it was going into last season. If anything, the Cowboys have only solidified their place at the top of the heap with the return of a number of productive seniors for one more season. But you can’t count out Sam Houston State, which is led by the most talented player in the conference in Preseason All-American outfielder Colton Cowser, and Southeastern Louisiana, which has an outstanding one-two punch in the rotation in fourth-year lefthander Trey Shaffer and fourth-year junior righthander Will Warren.
The league will play in an altered format in 2021. There will still be 10 conference series, but each one will consist of four games, including a Saturday doubleheader of a nine-inning game and a seven-inning game, for a total of 40 conference contests. Teams can schedule out-of-conference games as well, with the expectation that it will mean significantly fewer midweek games.
Not long after the 2020 season was canceled, the league announced that it was reducing the number of teams competing in the conference tournament in 2021, but since then, it has reversed that decision and eight teams will compete in the event as normal.
It’s also worth noting that this is the last run through for the Southland as it is currently constructed. After this season, Central Arkansas will move to the ASUN Conference and Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin will leave for the Western Athletic Conference. It remains to be seen where the SLC goes from here, but suffice it to say that it will look much different by the time the 2022 baseball season rolls around.
In just 70 games, Cowser has already established himself as one of the most decorated players in Sam Houston and Southland history. A .339/.436/.554 career hitter, the outfielder was named Southland hitter of the year in 2019, played the following summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and went into the 2020 season as the first player in program history to be named to the preseason Golden Spikes Award watch list. And now he has a chance to be the highest SHSU draft pick since Glenn Wilson went 18th overall in 1980 and the highest in the conference since Stephen F. Austin’s Hunter Dozier was selected eighth overall in 2013. The Bearkats have other talented hitters in the lineup, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that they will go as Cowser goes.
Pitcher of the Year: Trey Shaffer, LHP, Southeastern Louisiana
Formerly a two-way player at Southeastern Louisiana, Shaffer focused solely on pitching in 2020 and great results followed. The lefthander went 3-1 with a 1.23 ERA, 32 strikeouts and a .113 opponent batting average in 22 innings across four starts. His only loss came in his final start against Central Arkansas and it was only a loss because that was the game in which UCA’s Gavin Stone threw a no-hitter. Shaffer can run his high-spin fastball up to 94 mph with a curveball and changeup that he feels comfortable throwing in any count. As the draft unfolded, he was approached by teams interested in drafting him, but he was intent on returning to school as a fourth-year junior, where he will serve as the team’s Friday starter, looking to return the Lions to the postseason for the first time since 2017.
Newcomer of the Year: Issac Williams, OF, New Orleans
One of the top prep players in Louisiana in 2020, Williams is exactly the type of talent that might have ended up in pro baseball last summer had it not been for a shortened draft. The projected starting center fielder for the Privateers, Williams has an exciting set of tools.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record:
1. McNeese State (10-7, 0-0)
The conference title favorites going into last season, McNeese is in a similar position this season thanks in large part to the return of a number of productive seniors who are looking to go out with a bang. That group includes first baseman Jake Dickerson (.415/.487/.662), catcher Brett Whelton (.326/.491/.488), second baseman Nate Fisbeck (.286/.351/.471) and right fielder Clayton Rasbeary (.246/.324/.525). Third-year sophomore center fielder Payton Harden (.356/.388/.441) and fourth-year sophomore third baseman Peyton Johnson (.327/.389/.531) will look to follow up breakout 2020 seasons. Fourth-year junior shortstop Reid Bourque (.362/.444/.468) has been a steady defender and athlete in the program for a long time, but he made a jump with the bat last season and will provide the lineup with additional length. The Cowboys hit .313/.396/.468 as a team last season, and with everyone back, it’s easy to see this being the best lineup in the Southland.
