2023 Conference USA College Baseball Preview
Few conferences have been—and will be—hit as hard by realignment as Conference USA has over the last few years. This season is marked by the departures of Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi to the Sun Belt. At the end of this season, Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio will all head off to the American Athletic Conference.
That’s a lot to keep track of. The conference will add four more schools—on top of Dallas Baptist, who arrived this year after nine years in the Missouri Valley Conference—but it makes for an unsettled 2023.
With Southern Miss, a nationally-ranked club, out of the picture, many would expect Louisiana Tech to assume the mantle of the team to beat. The Bulldogs joined the conference in 2012 and have made a trio of NCAA appearances since then, finally capturing the conference tournament title last season. The addition of Dallas Baptist, though, makes this an intriguing race and you’d be remiss to rule out Charlotte (2021 NCAA appearance), Florida Atlantic (six appearances since 2010), or even the likes of upstarts in UTSA and UAB.
Ultimately, the 2023 Conference USA campaign will likely be remembered for whether DBU—with seven straight regional appearances—seamlessly transitioned to a new conference; Louisiana Tech repeated and established it as its conference to lose; or one of the many departing programs headed out with style. Oh, and just to add another layer to things, three of the 10 teams have new head coaches.
Player of the Year: Nolan Schanuel, 1B, Florida Atlantic: All Schanuel has done in his first two years in Boca Raton is hit. In 113 career games for the Owls, Schanuel has hit .357/.462/.619 with 27 home runs, 112 RBIs and 24 more walks than strikeouts (67 to 43). While his 2022 summer in the Cape Cod League was marked by a .614 OPS—a little over half of his career line at FAU—he still showcased his trademark strong approach at the plate with equal walks to strikeouts while making strong contact. Schanuel is a pure hitter and a top draft prospect in 2023.
Pitcher of the Year: Donye Evans, RHP, Charlotte: Louisiana Tech’s Jonathan Fincher is the easy pick—he’s turned in four strong years for the Bulldogs—but the upside in Donye Evans is something to bet on. In two years with Vanderbilt, Evans threw less than 19 innings across 22 appearances out of the bullpen. He entered the transfer portal, showed out on the Cape and arrives at Charlotte as its likely Friday night starter poised for a big season. The 6-foot-6 righthander threw 22.1 innings for Orleans this summer, striking out 23 and walking nine to go with a 2.82 ERA. Evans has a fastball up to 96 and a mid-80s slider, a strong combination that has him likely to succeed with the 49ers.
Freshman of the Year: Dylan Oborne, RHP, Florida Atlantic: A 6-foot-3, 210-pound righthander from Canada, Oborne figures to be in FAU’s rotation right out of the gate. Last year, Old Dominion’s Blake Morgan took the league by storm as a freshman, and Oborne will attempt to do the same this spring. The product of Westmount Collegiate Institute, Oborne has a big opportunity right out of the gate and has a strong fastball and good offspeed to make the most of it.
Predicted Order of Finish (2022 record)
1. Louisiana Tech (43-21, 20-10)
Twenty-one newcomers dot the Bulldogs roster in 2023, none more notable than LSU outfielder Brody Drost. He was sidelined due to injury in 2022, but was a top recruit out of high school and made 20 starts as a freshman in Baton Rouge. He’ll join a team brimming with veterans in the lineup. While Taylor Young and Steele Netterville have moved on, the Bulldogs have the likes of Phillip Matulla (.252/.361/.436, 9 HR), Cole McConnell (.336/.417/.535, 9 HR) and Logan McLeod (.280/.410/.339) to lean on. That trio started all 64 games last season, with McConnell the most notable. A Cape Cod League all-star, McConnell is a terrific defensive outfielder and got on base at a .417 clip last year, second only to Young, an eighth-round pick. Add in Jorge Corona behind the plate and Tech has a strong offensive core. Drost arrived alongside fellow LSU transfer Will Safford, who could have an impact.
