2022 Western Athletic Conference College Baseball Preview
The Western Athletic Conference, which has seen its membership shift more violently than any other conference over the last decade-plus, has nevertheless managed to find a quality core of teams that compete well year-in and year-out on the diamond.
Sacramento State and Grand Canyon are perennial contenders, New Mexico State joined them while it was developing a first-round pick in Nick Gonzales and California Baptist has proven to be an instant contender, even if it’s not yet eligible to compete in the postseason.
That hierarchy held firm in 2021, when CBU and GCU tied for the regular-season title and Sacramento State finished third. Those three should all be strong again in 2022, but a challenge will come from yet another raft of newcomers to the conference.
Here are five pressing questions in the WAC as the season approaches.
Which teams are actually in the WAC now?
Any discussion about the WAC this year has to start at this most basic level, because the league has a very different look than it did before.
One program departed, with Northern Colorado joining the Summit League as a baseball-only member, and four others joined from the Southland Conference: Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin, bringing the WAC to 13 baseball-playing members.
To help manage the unwieldy size of the conference, both in terms of the number of teams and geographically, the WAC split into two divisions, with the idea that teams in each division would play teams from their own division almost exclusively.
The West Division features all holdovers from the previous iteration of the league in Cal Baptist, Dixie State (to be known as Utah Tech beginning next year), Grand Canyon, New Mexico State, Sacramento State, Seattle and Utah Valley. The Southwest Division is made up of all the teams from Texas in Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
Don’t look now, but the WAC also isn’t done adding teams. Beginning next season, Texas-Arlington will join from the Sun Belt Conference for its second stint in the WAC after spending the 2013 season in the league and Incarnate Word will come over from the Southland. Assuming no defections, that would bring the WAC to 15 baseball-playing members and would give the league more of a footprint in Texas than on the West Coast.
Who is the conference title favorite?
The answer here is a team that won a conference title last season, but not the WAC title. Rather, it’s Abilene Christian, which won the Southland regular-season title last season by three games.
Optimism for this season has to start with the Wildcats’ lineup, which brings back every single everyday player from a team that hit .297/.397/.457 a season ago. That unit is led by fourth-year junior catcher Mitchell Dickson (.383/.465/.495), fifth-year senior right fielder Colton Eager (.342/.421/.604), who had 31 extra-base hits last season, fifth-year senior infielder Tommy Cruz (.335/.452/.421), who may see more time at DH, fourth-year junior center fielder Grayson Tatrow (.325/.421/.560) and third-year sophomore left fielder Miller Ladusau (.322/.383/.494).
The pitching staff wasn’t quite as successful last season, with a 5.58 team ERA, but ACU plays its home games in a hitter-friendly environment in one of the windiest places in the country, so the talent present on the mound is better than the numbers suggest. And for the 2022 season, the returning talent is also quite experienced.
Three weekend starters return in third-year sophomore righthander Tyler Morgan (3-3, 5.83), whose fastball will crank up to 95 mph, fifth-year senior righthander Genner Cervantes (7-2, 7.01), whose stuff jumped a bit over the offseason, and fourth-year junior lefthander Adam Stephenson (1-4, 3.72), a good athlete whose fastball reaches the low 90s. Stephenson, however, may slide down a spot to the midweek role thanks to the arrival of junior college transfer righthander Breck Eichelberger, who features a three-pitch mix that includes a fastball in the low 90s.
In mid-major leagues, older teams tend to win big, and ACU fits that bill. But on top of that, the Wildcats’ older players are proven and talented, and they already have the experience of winning a conference title under their belts. That’s the recipe for a preseason favorite.
Who else will be in contention?
The usual suspects in the WAC probably aren’t going anywhere and it won’t be a surprise to see some subset of them battling ACU near the top of the standings.
After sophomore righthander Carter Young (7-1, 2.77), who returns to the rotation, Grand Canyon has some questions on the mound with ace Pierson Ohl and closer Frankie Scalzo being drafted, Zach Barnes signing as a nondrafted free agent and Dawson McCarville transferring to Nebraska.
But the Lopes return a good portion of their lineup, including sophomore first baseman Elijah Buries (.374/.433/.553), third-year sophomore right fielder Tayler Aguilar (.331/.411/.529), fourth-year junior second baseman Jonny Weaver (.320/.368/.508), sophomore shortstop Jacob Wilson (.313/.376/.440) and fifth-year senior third baseman Juan Colato (.278/.376/.448).
