2022 Atlantic-10 Conference College Baseball Preview
Very little was normal about the 2021 season in the Atlantic-10. The league split into two divisions as a way to reduce travel for members, a combination of schedule reductions and Covid-related cancellations meant many teams played closer to 40 games rather than the full 56 that are allowed in the regular season and the conference tournament was reduced down to a four-team affair.
The way things ended, though, was fairly normal. Virginia Commonwealth won the regular-season title for the third time in four full seasons and then backed it up by winning the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
The 2022 season promises more normalcy, as the A-10 has dissolved the divisions and will return to a seven-team conference tournament format in May. However, with VCU still the favorite to be the team playing in a regional when it’s all said and done, things may end up playing out just the way they did the season prior.
These are five important questions to consider ahead of the A-10 season.
What makes VCU the title favorite?
One easy answer here is that no program in the A-10 is as consistent year-to-year as VCU at this point. The Rams haven’t finished under .500, in league play or overall, since joining the conference, and the only season in which they didn’t qualify for the conference tournament was 2013, their first season in the A-10 and coach Shawn Stiffler’s first full season at the helm.
Another answer is that VCU (38-15, 13-3) has arguably the best player in the conference in third-year sophomore third baseman Tyler Locklear (.345/.515/.686), who led the A-10 in a number of offensive categories last season, including home runs (16, in a three-way tie for first), on-base percentage, walks (46) and RBIs (66). Not only is he the favorite to win player of the year honors in the league, but he’s expected to be the first player from the A-10 drafted in 2022.
There’s also a lot to like about the Rams on the mound, where they will have a rotation of lefthander Tyler Davis (4.86 ERA, 53.2 IP), sophomore lefthander Campbell Ellis (3.25 ERA, 27.2 IP) and third-year sophomore righthander Mason Delane (3-1, 4.87). Davis and Ellis were both relievers last season—although it’s important to remember that VCU over the last several years has employed a piggyback system on staff that blurs the line between starter and reliever—while Delane returns to the rotation.
Combined with the return of fourth-year junior righthander Evan Chenier (4.07 ERA, 42 IP) to a stopper role in the bullpen, it means that the Rams return a plurality of their most trusted arms from last season.
There’s more rebuilding to do in the lineup around Locklear, but fourth-year junior first baseman Michael Haydak (.320/.443/.431), sophomore shortstop Connor Hujsak (.239/.346/.460) and fourth-year junior right fielder Logan Amiss (.235/.364/.304) provide some experience around him in the lineup. Look for junior college transfer center fielder Scottie O’Bryan to be an immediate catalyst in the lineup as well. He hit .475/.547/.777 with 41 stolen bases last season at Niagara County (N.Y.) CC.
Which teams are the primary challengers?
Davidson (27-24, 11-13) stands out for the talent it has returning, especially on the mound, where it brings back a rotation one-two punch of fourth-year junior righthanders Blake Hely (4-2, 3.78) and Gabe Levy (5-3, 4.61). Another fourth-year junior righthander, Alex Fenton (2-8, 7.35), has weekend starting experience, but he may be pushed to the midweek role due to the healthy return of sophomore lefthander Ryan Feczko, who pitched in just two games last season. It’s a boon for the pitching staff to get back third-year sophomore righthander Nolan DeVos (1.48 ERA, 30.1 IP). A big-armed closer, DeVos turned down opportunities to begin his pro career as a draft-eligible second-year player last summer in order to return to Davidson.
In the lineup, Alexander Fedje-Johnson and Ruben Fontes are two big losses as grad transfers who left the program—remember that Davidson does not have a graduate school and therefore cannot have grad students on the roster—but fourth-year junior center fielder Trevor Candelaria (.285/.384/.576), third-year sophomore DH Henry Koehler (.271/.350/.390) and fourth-year junior third baseman John Hosmer (.262/.389/.523) provide a solid foundation around which to build out the rest of the batting order. The question for Davidson overall is if this team is ready to collectively take a step forward. For all the impressive talent it has, it still finished under .500 in league play last season. That will obviously have to change in order to compete at the top of the conference in 2022.
Dayton (25-27, 13-4) finished second behind VCU in the standings last season. It lost three of its top four hitters from last season, but the one in that group it returns, fourth-year junior first baseman Marcos Pujols (.346/.415/.585), is one of the best in the conference and the type of hitter who can carry a lineup. Around him, the Flyers hope a big group of transfers will be ready to contribute right away. One to watch is junior college transfer center fielder Jose Martinez, a plus runner with pop in his bat and an arm that generates throws from the outfield that clock in the mid 90s in terms of velocity.
