2022 Ohio Valley Conference College Baseball Preview
Parity has reigned in the Ohio Valley Conference in recent years, as Southeast Missouri State’s trip to regionals last season made the Redhawks the fourth different team to go to regionals in the last four full seasons along with Jacksonville State (2019), Morehead State (2018) and Tennessee Tech (2018 and 2017).
Expect that parity to continue apace in 2022 and beyond, as the OVC is one of several leagues that have a new look due to conference realignment. Though stalwarts like Southeast Missouri State, Morehead State and Tennessee Tech remain in the conference, a league that already felt like it featured a power vacuum at the top will feel even more so, at least until the membership feels more settled, which could take several years.
These are five important questions in the OVC ahead of the 2022 season.
Who is competing in the conference in 2022?
These are the nine teams that will compete on the diamond during the 2022 season: Austin Peay, Belmont, Eastern Illinois, Morehead State, Murray State, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin.
This most recent shift happened because Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State left for the ASUN and will begin play there this season.
You can’t get too comfortable with this particular nine-team configuration, because change is coming again in time for next season, when Austin Peay joins EKU and JSU in the ASUN and Belmont and Murray State will be in the Missouri Valley Conference.
However, reinforcements will also arrive next season in Arkansas-Little Rock from the Sun Belt, which should be an immediate contender in the OVC, and Southern Indiana from the Division II ranks.
The cream will always rise to the top, and it’s worth mentioning again that three of the most successful baseball programs in Morehead State, Southeast Missouri State and Tennessee Tech aren’t going anywhere for the moment. But it’s also true that realignment, by next season, will have taken away three of the top five teams in the 2021 league standings, so it’s understandable that there is likely to be an adjustment period for the OVC.
Can Southeast Missouri State repeat?
Southeast Missouri State (30-22, 17-10) pulled off the double last season of winning the regular-season title and the tournament title to capture the NCAA Tournament automatic bid.
They have to be considered a favorite to do so again in 2022, but the degree of difficulty is certainly heightened given the loss of staff ace Dylan Dodd, a third-round pick last year.
In that regard, a step forward from someone among the projected starting pitchers, be it fourth-year junior righthander Bryce Grossius (4-3, 6.13), fourth-year junior lefthander Noah Niznik (2-6, 8.25), fifth-year senior righthander Austin Williams (5.90 ERA, 39.2 IP) or junior college transfer righthander Tommy Windt, is a major key for success this season.
Grossius perhaps doesn’t have quite the stuff of Dodd, who could truly dominate on any given day, but he has the best stuff on this staff, with a heavy sinker that sits 88-93 mph, two distinct breaking balls, a plus slider and a high-spin curveball, and a changeup. He pitched very well down the stretch last season, lowering his ERA by nearly four full points in the months of April and May.
Even as Williams, a co-closer last season, projects to move to the rotation, the bullpen should be a strength with the return of the other closer in that timeshare situation, sophomore righthander Kyle Miller (3.86 ERA, 51.1 IP), and the addition of fourth-year junior Tennessee transfer righthander Jason Rackers (2.53 ERA, 10.2 IP). Miller has a four-pitch repertoire that includes a mid-to-high-80s fastball that plays up due to above-average induced vertical break, while Rackers pitches with a low-90s fastball that can reach 96 mph and a swing-and-miss changeup.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism about the Redhawks’ chances of repeating as conference champions, however, is the return to the lineup of last season’s top four hitters in sixth-year senior shortstop Tyler Wilber (.378/.446/.542), who has twice led the OVC in batting average, fourth-year junior left fielder Jevon Mason (.350/.447/.475), who led the team in extra-base hits in the fall, fourth-year junior catcher Andrew Keck (.298/.372/.424) and third-year sophomore first baseman Lincoln Andrews (.255/.277/.366).
Junior college transfer center fielder Josh Cameron also looks the part of an instant impact contributor. He put up monster numbers last season at Butler (Kan.) CC and led Southeast Missouri State in RBI in the fall.