The Bulldogs have to replace a lot on the mound: Four of their top five by innings pitched, including righthander Kyle Crigger, a fifth-year that threw in over half of their games, and starters Ryan Jennings, Cade Gibson and Jarrett Whorff. That’s over 40 starts up for grabs. Still, returning Jonathan Fincher (8-2, 3.52 ERA) is plenty consolation: He pounds the strike zone, leading the conference in BB% (2.7%) a season ago and placing 10th in FIP. Of course, one starter isn’t quite enough—they’ll need steps forward from Greg Martinez (3-1, 5.46), Ryan Harland (3-0, 3.21) and Landon Tomkins (4-0, 3.45). Texas A&M transfer Rawley Hector (1-0, 7.98) is an intriguing pick-up, too, despite a tough freshman season. Tech ranked 29th in the country in ERA (4.25) a season ago and figures to take a step back, but it has the returnees to avoid a significant drop-off.
2. Dallas Baptist (34-24-1, 11-9-1 MVC)
Like Louisiana Tech, roster turnover is the name of the game for DBU coach Dan Heefner. Twenty-one newcomers dot the Patriots roster as they have to replace the likes of Cole Moore, Blayne Jones, Andrew Benefield and Ryan Wrobleski in the lineup along with four of the top five by innings pitched. Pitchers Luke Eldred and Jacob Meador solidified the weekend rotation, totaling more than 138 innings, and must be replaced. Still, there’s plenty of reason for optimism around the Patriots considering they haven’t won less than 34 games since 2013.
On the mound, it starts with Ryan Johnson (3-2, 4.30), a 6-foot-6 righthander who will likely assume the Friday night role. Fellow returnees Zane Russell (4-0, 1.73), Brady Rose (1-2, 4.15) and Alec Baker (2-0, 6.08) are veteran arms that will solidify the bullpen. As for filling out the rotation, the Patriots could turn to Bryson Hammer, a former Clemson southpaw that fanned 116 in 66 innings at Catawba Valley (N.C.) JC in 2022. Other options include a bevy of transfers like East Tennessee State’s Matt Bollenbacher and Nebraska’s Braxton Bragg.
Offensively, there’s plenty of talent returning, with the headliner being outfielder Jace Grady (.310/.419/.509, 10 HR). The left fielder is an all-around contributor with plus speed, swiping 25 bases a year ago. Second baseman Miguel Santos (.274/.335/.498, 10 HR) and third baseman Luke Heefner (.293/.373/.465) are two other everyday starters returning, while catcher Nate Rombach (12 HR) has plenty of pop. To have success, DBU will need steps forward from outfielders Nathan Humphreys (.622 OPS) and George Specht (.693 OPS) while incoming transfers Kodie Kolden (Washington State) and Tom Poole (junior college) must fill the voids effectively.
3. Charlotte (36-22, 17-13)
An up-and-down campaign plagued by injuries saw Charlotte come up shy of making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 2007-08, but the 49ers and fourth-year coach Rob Woodard have established themselves as a capable program. Plus, with six returning starters in the lineup and pitching depth as a source of strength, the 49ers could very well have the pieces to make a return to the postseason.
Of course, the three departed starters are big ones: David McCabe, Nate Furman and Josh Madole. Still, Woodard has to feel pretty good about his returnees, including the outfield duo of Cam Fisher (.288/.412/.607, 18 HR) and Jake Cunningham (.304/.410/.595, 16 HR) as well as third baseman Jack Dragum (.352/.440/.541, 11 HR). Add in catcher Kaden Hopson (.239/.415/.362), Austin Knight (.247/.373/.402), Will Butcher (11 HR) and Blake Jackson—who had just 63 plate appearances last year—and you’re looking at a core group of hitters that could cause a lot of damage.