Cal Baptist has a well-rounded team returning, even after losing its top four innings leaders on the mound and two of its top three hitters. Fourth-year junior left fielder Chad Castillo (.333/.397/.428), who won the Cape Cod League championship series MVP award over the summer, fifth-year senior catcher/DH Russell Stevenson (.340/.414/.577), sophomore third baseman Mitchel Simon (.308/.349/.492) and fifth-year senior second baseman Harrison Spohn (.297/.339/.429) return to lead the lineup.
On the mound, third-year sophomore righthander CJ Culpepper (3.30 ERA, 30 IP) will move from closer to Friday starter with a fastball that touches 96 mph and a slider that he can use in any situation, and fourth-year junior righthaner Drew Necochea (4-0, 3.62) returns to the rotation after starting 10 games in 2021.
Sacramento State returns key lineup pieces like fifth-year senior third baseman Steven Moretto (.277/.361/.521), sixth-year senior catcher Dawsen Bacho (.273/.323/.448), fourth-year junior right fielder Trevor Doyle (.324/.426/.417) and third-year sophomore second baseman Jorge Bojorquez (.330/.429/.510), and in third-year sophomore righthander Eli Saul (2-4, 8.82), it has a Friday starter with extremely good raw stuff, including a fastball that reaches the high 90s, even if he hasn’t been able to put it all together with the Hornets just yet.
Texas-Rio Grande Valley has found itself in the mix each of the last two seasons and could compete again. In fifth-year senior righthander Kevin Stevens (7-4, 3.17), it has a Friday starter as good as any in the league, and the return of fourth-year junior righthander J.C. Ariza (0-4, 3.66) and fourth-year junior righthander Colten Davis (4-2, 4.03) gives the Vaqueros a very solid rotation from front to back. If it can find replacements in the lineup after losing five of its top seven hitters from last season, UTRGV will be back near the top of the WAC in 2022.
Dixie State finished right behind Sacramento State in the standings last year, and the coaching staff is confident that it will be better on the mound this year than it was last year, when the Trailblazers had a 7.71 team ERA. If that turns out to be the case, they could be a dark horse contender.
How will the rest of the new members fit into the pecking order?
Newcomer Abilene Christian looks the part of the conference title favorite, but it’s less clear where the other three new programs will slot in during their first season in the WAC.
Sam Houston State was a perennial contender in the Southland and was often the most talented team in that conference. Generally, that bodes well for the Bearkats’ chances of being a factor in the WAC right away, but there are arguments to be made on both sides of that.
It helps to return experienced pitchers like fourth-year junior lefthander Matt Dillard (2-4, 6.34), sophomore righthander Coltin Atkinson (6-1, 2.72) and fifth-year senior righthander Tyler Davis (6-5, 5.75) in the rotation and fifth-year senior righthander Lance Lusk (4.39 ERA, 41 IP) in the bullpen. But the uncertainty in the lineup, especially when it comes to replacing the production of Colton Cowser and Jack Rogers, and the fact that SHSU’s grip on the top of the Southland undeniably slipped a bit last season, suggests that perhaps it won’t be automatic that the Bearkats are immediately a contender in their new conference.
Lamar brings some intriguing talent to the table, especially on the mound with the return of sophomore righthander Josh Ekness (1-3, 5.93), who spent the summer on the Cape and can run his fastball up to 100 mph, fourth-year junior righthander Braxton Douthit (1-3, 3.57) and fifth-year senior closer Jack Dallas (3.57 ERA, 35.1 IP). It also returns six starters from last season’s lineup, led by fourth-year junior left fielder Ben MacNaughton (.336/.400/.452), who led the team in batting average and steals (18), and fifth-year senior first baseman Chase Kemp (.302/.395/.581) who slugged 14 home runs a season ago.
On the other hand, the Cardinals hadn’t finished over .500 in the Southland since 2017, and while 2022 might be a breakout year that bucks that trend, it’s fair to want them to prove themselves before assuming they make that jump. Lamar also lost key pitchers who transferred to Texas (Marcus Olivarez), Oklahoma (Trevin Michael) and West Virginia (Zach Bravo), and you would like the team’s chances of competing in the WAC a lot more if it still had those three in the fold.