In an offense-centric conference, the Redhawks have the firepower to keep up under any circumstances, but if the pitching staff can take a step forward, it will have all the necessary components to end the season atop the standings again.
Will there be any separation in the standings this season?
The OVC standings were extremely compact last season. Every team in the conference won between 10 and 18 games and six different teams finished within two games above or below .500 in conference play.
It appears we can expect more of the same in 2022, and there are reasons to believe any number of teams could end up on top in the end.
Murray State (33-25, 18-10) led the conference in overall and conference wins last season, and although big bats in Jordan Cozart and Brock Anderson graduated, the duo of fifth-year senior third baseman Bryson Bloomer (.297/.364/.520) and sixth-year senior center fielder Jake Slunder (.292/.365/.459) is a great starting point in rebuilding that unit. The Racers also return one of the best pitchers in the league in fourth-year sophomore righthander Jacob Pennington (3.38 ERA, 61.1 IP), who will reprise his role as a multi-inning stopper in the bullpen.
Morehead State (24-23, 13-11), which finished third in the conference last season, boasts one of the best hitters in the conference in sophomore first baseman Jackson Feltner (.390/.452/.652) and also returns its third-leading hitter from last season in sophomore center fielder Ryley Preece (.324/.424/.490). Athleticism and defensive ability stands out on this position player group with the return of Preece, sixth-year senior catcher Brody Shoupe, who missed all of last season with injury, junior college transfer third baseman Isaias Guzman, third-year sophomore shortstop Colton Becker (.211/.302/.361) and sophomore Wright State transfer outfielder Logan Castleman.
In what could be a difference-maker in the league, Austin Peay (23-33, 16-14) returns nearly all of its top pitchers from last season. That includes its projected rotation of fourth-year sophomore righthander Drew McIllwain (2-3, 4.05), fifth-year senior lefthander Harley Gollert (4-5, 5.22) and fourth-year junior righthander Luke Brown (4-2, 6.04), plus fourth-year sophomore closer Nick Wellman (6.46 ERA, 23.2 IP) and third-year sophomore swingman Peyton Jula (6.71 ERA, 52.2 IP).
Tennessee Tech (22-25, 15-15) not only brought back coach Matt Bragga, the second-winningest coach in program history, after a three-year stint at Rice, but it also returns a proven power bat as good as any in the league in fifth-year senior left fielder Jason Hinchman (.241/.369/.488) and fifth-year junior first baseman Golston Gillespie (.302/.439/.616), who slugged 13 home runs in 2021.
Anything can happen once the season gets underway, but it’s tough to imagine there being much in the way of defined tiers in the top half of the OVC standings this season.
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Is there a team ready to make a jump from the bottom of the standings?
Even with the teams that finished under .500 last season, you don’t have to dig hard to find reasons that they could push for the top of the standings.
Eastern Illinois (25-23, 14-16) returns the OVC’s batting leader in fourth-year junior outfielder Logan Eickhoff (.423/.463/.514) and one of the best starting pitchers in the league in fifth-year senior righthander Cameron Doherty (3-2, 3.45). Fourth-year junior two-way player Ryan Ignoffo (.286/.386/.592; 3.79 ERA, 19 IP) is also an intriguing talent. At the plate last season, he had four home runs in just 49 at-bats and he struck out 29 batters in 19 innings on the mound, using a fastball in the low 90s.
Belmont (22-30, 14-16) has a formidable one-two punch in the rotation with fourth-year junior righthander Joshua South (4-6, 4.69) and third-year sophomore lefthander Andy Bean (5-2, 4.10). And in sixth-year senior third baseman Logan Jarvis (.346/.474/.570), the son of coach Dave Jarvis, and fifth-year junior right fielder John Behrends (.332/.444/.554), it also has two hitters you could put up against any in the league.
Tennessee-Martin (19-29, 10-17) returns its two best power bats in third-year sophomore outfielder Wil LaFollette (.255/.298/.535, 12 HR) and fifth-year senior first baseman Ethan Whitley (.251/.302/.455, 11 HR).
More than any other team that finished in the bottom half of the standings last season, however, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (23-27, 13-17) looks the part of a sleeper that could compete for a conference title this season.
