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2022 Sun Belt Preview

The Sun Belt has been in the news throughout the offseason as it has been a focal point of conference realignment. The conference will look very different in future seasons, as James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi will join, and Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington will depart.

Realignment will have a profound impact on the Sun Belt and following the changes, it could significantly raise its standing on the diamond. But all of that remains in the future for now. As it stands, the Sun Belt is still a solid baseball conference, even if it has been a one-bid league in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments.

Whether the Sun Belt produces an at-large team or not remains to be seen, but what fans can count on is a competitive race. Nine of the 12 teams in the conference last year finished Sun Belt play within two games of .500, making for exciting races in both divisions. Tight standings have been the norm for the conference in recent seasons and 2022 shouldn’t buck that trend.

Can Georgia Southern usurp South Alabama?

South Alabama last season edged Georgia Southern by one game in the standings and then beat the Eagles in the Sun Belt Tournament championship game, 10-4, to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The East Division may well come down to those two teams again. But which will have the upper hand in 2022?

USA must replace leading hitters Ethan Wilson and Michael Sandle, who were both drafted. The Jaguars return five regulars from last year’s lineup, with shortstop Santi Montiel (.295/.406/.480, 7 HR) leading the way. Significantly, however, they return their catcher and three infielders from a team that last season ranked fifth nationally with a .980 fielding percentage.

The best news for USA is that righthanders JoJo Booker (8-0, 3.64), Jeremy Lee (3-2, 3.46) and Miles Smith (7-1, 2.18) all return and could make up the best rotation in the conference. Key reliever Jackson Boyd (3-1, 2.79) is also back. Run prevention is going to be the name of the game for the Jaguars in 2022, thanks to their defense and pitching staff.

Georgia Southern also has several key pieces to replace. Leading hitter Mason McWhorter, All-American closer Nick Jones and its whole rotation are gone. To fill those holes, the Eagles will be looking for some returners to step up and for some key newcomers to provide a boost. Lefthander Ty Fisher, a transfer from Tennessee Tech, will step into the rotation and righthander Ben Johnson (2-3, 3.46) will move to the rotation after a solid freshman year pitching mostly in relief. An X-factor for the Eagles is righthander Jaylen Paden (1-2, 5.40), who is an excellent athlete with two-way ability and exciting stuff. Offensively, Georgia Southern gets back outfielders Christian Avant (.358/.428/.509, 13 SB) and Parker Biederer (.336/.401/.450) and slugger Noah Ledford (.258/.333/.511, 14 HR). With a couple key transfer additions, the Eagles have the makings of a solid lineup.

Georgia Southern hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2014 and it will have to go through USA to get back to regionals in 2022.

Can Louisiana-Lafayette compete for the conference title?

The Ragin’ Cajuns last season won the West Division but fell in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Tournament to Georgia Southern in extra innings. They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2016, but could this be the year they return?

Coach Matt Deggs is in his third season at UL and has some key pieces to replace but has a more athletic roster that fits his offensive philosophy. Among the returners is Bobby Lada (.269/.335/.455) , who moves from shortstop to second base, and outfielder Connor Kimple (.277/.353/.435, 9 SB). The Cajuns’ lineup will also have some key newcomers. Two to watch are outfielder Max Marusak (Texas Tech), who might be the fastest player in the country, and freshman shortstop Kyle DeBarge.

On the mound, righthanders Drew Shifflett, who transferred from Texas, and Tommy Ray, a junior college transfer, will join the rotation. Closer Brandon Talley (1-1, 1.59, 8 SV) returns to anchor the bullpen and watch for righthander Hayden Durke (2-3, 5.26), who has the biggest arm on the team.

If UL’s newcomers are ready to make an immediate impact, the Cajuns can be among the best in the conference. But with so much new, their range of outcomes is large.

Can Coastal Carolina rebound?

The Chanticleers won the Sun Belt Tournament in 2018 and 2019, but last season finished last in the East Division. For a program that’s used to competing for conference championships and more, it was a disappointing season.

Coastal went to work in the offseason to correct that result. It hit the transfer portal hard and among the key newcomers are righthanders Elliott Carney (Wofford), who was the Southern Conference pitcher of the year, and Michael Knorr (Cal State Fullerton).

It won’t all be about newcomers, however. Coastal’s lineup is anchored by outfielder Eric Brown (.294/.413/.513, 9 HR, 11 SB), who is coming off a strong summer in the Cape Cod League and projects as a top-three round draft pick thanks to his combination of power and speed.

The talent level in Conway is high and there’s every reason to believe Coastal will bounce back. But with so many transfers coming into the team, the Chants will need them to be good right away if they are to challenge the likes of South Alabama and Georgia Southern.

Delucia Dylan Courtesy Of Ole Miss

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How will Troy fare under first-year coach Skylar Meade?

Mark Smartt in June stepped down as Troy’s coach after six seasons as head coach of his alma mater. The Trojans hired Skylar Meade to replace him. Meade comes to Troy from South Carolina, where he served as pitching coach for four seasons.

Meade takes over a team that finished third in the East Division, but now must replace leading hitters Logan Cerny, who was drafted in the 10th round, and Drew Frederic. Look for outfielders Rigsby Mosley (.279/.367/.385) and Trey Leonard, a transfer from Louisville, to potentially become new leaders for the lineup.

On the mound, Troy returns starters Garrett Gainous (9-5, 4.66) and Bay Witcher (5-4, 4.17). Look for newcomers Logan Ross, a junior college transfer, and freshman Brady Fuller to get into the mix on staff as well.

Troy’s lineup is more veteran than its pitching staff, but if Meade is able to help the staff take a jump, the Trojans have intriguing upside in 2022.

Who are the player of the year contenders?

Coastal Carolina outfielder Eric Brown must be considered the favorite after hitting .294/.413/.513 with nine home runs and 11 stolen bases in 2021. He followed that up by hitting .282/.375/.436 with five home runs and 13 stolen bases in 33 games this summer in the Cape Cod League and now will look for a breakthrough spring in Conway.

Georgia Southern’s Mason McWhorter won the award a year ago and the Eagles again have contenders this spring. Christian Avant (.358/.428/.509, 13 SB) finished second in the league in batting in 2021 to McWhorter and could build on that this spring. Many of the league’s top home run hitters from a year ago are now gone, but Georgia Southern’s Noah Ledford’s 14 homers ranked third in the Sun Belt last season and with a bit more consistency, he could make a run at the award.

Georgia State outfielder Josh Smith (.324/.415/.544, 10 HR, 10 SB) and Troy outfielder Rigsby Mosley (.279/.367/.385) are two more players to watch.

Top 2022 Draft Prospects

1.  Eric Brown, OF, Coastal Carolina
2. Will Mize, SS, Georgia State
3. Peyton Zabel, LHP, Texas State
4. Cade Winquest, RHP, Texas-Arlington
5. Tyler Williams, OF, Arkansas-Little Rock

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