It’s a similar story on the mound, where Dayton is starting fresh in the rotation, led by Central Florida grad transfer righthander Kenny Serwa (3-5, 5.81), who was dominant at times at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville before his one-year stop in the Sunshine State. Because of the roster turnover, there’s plenty of uncertainty with Dayton, but if its transfer class turns out to be filled with impact players, its ceiling is high.
St. Joseph’s (21-19, 15-9) will be extremely dangerous thanks in large part to the return of more or less the entirety of its starting lineup, led by fifth-year senior outfielder Brendan Hueth (.375/.444/.542) and fourth-year junior catcher Andrew Cossetti (.318/.450/.720), the latter of whom tied for the A-10 lead in homers with 16 and led the conference in slugging percentage. To truly contend for a conference title, the Hawks’ pitching staff will likely have to improve upon its 5.48 ERA from last season, but getting back fifth-year senior righthander Ian McCole (2-4, 4.55) to lead the rotation can only help.
George Washington (26-19, 14-11) is a dark horse candidate for a lot of the same reasons. Namely, it brings back third-year sophomore shortstop Steve DiTomaso (349/.438/.425), fourth-year junior second baseman Noah Levin (.333/.404/.519) and fourth-year junior center fielder Cade Fergus (.299/.437/.422), who occupied the top three spots in the batting order last season. Also like St. Joseph’s, however, the Colonials will have to show improvement on the mound to take a step forward.
After winning the North Division last season, just ahead of St. Joseph’s, Rhode Island (27-26-1, 13-6) has to be taken seriously as a contender again. It returns both one of the best starting pitchers in the conference in fifth-year senior righthander Ryan Twitchell (5-1, 2.97) and one of the best power bats in fifth-year senior first baseman Xavier Vargas (.256/.323/.468), who slugged 11 home runs last season. Fourth-year junior left fielder Billy Butler (.337/.422/.584) will provide good protection for Vargas in the lineup. He didn’t debut last season until late March, but on a rate basis was as good as anyone down the stretch. Look for La Salle grad transfer center fielder Jack Cucinotta (.223/.380/.386) to be a catalyst. He has game-changing skills on the bases and is a plus defender at his position.
There’s no getting around the fact that Fordham (24-19, 11-9) won’t be able to replace the dominance of Matt Mikulski in the rotation, but it does return four of its top five hitters, led by fifth-year senior shortstop C.J. Vazquez (.312/.375/.384) and fourth-year junior center fielder Jason Coules (.297/.404/.426), who led the team with 22 stolen bases last year. Even without Mikulski, the Rams’ track record of figuring things out on the pitching side is pretty good, so betting on a Fordham team with some certainty on offense and questions on the mound to compete near the top of the A-10 seems fairly safe.
Is there a team from the bottom of the standings that looks ready to make a move?
George Mason (14-29, 7-17) has had a rough go of it lately, going 5-19 in conference play in 2019 and 7-17 last season, but over the offseason, coach Bill Brown, now in his 41st season as head coach, brought in 24 new players and revamped the coaching staff and program philosophy in an effort to get things turned around quickly.
It remains to be seen how much difference that will make in 2022, but in terms of talent, the Patriots don’t look the part of a last-place team, which is what they were in the South Division last season.
Third-year sophomore left fielder South Trimble (.312/.383/.424) returns after leading the team in hitting last season, and while left field might be his default position, he could see time at as many as seven different positions in 2022. Sophomore Jordan Smith (.248/.327/.386) also has real breakout potential. His defensive skill at his position and his plus speed on the bases will never slump, but if he can be more consistent at the plate and make use of his natural power, the coaching staff sees him as a potential conference player of the year.
Around those two, there are plenty of new faces in the lineup, including Norfolk State grad transfer Danny Hosley (.357/.440/.473; 7-2, 4.01), who won MEAC player of the year honors last season for a team that made it to a regional. Hosley is an excellent pure hitter and a good defender at third base, and he should step into a prominent spot in the batting order right away.
Leading the Patriots’ rotation is fourth-year junior righthander Jared Lyons (6-2, 3.73), a conference pitcher of the year candidate who has four pitches in his repertoire, including a low-90s fastball that touches 95. Supporting Lyons in the rotation is junior college transfer lefthander Ryan Peterson, who won national pitcher of the year in his division at Niagara County (N.Y.) CC last season, and junior college transfer righthander Christian Mracna, who works with a low-90s sinker. Hosley may end up as the midweek starter, but he’ll have experience on his side as a former Friday starter at Norfolk State to lean on should he end up throwing on the weekend.
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Who are the player of the year candidates outside of Tyler Locklear?
