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2021 Sun Belt Conference Preview

The Sun Belt has become one of the most competitive conferences in the country, with an impressive amount of depth and quality in its standings on an annual basis. That looks to be the case again this year as at least half the conference enters the season with reasonable regional expectations.

Whether the conference can get back to being a multi-bid league or not remains to be seen, but with star players like South Alabama’s Ethan Wilson and impressive all-around teams like Coastal Carolina and Texas State, the Sun Belt will make for exciting viewing in 2021.

The Sun Belt will play eight three-game conference series, down from the 10 conference weekends it has played in recent seasons, though the change was not made due to the pandemic. The Sun Belt Tournament will be held at Riverwalk Stadium, home of Double-A Montgomery.

Player of the Year: Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama

Wilson was voted a first-team Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors and is a projected first-round pick. He can do a bit of everything at the plate and hit .282/.329/.465 with three home runs and six stolen bases. He has a lot to live up to between his draft status and winning both the conference’s player and freshman of the year awards in 2019, but he has the tools to be one of the best hitters in the country.

Pitcher of the Year: Aaron Funk, RHP, Arkansas-Little Rock

Funk was excellent in 2020 and threw two gems to close out the season. He on March 1 struck out 17 batters against North Alabama and then held Southern Mississippi to one run in a five-hitter the following week. He finished the season 2-0, 2.01 with 37 strikeouts and eight walks in 31.1 innings. Now, the fourth-year junior will lead the Trojans rotation and look to build on that success.

Newcomer of the Year: Hayden Durke, RHP, Louisiana-Lafayette

Durke was the top-ranked freshman on the 2020 BA 500 to enroll at a Sun Belt school. The Louisiana native has a powerful arm and can run his fastball up to 97 mph. As a starter—and he’ll likely slot into the Cajuns’ rotation this spring—his fastball more typically works in the low to mid 90s and he mixes in a big curveball that is a plus pitch at its best. His stuff stands out now and he still offers plenty of upside.

East Division

1. Coastal Carolina (11-5)

The Chanticleers return much of the team that was off to a solid start to the 2020 season, but the best news is that coach Gary Gilmore will this spring be back in the dugout, little more than a year after he learned he has cancerous tumors in his liver and on his pancreas. He was forced to leave the team after just two games to get treatment. His cancer isn’t curable or operable, but treatment has gone well and he is able to return to his duties as head coach this season.

Coastal was young offensively in 2020 but now returns an experienced lineup that gets a further boost from the return of center fielder Parker Chavers, who missed last season following shoulder surgery. Chavers was a Preseason All-American in 2020 and likely would have been drafted in the top couple rounds if not for his injury. If he recaptures his previous form, he gives the Chants a proven star in the lineup. Cooper Weiss (.372/.473/.628, 5 SB) will move to shortstop after Scott McKeon moved on to pro ball. Sluggers Alex Gattinelli (.317/.353/.567, 4 HR) and BT Riopelle (.282/.378/.692, 4 HR) return to anchor the middle or the order. Outfielder Eric Brown (.259/.377/.310) has an exciting set of tools and is a breakout candidate. On the mound, Coastal must replace several key pitchers, including ace Zach McCambley, but still has the makings of a strong pitching staff. Graduate transfer righthanders Reece Maniscalco (Wofford) and Daniel Kreuzer (Wright State) bring experience, buttressing returners like righthanders Nick Parker (2-0, 2.25) and Shaddon Peavyhouse (1-0, 0.00). Lefthander Reid VanScoter is a breakout candidate thanks to a good fastball-slider combination. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery and sat out last season after transferring from Binghamton.

2. Georgia Southern (11-5)

One of the most consistent programs in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern will look to keep up its winning tradition with the help of a lineup that returns top hitters in fifth-year junior infielder Mitchell Golden (.356/.420/.378), sixth-year senior catcher Matt Anderson (.333/.400/.367), fifth-year senior outfielder/first baseman Mason McWhorter (.328/.397/.500), fourth-year junior outfielder Parker Biederer (.270/.404/.351) and fourth-year junior outfielder Christian Avant (.266/.319/.359). The Eagles’ pitching staff, which had a 2.19 ERA, is probably a greater strength, however, particularly with all three of last year’s primary starting pitchers back in fourth-year junior righthander Jordan Jackson (3-1, 1.57), third-year sophomore lefthander Braden Hays (0-2, 3.00) and fourth-year junior righthander David Johnson (2-1, 4.41). Fifth-year senior righthander Tyler Owens (0.51, 17.2 IP) is also back after serving as a valuable swingman a season ago. Suffice it to say that if Georgia Southern pitches this season as well as it did last season, it’s likely to find itself in the mix at the top of the standings.