The rotation will be led by third-year sophomore lefthander Will Dion (2-2, 5.23), the team’s returning leader in innings from a year ago. His 37-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20.2 innings stands out and he has the upside to be the best pitcher in the Southland if he puts it all together. Behind him, McNeese will lean on a pair of junior college transfer righthanders in Ty Abraham and Bryson Hudgens, although fourth-year junior righthander Cameron Foster (1-0, 2.93) also gives the staff a somewhat more experienced option to turn to. Fifth-year senior Hunter Reeves (0.00, 8.2 IP) is back to reprise his role as the closer. How well the pitching staff, and specifically Abraham and Hudgens, steps up in support of what should be an excellent lineup will have a lot to say about whether the Cowboys fully reach their potential this season.
2. Sam Houston State (7-7, 1-2)
The headline name for Sam Houston is third-year sophomore center fielder Colton Cowser (.255/.379/.364), a projected first-round pick this June. The best all-around player in the Southland, he’s a guy who can carry a lineup on his back, but if the Bearkats are going to compete for a conference title again, they will need others to play well around him to ensure that he doesn’t get pitched around all season and to ensure that the lineup improves on the .241/.329/.348 line from last season. Fourth-year junior first baseman Jack Rogers (.396/.450/.698), the only Bearkat regular to hit better than .271, will provide a lot of that protection for Cowser and could be a conference player of the year candidate in his own right. Fourth-year junior third baseman Corbin Vines (.271/.327/.292) is a physical presence at the hot corner and at the plate and is coming off of a nice season as well. But there’s no way around the fact that SHSU will be looking for breakout stars as the season goes on.
On the mound, coach Jay Sirianni and his staff have a ton of viable options, which could make finding roles for everyone a challenge. Fourth-year junior righthander Tyler Davis (2-1, 3.47), a sinker-slider specialist, is back to serve as the Friday starter again. Also back in the rotation is third-year sophomore lefthander Matt Dillard (2-1, 1.53), who was excellent last season. Another veteran, fifth-year senior lefthander Dominic Robinson (1-1, 1.23), will be in the mix for starts during four-game weekends, but so will true freshman righthander Coltin Atkinson, one of the better incoming recruits in the Southland. As good as those options are, SHSU is probably in better shape in the bullpen, where it can run out big arm after big arm to close out games. The projected closer is third-year sophomore righthander Alex Havlicek, a junior college transfer who began his career at Virginia Tech who can run his fastball up to 95 mph. Fourth-year junior righthander Lance Lusk (1.15, 15.2 IP), who works with a fastball from 88-92 mph as part of a four-pitch arsenal, will also have a big role. Then there’s fourth-year junior righthanders Landon Ausley (3.18, 5.2 IP), who, when healthy, runs his fastball into the mid 90s and Cole Wesneski (7.82, 12.2 IP), who works with a fastball in the low 90s. If the Bearkats’ offense can score enough, you like their chances of being able to hold onto leads with this pitching staff.
3. Southeastern Louisiana (6-10, 1-2)
The Lions go into the 2021 season with the type of high-end pitching talent that could propel them into the mix for the conference title and a postseason appearance. It starts with fourth-year junior lefthander Trey Shaffer (3-1, 1.23), who took a huge step forward last season and looks ready to be an elite starter in the Southland. Fourth-year junior righthander Will Warren (2-0, 1.90), who like Shaffer also works with a fastball up to 94 mph, is an excellent No. 2 starter. Third-year sophomore righthander Grant Upton (1-1, 1.46) has seen his velocity jump after showing improvement in 2020, giving Southeastern Louisiana three proven options in the rotation, with the fourth spot likely to go to true freshman righthander Will Kinzeler, whose fastball was up to 92 mph last fall. Look for graduate transfer righthander Cole Hoskins (5.23, 10.1 IP) from Grand Canyon to get the first crack at closing out games.
Southeastern Louisiana struggled offensively last season to the tune of a .227/.323/.313 slash line, but there are significant reasons for optimism about this group heading into this season. One reason is the return of second-year freshman third baseman Jacob Burke (.313/.441/.521) and third-year sophomore center fielder Tyler Finke (.296/.424/.389). Burke led the team with a pair of homers last season, while Finke is a premium runner who will cause havoc on the bases if he gets on base at anything close to the clip he did last season. There’s also reason to believe that fourth-year junior first baseman Preston Faulkner (.157/.274/.255) will be more productive. In 2019, he clubbed 17 doubles and 11 home runs, but he just never got going last season. There’s also the addition of graduate transfer catcher Gaby Cruz (.170/.241/.358) from Bryant, who projects to be the team’s DH. He hit .354 with nine home runs for the Bulldogs in 2019 but got off to a slow start in 2020. With power and speed throughout the lineup, this has the feel of some of the better Lions lineups they’ve had in recent years, but now it’s on them to prove that they’re up to that level.