The Cougars, frankly, return more experienced position players than they have playing time for. They bring back nine players who started 25 or more games last season, led by fourth-year junior first baseman Ole Arntson (.321/.407/.591), fifth-year senior third baseman Connor Kiffer (.316/.386/.511), fourth-year junior center fielder Brett Johnson (.305/.444/.558) and fourth-year sophomore outfielder Brady Bunten (.280/.365/.606), who led the team with 13 home runs last season. Sophomore right fielder Avery Owusu-Asiedu (.235/.258/.379) is a breakout player to watch. He suffered through growing pains as a freshman last season, but he has as much upside as any player on the roster.
In addition to all of those returners, SIUE would also like to get junior college transfer outfielder Braedyn Brewer on the field. With plus athleticism and a 6.5 second sixty-yard dash run time, he projects to bring defensive value to the table and he’ll look to get on base enough to let his speed work for him.
The Cougars also boast good stuff up and down the pitching staff. It starts with fifth-year junior righthander Collin Baumgartner in the rotation. He would have gone into the 2021 season on the short list of pitchers expected to compete for OVC pitcher of the year honors, but he ended up missing the entire season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. When healthy, his fastball sits 95-97 mph, and his strike throwing has gotten progressively better throughout his career.
Sophomore lefthander Noah Matheny (5-4, 5.23) was thrust into the Friday role last season and handled himself well, but he’ll be a nice fit as the Saturday guy behind Baumgartner now. He works with a low-90s fastball, a low-80s slider and a changeup that had a 34% whiff rate last season. Fifth-year senior righthander Brant Gildewell (6-1, 4.45) will round out the rotation. He is a consummate strike thrower who walked just 12 in 56.2 innings last season.
An intriguing arm to watch for, possibly in a midweek role, is righthander Taylor Bruninga, a 6-foot-9 former basketball player at Illinois State who only recently returned to baseball. He has a fastball in the high 80s and low 90s and impressed in summer ball and throughout the fall, which has been the longest period of time he’s been on the mound in several years.
The bullpen will be anchored by junior college transfer righthander Spencer Smith, whose fastball sits 94-95 mph with a slider that flashes plus, and fourth-year junior righthander Jake Bockenstedt (7.41 ERA, 37.2 IP), who works with a low-90s fastball and a pair of breaking balls.
Climbing the standings in the OVC is tough when things are as congested as they are, but with this team, SIUE has a real shot at its best season since coming up to Division I ahead of the 2009 campaign.
Who are the favorites for player of the year?
Because the OVC is an offense-first league that plays its games in a lot of offensive environments, the player of the year race is always a wild ride. There are a ton of candidates just on the surface, many of which we’ve discussed here at some point. To put a finer point on it, these are five primary contenders to consider.
The first is Tyler Wilber from Southeast Missouri State, because leading the conference in hitting twice in his career suggests he’s going to be in the mix. Before doing so with a .378 average last season, he did so in 2019 with a .383 average. And at the time the season was canceled in 2020, he was hitting .404.
Morehead State’s Jackson Feltner finished second in the conference in hitting last season at .390 and slugged 11 home runs, tied for third among hitters returning in 2022. If he does something similar this season, he’ll be in the conversation.
Although he didn’t have his best season in 2021, Tennessee Tech’s Jason Hinchman is more than capable of putting up the monster numbers required of an OVC player of the year. Take his 2019 season, for example, when he hit .278/.420/.697 with 24 home runs. In four seasons at Tennessee Tech, he has 44 home runs.
Jake Slunder from Murray State not only had 20 extra-base hits last season, including eight home runs, but with 25 stolen bases, he provides a power-speed combination that could result in huge numbers across the board in 2022.
Similarly, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville’s Brett Johnson has power, with 12 doubles and 10 home runs last season, and he swiped 14 bases in 17 tries. With a .444 on-base percentage, helped by the fact that he walked (46) more than he struck out (44) last season, he certainly gets on base enough to put himself in position to rack up big stolen base totals.
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