3. Troy (9-8)

The Trojans have won at least 30 games in each of the last five full seasons and have the upside to do so again, especially thanks to their experienced offense. But Troy must find some answers on the mound after losing ace Levi Thomas, who was on an All-American pace in 2020 before being drafted in the fourth round. Righthander Orlando Ortiz (2-0, 3.13) will move to the front of the rotation and relievers Lance Johnson (0-1, 2.40) and Matt Snell (0-0, 1.38) return. Lefthander DJ Wilkinson (0-1, 8.68, 2 SV) made a jump this fall and righthander Mason Kenney, a transfer from Furman, will provide a boost. The Trojans’ offense, however, remains potent. It returns all its regulars from last season, when it averaged more than seven runs per game. Fifth-year senior shortstop Drew Frederic (.409/.500/.545, 11 SB) and outfielder Rigsby Mosley (.351/.435/.554), the 2019 Sun Belt batting champion, lead the way. First baseman William Sullivan (.396/.468/.547) last year was off to an outstanding start as a freshman and outfielder Dalton Sinquefield (.333/.450/.576, 3 HR, 5 SB) brings another dynamic bat to the lineup.

4. South Alabama (8-10)

With first-team Preseason All-American Ethan Wilson (.282/.329/.465, 6 SB) leading the way, the Jaguars are aiming to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. To do so, USA will need to take a step forward on the mound after posting a 5.51 team ERA—while also replacing ace Drake Nightengale. Starters Matt Boswell (1-3, 4.50) and JoJo Booker (1-1, 5.00) return and between Boswell’s stuff ticking up in the fall and Booker’s pedigree, there’s reason for optimism, if they can be more consistent. The Jaguars’ offense has dynamic potential. Catcher Reid Powers (.339/.439/.500) returns after leading the team in hitting and center fielder Michael Sandle (.328/.389/.438, 7 SB) adds plus speed. With slick-fielding shortstop Santiago Montiel (.186/.333/.237) anchoring the infield and some exciting junior college transfers like Noah Bailey and Caleb Balgaard joining the team, there’s real upside. Putting it all together will be the key for coach Mark Calvi.

5. Georgia State (9-7)

With early-season series against West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky, plus midweek games prior to conference play against Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida and Clemson, Georgia State will be as tested as any team in the country through the first four weeks of the season. GSU appears most ready for that challenge in the lineup, where it returns some high-end talent. Fifth-year senior left fielder Elian Merejo (.407/.527/.763) was one of the most productive hitters in the Sun Belt last season. Second-year freshman shortstop Will Mize (.373/.448/.508) was extremely productive as well and is thought of as a serious prospect for the 2022 draft. Fourth-year junior second baseman Kalen Puckett (.370/.508/.413), fourth-year junior catcher Tanner Gallman (.306/.405/.306) and fourth-year junior third baseman Griffin Cheney (.302/.486/.358) give the lineup additional quality and length. Gallman is also a good defensive backstop and the duo of Cheney and Puckett may flip positions throughout the season, in part to take advantage of Cheney being a plus defensive player at second. For the Panthers to be competitive within the Sun Belt, they will need the pitching staff to step up to support the offense. That task will fall in large part to a rotation of third-year sophomore righthander Ryan Watson (2-1, 5.95), fifth-year senior lefthander Tyler Koch (0-1, 2.70) and second-year freshman righthander Chad Treadway (2.20, 16.1 IP), plus the returning closer, third-year sophomore righthander Joseph Brandon (6.14, 7.1 IP), who runs his fastball into the mid 90s with a good breaking ball.

6. Appalachian State (11-6)

The App State coaching staff took note in the fall of a team that seemed emboldened by its good start to the 2020 season, and citing getting out of the gates quickly offensively in 2021 as the key to keeping the ball rolling. Certainly, it has a couple of pieces back in the lineup that should help to that end immensely in fourth-year junior third baseman Andrew Greckel (.357/.493/.696) and third-year sophomore second baseman Luke Drumheller (.311/.376/.527), both of whom are among the best returning hitters in the Sun Belt. Fourth-year junior left fielder Kendall McGowan (.236/.306/.345) is a key piece as well. He didn’t get off to a great start in 2020, but in 2019, he hit .305 with eight home runs. The loss of key reliever J.C. Hartman to the draft is a blow to the pitching staff, but the return of the top three starting pitchers in third-year sophomore lefthander Tyler Tuthill (1-2, 4.74), fourth-year junior lefthander Quinton Martinez (2-0, 3.68) and third-year sophomore lefthander Cole Hooper (2-0, 4.43), plus top relievers in fifth-year senior righthander Andrew Papp (2.53, 10.2 IP) and second-year freshman righthander Noah Hall (1.80, 20 IP) will help mitigate that departure.