4. Central Arkansas (8-8, 2-1)
The quietly consistent Bears looked poised to ride another quality pitching staff to a top-five finish in the Southland again last season, and even after ace Gavin Stone was drafted last June, they’re in position to keep that momentum going into 2021. Third-year sophomore lefthander Noah Cameron (1-1, 2.57) will likely be the pitcher tasked with carrying the load in Stone’s absence, but with a 2.86 ERA in 122.2 innings, he’s done more than enough to prove he can be that guy. Sixth-year senior righthander Mark Moyer (2-0, 3.20) and fourth-year junior righthander Logan Gilbertson (1-2, 3.93) are also back as experienced options to support Cameron. Sixth-year senior righthander Conner Williams (0.69, 13 IP) was nearly untouchable last season on the way to saving six games and fifth-year senior lefthander Brad Verel (4.58, 19.2 IP) dominated at times out of the bullpen and is a real weapon with his ability to provide multi-inning appearances. Both should have big roles once again.
UCA had a solid lineup last season, and the relatively modest .252/.345/.334 line is probably more reflective of the tough early-season schedule it played than anything else. Fourth-year junior Connor Emmet (.397/.449/.571) and fifth-year senior Beau Orlando (.392/.515/.431) are back after getting off to scalding-hot starts a year ago, and so is fourth-year junior Ben Ayala (.266/.277/.500), who hit four of the Bears’ six home runs in 2020. Repeats of 2020 for those three would allow them to do a lot of heavy lifting this season, but if others step up and give the lineup a bit more depth, UCA could be in line to finish in the top three in the league for just the second time since joining the Southland.
5. Northwestern State (12-4, 2-1)
The Demons played well during the shortened 2020 season, winning a series with Wichita State to begin the campaign and capping things off with a Southland series win over Abilene Christian. With a 2.05 team ERA, pitching was the bread and butter for Northwestern State last season, and while that might be hard to replicate after the departure of ace Logan Hofmann to the draft and closer Kyle Swanson to medical school, this season’s team will look to be led on the mound as well. Second-year freshman righthander Johnathan Harmon (3-0, 2.16) is back after putting up excellent numbers behind Hofmann in the rotation last season. He’ll sit 89-90 mph with his fastball typically, but can reach back to get 92-93 when he needs it. Third-year sophomore lefthander Cal Carver (1-1, 1.50) moved into a weekend spot after two weeks last season and will look to continue what he achieved in that role. The leaders for the last two spots in the rotation are fifth-year senior righthander Peyton Graham, who missed all of last season due to injury, and third-year sophomore righthander Levi David (2.57, 7 IP), a big arm who served as a reliever last season. Second-year freshman righthander Drake Smith (3.60, 10 IP) will move into the closer’s role vacated by Swanson after giving up just three hits in 10 innings of work in 2020.
While the ceiling for the lineup isn’t as significant as it is for the pitching staff, a solid veteran core will keep the floor fairly high. Sixth-year senior DH Lenni Kunert (.351/.435/.404) has been a leader on offense going back to the 2018 regional team and the coaching staff describes him as the heart and soul of the club. Fifth-year senior right fielder Tyler Smith (.270/.386/.514) is a productive power bat whose 20 career homers put him just outside the top 10 in NSU baseball history. His arm in the outfield is also a weapon, as evidenced by his 23 career outfield assists. Fifth-year junior first baseman Peyton Davis (.273/.305/.509) is an imposing figure at the plate who led the team in homers last season with three. Of the younger players, second-year freshman second baseman Daunte Stuart (.281/.423/.368) might be the most exciting. He showed uncommon plate discipline for a first-year player last year, drawing as many walks (13) as strikeouts while also showing some extra-base pop with five doubles. The coaching staff thinks more traditional power is on the way as he continues to mature.