Locklear, being as complete an offensive threat as exists in the A-10, will be the player of the year favorite going into the season, but it’s not necessarily a runaway in that regard.
The conference certainly has its fair share of boppers who could put up the kinds of massive power numbers that you often need to put up to win the award, including a pair of first basemen in Marcos Pujols at Dayton and Xavier Vargas at Rhode Island and a catcher in St. Joseph’s Andrew Cossetti.
Trevor Candelaria at Davidson is a power and speed threat who last season hit 11 homers and swiped 13 bases in 14 tries. If both of those figures make a jump—and last season he also hit 17 doubles, so it’s not out of the question that there’s more power in the tank—he will find himself right in the middle of the conversation.
Richmond sophomore shortstop Jared Sprague-Lott (.413/.490/.613) is an intriguing candidate. He had just 80 at-bats in 26 games last season, but really made them count and still managed to lead the team in RBI with 31 and was second in walks with 15, all while only striking out 10 times. If he can extrapolate that kind of production out over a full season, he’s in for a huge year. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Sprague-Lott’s teammate Dominic Toso (.310/.406/.500), a fifth-year senior third baseman who was quietly extremely productive for the Spiders in 2021.
The trio of Steve DiTomaso, Noah Levin and Cade Fergus could get into the mix if they end up being among the conference leaders in average, as DiTomaso and Levin were last season. The same can be said of St. Joseph’s outfielder Brendan Hueth. George Mason center fielder Jordan Smith hasn’t put it all together yet, but he has massive potential, the kind which could put him in this conversation when it’s all said and done.
Saint Louis boasts a couple of potential candidates in fourth-year junior Cam Redding (.322/.407/.537) and Missouri grad transfer infielder Mark Vierling (.246/.315/.335), whose numbers last season don’t fully capture how productive he was for the Tigers over four seasons.
For two other dark horse candidates, consider Massachusetts fourth-year junior catcher Dylan Judd (.312/.425/.493), who led the Minutemen in a number of offensive categories last season, and St. Bonaventure fifth-year senior outfielder Brendyn Stillman (.250/.354/.472). Stillman’s numbers last season don’t necessarily jump off the page, but he hit .519 with six home runs in seven games before the season was canceled in 2020. If he performs somewhere in between what he did in 2020 and 2021, he’ll be in the mix.
What about pitcher of the year candidates?
There’s no real clear frontrunner for pitcher of the year in the A-10 as the season approaches, but there are a handful of pitchers to keep an eye on for the award.
Jared Lyons from George Mason might be tops among them. He had a 3.72 ERA and a .192 opponent batting average in 72.1 innings last season, and his 76 strikeouts were good for fourth in the conference. His fastball can light up a radar gun at its best, but his curveball also had a 38% whiff rate last season.
Another name to watch is Rhode Island’s Ryan Twitchell. He finished third in the conference last season with a 2.97 ERA, and he leads all returning starters in the A-10 in innings pitched last season with 75.2. With a fastball that sits in the low 80s, Twitchell won’t blow anyone away, but you can’t argue with the results he’s had throwing strikes and changing speeds.
Both Blake Hely and Gabe Levy of Davidson have to be considered. Hely had a 3.78 ERA and held opponents to a .220 batting average last season, while Levy had a 4.61 ERA and a 65-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70.1 innings.
VCU’s Tyler Davis, Campbell Ellis and Mason Delane could also end up in the running, particularly if the Rams end up being anything close to as good as they were last season. St. Joseph’s will likely look for Ian McCole to be a workhorse, and if he does that in support of an offense that should be quite good, he’s a no-doubt contender.
Two names not mentioned here previously that bear mentioning are Richmond third-year sophomore lefthander Jeremy Neff (1-3, 4.91), who stuck out 46 in 44 innings last season, and Saint Louis sixth-year senior lefthander Trevor Harris (4-4, 4.34). Neff’s fastball typically works in the high 80s and low 90s but it touched as high as 95 mph last season with a slider that had a nearly 40% whiff rate. Harris is a prototypical crafty lefthander who uses a fastball in the mid 80s with a changeup and slider, both of which get swings and misses.
Top 2022 Draft Prospects
- Tyler Locklear, 3B, Virginia Commonwealth
- Cade Fergus, OF, George Washington
- Harrison Cohen, RHP, George Washington
- Nolan DeVos, RHP, Davidson
- Mason Delane, RHP, Virginia Commonwealth
- Jared Lyons, RHP, George Mason
- Jose Martinez, OF, Dayton
- Christian Mracna, RHP, George Mason
- Connor Dykstra, C, George Mason
- Trevor Candelaria, OF, Davidson