West Division

1. Texas State (14-4)

Texas State returns one of the most experienced mid-major teams in the country and that bodes extremely well for a team that nearly earned an at-large bid in 2019 and got off to a fast start in 2020. In the lineup, that means the return of fourth-year junior first baseman Wesley Faison (.352/.455/.704), sixth-year senior left fielder Will Hollis (.338/.420/.515), fourth-year junior right fielder John Wuthrich (.322/.438/.644), fourth-year junior shortstop Dalton Shuffield (.297/.361/.375), sixth-year senior catcher Tucker Redden (.275/.412/.350) and fifth-year senior second baseman Jaxon Williams (.183/.269/.317), who hit .318 and garnered first team all-conference honors in 2019. The Bobcats also brought in additional experience by adding Houston Baptist graduate transfer DH Johnny Gonzales (.382/.447/.632). The rotation will be led by two more veterans in fifth-year senior righthander Zachary Leigh (1-1, 1.88) and fourth-year junior righthander Travis Sundgren (1-1, 3.18), with a lot of competition underway for roles on the rest of the staff. That group has a lot to live up to after putting up a 2.85 ERA last season.

2. Louisiana-Monroe (12-5)

The Warhawks came out flying in 2020, not just in terms of their record but in terms of their style of play. The lineup hit .311/.433/.468 as a group and swiped 36 total bases, good for a tie for 10th in the country. Most of that lineup returns, including players that hit over .300 last season in fourth-year junior third baseman Grant Schulz (.438/.538/.531), fifth-year senior left fielder Ryan Humeniuk (.406/.481/.594), fifth-year senior DH Andrew Beesley (.400/.565/.600), fourth-year junior right fielder Trace Henry (.321/.422/.396) and fifth-year senior catcher Logan Wurm (.302/.367/.349), who the staff also likes for his ability to defend and manage the pitching staff. That pitching staff had a solid 4.50 ERA last season and should be able to live up to that standard again with the return of fifth-year senior righthander Ty Barnes (3-1, 2.16) at the front of the rotation, fourth-year junior lefthander Tyler Lien (2-0, 2.70) as the Saturday starter and third-year freshman lefthander Cam Barlow (2-0, 4.38) as the Sunday guy, in addition to fifth-year senior righthander Landon Longsworth (4.70, 15.1 IP) in the closer’s role.

3. Texas-Arlington (12-4)

The Mavericks were off to a hot start in 2020, and while they did lose some key pieces like second baseman Zac Cook and reliever Cesar Gomez as nondrafted free agents and DH Andrew Keefer as a transfer to Missouri, they return a strong team that could be a contender in the division. Fifth-year senior center fielder Connor Aube (.375/.426/.464), fifth-year junior left fielder Phillip Childs (.320/.404/.480), sixth-year senior first baseman Dylan Paul (.303/.395/.424) and fifth-year senior right fielder Andrew Miller (.279/.375/.525) will lead the lineup. There should be more excitement, however, about a pitching staff that returns all three weekend starters, all of whom put up excellent numbers a season ago. That trio is fourth-year junior righthander Carlos Tavera (3-1, 1.71), who sits 92-95 mph with his fastball, fifth-year junior lefthander Kody Bullard (3-1, 2.95) and fourth-year junior righthander David Moffat (1-0, 0.67), who limited opponents to a .148 batting average in 2020. The projected midweek starter, third-year sophomore righthander Cade Winquest (1-1, 6.75), has the biggest arm of the four starters, with a fastball that sits 94-97 mph. A pair of dominant relievers in fifth-year senior righthander Wyatt Divis (0.00, 16 IP) and fourth-year junior righthander Tanner King (3.00, 12 IP) are also back in the fold. It’s asking a lot for this unit to put up a 2.42 ERA, as it did last season, but with this much talent and experience back, it’s not off the table.

4. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-9)

Coach Matt Deggs enters year two of his time in Lafayette with a lineup that’s a mix of returning players and new additions that will help mitigate the losses of shortstop Hayden Cantrelle, a fifth-round draft pick, and catcher Sebastian Toro, one of the team’s leading hitters. Among returners, sixth-year senior center fielder Brennan Breaux (.302/.388/.349) and fourth-year junior DH Connor Kimple (.283/.333/.302) put up the best numbers a season ago, although there is optimism that fourth-year junior first baseman Ben Fitzgerald (.208/.263/.434) will start to tap into his plus raw power more this season. Newcomers who will take on big roles include catcher Drake Osborn (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), a strong catch-and-throw backstop, shortstop Brett Borgogno (Cal State Fullerton), a reliable defender, and junior college transfer second baseman Sam Riola, who the coaching staff compares to former Cajuns slugger Stefan Trosclair. To lead the rotation, third-year sophomore righthander Connor Cooke (4.26, 12.2 IP) will transition from the bullpen to starting games. He’s a plus athlete who works with a fastball from 92-95 mph and a power curveball. He’ll be followed by another power arm in fourth-year junior righthander Conor Angel (1-2, 3.74). He typically throws a power sinker from 93-96 mph, but he was up as high as 98 mph this past fall. The closer’s role projects to be held by junior college transfer righthander Spencer Arrighetti, who began his career at Texas Christian. He sits 91-94 mph with his fastball but can reach 96.

5. Arkansas-Little Rock (9-8)

The Trojans will look to continue their trend of showing marked improvement under coach Chris Curry. That path forward got a little bit tougher when catcher and top hitter Kale Emshoff signed as a free agent, but the cupboard is not bare. Key returners are back on the roster and that group has also been bolstered by a large transfer class. In the lineup, third-year sophomore third baseman Nathan Lyons (.329/.382/.371) and third-year sophomore left fielder Miguel Soto (.302/.353/.365) are the top returners. Joining them are Jackson State graduate transfer second baseman Chris Prentiss, who should be a catalyst at the top of the lineup with his plus speed, and Ohio Wesleyan graduate transfer DH Canyon McWilliams, an accomplished hitter at the Division III level who will look to prove he can do it in Division I. In fourth-year junior righthander Aaron Funk (2-0, 2.01), Little Rock has a workhorse to lead the rotation. He threw two complete games in his four starts last season. Saturday starter Hayden Arnold (1-1, 3.21), fourth-year junior righthander, is also coming off of a successful 2020. Fourth-year junior lefthander Jack DeCooman, a transfer from Washington, will round out the rotation. As for breakout stars on the pitching staff, look to second-year freshman righthander Erik McKnight (0-0, 6.48). The coaching staff says he had as good a fall as anyone on the mound, with a fastball up to 95 mph to go along with a hard slider and changeup.

6. Arkansas State (7-9)

The core of the Arkansas State lineup is about as old as it gets, with the return of sixth-year senior center fielder Drew Tipton (.220/.355/.380) and sixth-year senior DH Sky-Lar Culver (.228/.308/.333). They both had tough 2020 seasons, but are much better hitters than those stats suggest. Also back are fourth-year junior third baseman Ben Klutts (.364/.447/.515), fourth-year junior catcher Ben Hicks (.327/.526/.636) and fifth-year senior right fielder Tyler Duncan (.321/.424/.446), the three best hitters from last season’s team. There’s more rebuilding to be done on the mound, where the top two starting pitchers, Zach Jackson and Chandler Coates, are gone. The rotation will now consist of fifth-year senior righthander Zech Jerrard (0-0, 1.76), who flashed dominance last season, fourth-year junior righthander Will Nash (1.32, 13.2 IP) who will move from the bullpen to a starting role, and fourth-year junior righthander Carter Holt, who is now fully healthy after having Tommy John surgery in 2019. Fifth-year senior righthander Kollin Stone (3.72, 9.2 IP) is back to anchor the bullpen once again.

Top 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama
  2. Parker Chavers, OF, Coastal Carolina
  3. Connor Cooke, RHP, Louisiana-Lafayette
  4. Connor Angel, RHP, Louisiana-Lafayette
  5. Cade Winquist, RHP, Texas-Arlington
  6. Nick Lucky, SS, Coastal Carolina
  7. Caleb Bartolero, C, Troy
  8. Rigsby Mosley, OF, Troy
  9. JoJo Booker, RHP, South Alabama
  10. Aaron Funk, RHP, Arkansas-Little Rock
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