6. New Orleans (11-6, 2-1)
New Orleans returns a veteran club in 2021 and has a real chance to be one of the better balanced teams in the Southland. The Privateers should be strong up the middle in the infield with the return of third-year sophomore catcher Jorge Tejeda (.318/.483/.500), a good catch-and-throw receiver, fifth-year senior second baseman Salo Iza (.306/.429/.435), one of the better defensive infielders in the league, and fifth-year senior shortstop Darren Willis (.286/.324/.365), a four-year starter at the position. Fifth-year senior left fielder Luther Woullard (.381/.474/.540), fifth-year senior first baseman Beau Bratton (.291/.371/.418) and fifth-year senior right fielder Gaige Howard (.238/.422/.254) will bring punch to the order. After a down year in 2020, Howard will look to bring his numbers more in line with what he did in 2019, when he had a .330/.432/.414 slash line. The best raw power on the team might belong to fourth-year junior DH Pearce Howard (.232/.325/.391), who led the team with three homers last season. An improved approach in 2021 will help him unlock more of that power moving forward. Look for true freshman center fielder Issac Williams to have an instant impact.
There is a lot to like about the New Orleans rotation as well, even after the departure of fifth-round draft pick Eric Orze. Fifth-year senior righthander Chris Turpin (1-1, 2.66) and sixth-year senior righthander Bailey Holstein (0-2, 3.32) are steady veterans who get outs without lighting up the radar gun, although Turpin does have weapons in a slider and splitter that can both induce swings and misses. The other two rotation spots will be held by pitchers with solid raw stuff. Third-year sophomore lefthander Brandon Mitchell (0.61, 14.2 IP) throws his fastball 88-92 mph with movement, pairing that offering with a solid curveball and changeup, and he hides the ball well to top it off. Fifth-year senior righthander Haden Erbe, a graduate transfer from West Virginia, is coming off of injury but can run his fastball up to 95 mph and the coaching staff thinks that he could end the season as the Friday starter if he puts it all together. The first crack at closing games will go to third-year freshman Jacob Lamkin (2.45, 11 IP), who works with a fastball from 88-92 mph.
7. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (8-10, 2-1)
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi projects to have one of the most talented weekend rotations in the Southland with the return of fourth-year junior lefthander John Gaddis (1-1, 3.86), fourth-year junior righthander Leo Perez (0-1, 4.15) and third-year sophomore righthander Hayden Thomas (2-1, 4.38). All three are legitimate draft prospects if they continue to develop, with Perez having seen his stock rise of late as evaluators found that his stuff plays well according to spin rate and other advanced data analysis. Fourth-year junior righthander Henry Bird (3.31, 16.1 IP) is another pitcher to watch on staff after he showed well in a relief role in his debut season. With a fastball from 88-90 mph, he doesn’t necessarily blow the ball by hitters, but he pairs that offering well with a good breaking ball. Second-year freshmen lefthanders Jaime Ramirez (3.21, 14 IP) and Dom Lopez (6.35, 11.1 IP) could also be ready to take on more. In a normal 2020 season that ends with some subset of Gaddis, Perez or Thomas moving on to pro baseball, Ramirez and Lopez would be in line for a more prominent role, but as it is, they give the Islanders the type of depth that will help in four-game weekends.
A veteran core returns to the lineup in fifth-year senior outfielder Itchy Burts (.315/.383/.411), fifth-year senior outfielder Scott Hastings (.315/.397/.389), fifth-year senior first baseman Luke Marbach (.269/.402/.373) and fifth-year senior outfielder Mike Williams (.246/.300/.323). Fourth-year junior Steven Rivera-Chijin is a breakout candidate in the lineup. Previously a shortstop, Rivera-Chijin will slide over to third base this season, where he will bring shortstop skills to the position defensively and his filled-out 6 feet, 200-pound frame profiles well. A name to watch to replace Rivera-Chijin at shortstop is second-year freshman Diego Johnson. One of the most highly-touted recruits at A&M-Corpus Christi in recent years, he was limited last season due to injury but is now ready to be a major contributor.