Stephen F. Austin is in a similar place to Lamar in that it has experience on its side in some key places, but it is also going to need to make a big jump in order to compete at the top of the conference. Fifth-year senior outfielders Kyle Cullen (.259/.387/.295) and Cameron Crawford (.251/.394/.365) can both makes things happen on the bases, as the pair combined for 23 stolen bases last season, and with five homers, Crawford also has occasional pop.
On the mound, fifth-year senior righthander Joe Todd (3-4, 4.79) and fifth-year senior lefthander Angelo Gennari (3-5, 5.34) give the Lumberjacks two returning starting pitchers, and sophomore righthander Brooks Caple (3.21 ERA, 14 IP) and third-year sophomore righthander Benny Emmons III (3.46 ERA, 26 IP) are back after solid seasons out of the bullpen a season ago.
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Who are the favorites to win player and pitcher of the year honors?
Because so many of the WAC’s best pitchers from last season, like GCU’s Pierson Ohl, Sacramento State’s Scott Randall and Cal Baptist’s trio of Matt Amhrein, Chris Burica and Bryan Pope, have departed, the preseason pitcher of the year conversation feels wide open.
It has to start with Kevin Stevens from UTRGV. Last season, he had a 3.17 ERA and 97 strikeouts compared to 20 walks in 93.2 innings. He works with a fastball that sits in the low 90s and touched as high as 94 mph last season with a low-80s slider that induced a 40% whiff rate.
The numbers might not suggest it, but Eli Saul from Sacramento State also has to be considered a contender. Across two seasons, he has an 8.79 ERA in 57.1 innings, but he has a big-time fastball that was up to 97 mph last season. If he can sprinkle in his offspeed pitches effectively in 2022—he threw his fastball 88% of the time last season—and can command his repertoire, he could be in for a big year. Josh Ekness from Lamar has a similar challenge in front of him to turn stuff into results, but like Saul, his ceiling is high enough to end up being the best pitcher in the league.
Carter Young from Grand Canyon also should be in this conversation. He put up a 2.77 ERA in 68.1 innings as a freshman last season. His teammate, fifth-year senior righthander Nick Hull, is also a pitcher to follow in this regard. He had a 1.77 ERA in 35.2 innings of relief last season. With a fastball up to 95 mph, he has the stuff to be a successful starter if he can hold his stuff later into games and make a successful transition.
Cal Baptist might have lost three workhorses after last season, but it also returns a pitcher of the year candidate in CJ Culpepper, who, like Hull at GCU, is transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation. He had a 3.30 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 30 innings last season using a fastball up to 96 mph.
For a dark horse candidate to consider, we can look at Seattle fourth-year junior righthander Alex Jemal (3-7, 4.18). With just 43 strikeouts in 71 innings last season, he doesn’t miss as many bats as others, but he throws a ton of strikes and proved last season that he could handle a heavy innings load.
By comparison, the position player side of things provides a much longer list of returning players who could conceivably win the award when it’s all said and done.
A good place to start when looking for favorites is any number of Abilene Christian hitters, including catcher Mitchell Dickson and right fielder Colton Eager, both of whom had massive seasons in 2021.
Beyond that, you have to look at players like Elijah Buries and Juan Colato from Grand Canyon, Chase Kemp from Lamar, Chad Castillo from Cal Baptist, Steven Moretto and Jorge Bojorquez from Sacramento State, Dixie State third-year sophomore catcher Kaden Hollow (.322/.421/.559), New Mexico State fourth-year junior infielder Ethan Mann (.305/.392/.538), Tarleton State fifth-year senior center fielder London Green (.313/.396/.464) and Utah Valley fifth-year senior center fielder Mitch Moralez (.274/.313/.363).
New Mexico State also provides a bit of a wild card in this mix with fourth-year junior two-way player Brandon Dieter. He hit .287/.369/.505 with 16 doubles and eight home runs last season. That’s good enough production to put him in the conversation as it is, but if he can also get back on the mound and be effective—he threw just three innings in 2021—he could make a very compelling case for himself.
Top 2022 Draft Prospects
- Eli Saul, RHP, Sacramento State
- Josh Ekness, RHP, Lamar
- CJ Culpepper, RHP, Cal Baptist
- Breck Eichelberger, RHP, Abilene Christian
- Jorge Bojorquez, 2B, Sacramento State
- Grayson Tatrow, OF, Abilene Christian
- Josh Rolling, OF, Sacramento State
- Kaden Hollow, C, Dixie State
- Brandon Dieter, SS/RHP, New Mexico State
- Chad Castillo, OF, Cal Baptist