8. Nicholls State (10-8, 1-2)
The Colonels are typically a pitching-first outfit, and that probably won’t change in 2021 with the return of fifth-year senior righthander Trever Kilcrease (1-0, 3.13), last season’s Friday starter, third-year sophomore lefthander Tyler Theriot (3-2, 2.76), who served effectively as a midweek starter in 2020, another weekend starter in third-year sophomore righthander Nick Heckman (1-1, 4.42) and fifth-year junior lefthander Joe Taylor (0.00, 9.2 IP), who was nearly unhittable in the closer’s role a year ago. Nicholls State had a 3.30 team ERA last season, and if it can replicate that type of success this season, it will be in good shape to fight for a spot in the conference tournament.
But as good as the pitching staff is, it will be on the lineup to support them and improve on the .229 team average from last season. Fourth-year sophomore outfielder Xane Washington (.292/.386/.319) can certainly be counted on to produce after he put up career-best numbers last season. He’s a dynamic athlete who swings it well and can do damage on the bases with his speed. Fourth-year junior outfielder Dane Simon (.218/.449/.273) is an on-base machine who also has the speed to swipe bases in bunches alongside Washington. Additionally, the Colonels will look to a pair of players with SEC experience to be contributors in second-year freshman outfielder Wes Toups from Louisiana State and third-year freshman outfielder Basiel Williams, who spent a year at Mississippi State before playing at the junior college level last season. Those two being ready to go from day one would be huge for the Nicholls’ lineup.
9. Incarnate Word (9-7, 1-2)
The Cardinals had a solid offensive attack last season, and that could very well be the case again this season, even after losing the catching duo of Sean Arnold and Kyle Bergeron as transfers to crosstown rival Texas-San Antonio, which is coached by former UIW coach Pat Hallmark. Second-year freshman shortstop Grant Smith (.339/.456/.446), fifth-year senior DH Lee Thomas (.328/.480/.466) and fourth-year junior center fielder Ridge Rogers (.304/.409/.411) are back after putting up excellent numbers last season. Fourth-year junior first baseman Ryan Flores’ numbers (.270/.342/.365) weren’t as good in 2020 as the two seasons prior, but he’s a .323/.367/.502 career hitter who should be a run producer in the middle of the order. On the mound, losing Luke Taggart as a transfer to Oklahoma hurts, but the rotation is still in pretty good hands with the return of second-year freshman righthander Isaiah Zavala (1-0, 3.00) and third-year sophomore righthander Michael Garza (1-2, 4.34). Look for fourth-year junior lefthander Johnny Foral (1.93, 9.1 IP) to close out games using his breaking ball as a weapon.
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10. Lamar (7-10, 0-3)
Lamar will go into the 2021 season looking to reverse a trend that has had the program finish 11th or lower in the conference standings in back-to-back seasons. With a veteran club full of players with a ton of experience in Lamar uniforms, there should be optimism that this season could get the Cardinals heading back in the right direction. Fourth-year junior right fielder Avery George (.338/.390/.352), fifth-year senior catcher Anthony Quirion (.324/.342/.500), fourth-year sophomore shortstop Kelby Weyler (.302/.328/.381) and third-year sophomore left fielder Reese Durand (.273/.339/.436) make for a nice core in the lineup. The pitching staff is similarly experienced with the return of two weekend starters in fourth-year junior righthanders Trevin Michael (2-1, 2.42) and Zach Bravo (1-0, 2.95), both of whom showed well last season after transferring in from the junior college ranks. Michael has a good slider in his arsenal that pairs well with a fastball that runs 90-94 mph. Bravo, meanwhile, has a little more juice in his fastball, running it up to 96 mph. Joining them in starting games on the weekends this season are a pair of converted relievers in third-year sophomore lefthander Dylan Johnson (3.24, 16.2 IP) and fourth-year junior lefthander Christian Grigsby (1.17, 7.2 IP). In the bullpen, fourth-year junior righthander Jack Dallas (3.12, 8.2 IP) will close games, with the hope that he is set up effectively by fellow fourth-year junior righthander Marcus Olivarez, who can run his fastball up to 98 mph.
11. Abilene Christian (7-8, 1-2)
Abilene Christian has shown swift improvement in coach Rick McCarty’s two seasons at the helm. To keep that going into 2021, it will look to the likes of fourth-year junior Tommy Cruz (.313/.468/.417) and fourth-year junior outfielder Colton Eager (.304/.418/.500) to continue to swing the bat the way they did last season, but to improve upon a .222 team average, the Wildcats will need a number of others to step up in support of that pair. On the mound, losing lefthander Austin Wagner, the team’s most effective starter last season, to transfer is a big blow, but fourth-year junior righthander Austin Ruesch (1-2, 4.30) returns after making three starts a year ago, as does fifth-year senior righthander Spencer Chirpich (1-1, 4.91), who was ACU’s best starting pitcher in 2019. Fourth-year junior righthander Tanner Riley (1.98, 13.2 IP) was dominant last season in relief and should be a valuable weapon this season no matter his role.
12. Stephen F. Austin (6-10, 3-0)
The Lumberjacks will go into the season with some rebuilding to do in the lineup after the departure of leading hitter Jared Martin via transfer to New Mexico. That makes the return of fourth-year junior outfielder Kyle Cullen (.289/.439/.311) vitally important. Not only will he be the team’s leading returning hitter, but he can cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Among the rest of the returning hitters, fourth-year junior catcher Jake Zarrello (.265/.419/.471) put up the best numbers last season. Among newcomers, Division II Missouri Southern State graduate transfer Marco Navarro, who was at Central Arkansas before landing at MSSU, and Northwestern State transfer Chaney Dodge, whose brother Kanin is also on the roster, have experience that suggests they could be ready to contribute right away. Even if it takes some time for the lineup to take shape, the SFA pitching staff should be able to carry the load early on with the return of the top two starting pitchers from last season in fourth-year junior lefthander Angelo Gennari (1-1, 2.11) and fourth-year junior righthander Joe Todd (2-1, 2.42). Also back in the fold is third-year sophomore lefthander Jaxon Covington (3.55, 12.2 IP), the team’s most effective reliever last season. If a few more pitchers step up around those three, the Lumberjacks have the makings of a really solid staff. Ultimately, how well the offense produces runs after hitting .217 as a team last season is likely the key to this team reaching its ceiling, however.
13. Houston Baptist (6-11, 2-1)
More than any other team in the conference, Houston Baptist suffered heavy personnel losses after last season. Staff ace Kyle Gruller signed as a nondrafted free agent, top hitter Johnny Gonzales transferred to Texas State and outfield regular Ryne Edmondson transferred across town to play for Houston. The lineup does, however, return a couple of impact bats in fourth-year junior catcher Todd Jackson (.326/.436/.435), fifth-year senior infielder Trent Franson (.262/.324/.338) and fifth-year senior outfielder Brandon Bena (.257/.276/.351). Jackson was second on the team in hitting last season in his first year in the program, Franson has been a quality contributor for each of the last two years after transferring in from Texas Christian, and in 2019, Bena led the team in hitting and was tied for second on the team in home runs. Improvement on the pitching staff, which had a 7.40 ERA last season, is crucial for HBU’s success in 2021. Fourth-year junior lefthander Austin Spinney (1-4, 5.56) is the most effective returning starting pitcher from last season, with the likes of fourth-year junior righthander Dylan Murphy (3.94, 16 IP), third-year sophomore righthander Chris Burns (6.11, 17.2 IP) and fifth-year senior lefthander Brent Pronger (6.50, 18 IP) also among the returning pitchers who earned significant innings last season.
Top 2021 Draft Prospects
- Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State
- Trey Shaffer, LHP, Southeastern Louisiana
- Noah Cameron, LHP, Central Arkansas
- Jack Rogers, 1B, Sam Houston State
- Will Warren, RHP, Southeastern Louisiana
- Tyler Finke, 2B/OF, Southeastern Louisiana
- Landon Ausley, RHP, Sam Houston State
- Will Dion, RHP, McNeese State
- Hayden Thomas, RHP, Texas A&M - Corpus Christi
- Brandon Mitchell, LHP, New Orleans