On the mound, Spencer Giesting, Will Lancaster and Matt Brooks—who combined for 188 innings—are gone, but the 49ers have some intriguing arms. None is more notable than 6-foot-6 righthander Donye Evans, a Vanderbilt transfer, and he’ll likely be joined in the rotation by Presbyterian’s Clark Dearman and sophomore Collin Kramer (4-2, 4.07). In the bullpen, last year’s leader in appearances, Tony Rossi, is back but the bulk of the work figures to go to newcomers. Southern Miss’ righty Aubrey Gillentine and Kentucky righthander Wyatt Hudepohl are two such names, while another Vanderbilt transfer—Miles Langhorne—has high-end stuff. It’s a lot of new names, but the pedigree is notable, and Charlotte figures to continue to take a step forward on the mound under Woodard.
4. UTSA (38-20, 19-11)
One run. That’s all that decided UTSA’s fate in the 2022 Conference USA Tournament championship game. After making an inspired run as the fifth seed—the Roadrunners beat Florida Atlantic and then Southern Miss twice—they came up just short in pursuit of the auto-bid, losing to Louisiana Tech, 9-8. Still, UTSA finished with 38 wins—most since 2008—and returns a group of players that could seriously contend for a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Eleven of the top 12 pitchers by innings thrown last year return after finishing fifth in the conference in ERA. This includes Luke Malone (9-3, 2.67), the unquestioned ace, as well as high-leverage relievers Daniel Shafer (3-1, 3.29) and Simon Miller (4-3, 3.25). Shafer figures to join the rotation alongside Daniel Garza (4-1, 4.01), while Ulises Quiroga (2-4, 6.97) has a four-pitch mix and will look to take a step forward. Returning all of the team’s significant pitching is no small feat in the portal era, and logic would suggest they only develop further and become one of the conference’s top staffs.
The lineup got hit a bit harder, seeing as four of the top five by plate appearances—Jonathan Tapia, Ian Bailey, Ryan Flores and Chase Keng—have all departed after hitting .300-plus. Still, there’s an intriguing blend of returnees and newcomers. Back for another year are veterans in center fielder Shane Sirdashney (.321/.429/.482), first baseman Garrett Poston (.311/.450/.439), catcher Josh Killeen (.325/.415/.467) and second baseman Leyton Barry (.343/.405/.474). That core is supplemented by a trio of transfers, including Baylor’s Antonio Valdez at third, Texas Tech’s Dalton Porter in left and Texas A&M’s Taylor Smith at designated hitter. None of the three have found much offensive success at prior stops—Porter is on to his third college in three years—but could have breakout seasons. Ultimately, whether the offense can overcome the loss of four everyday players and get the most out of newcomers will determine the course of the year, especially since the Roadrunners know what they’ll get on the mound.
5. Florida Atlantic (35-23, 19-11)
Coach John McCormack has guided the Owls to nine straight winning seasons since joining the conference and it’d be a surprise to not see another successful campaign in the final year. Still, FAU went to the NCAA Tournament six times from 2013 to 2019 but hasn’t been back since.
Gabriel Rincones Jr.—a third-round pick of the Phillies—may be gone, but this Owls’ lineup still packs plenty of punch. Nolan Schanuel (.369/.477/.658, 16 HR) is the headliner and a favorite for conference player of the year honors, while Dylan Goldstein (.333/.473/.662, 18 HRs) put up comparable numbers a season ago. Jackson Ross (.282/.364/.468), Armando Albert (.764 OPS, 19 SB) and Jalen DeBose (.250/.365/.378) all return to form a veteran core. Add in outfielder Spencer Rich—who hit .438 and swiped 20 bases with Daytona State (Fla.) JC—and the Owls have a strong group.
Questions linger on the mound, though. FAU hit .287 as a team last year and averaged over seven runs per game, but a 5.68 team ERA—which was seven points higher in conference play—spelled its downfall. The Owls are running it back, albeit without the services of Tyler Burnham in the weekend rotation. Hunter Cooley (8-4, 4.67) was a workhorse last season, throwing 104 innings, while Nicholas Del Prado (3-1, 3.65) is a promising No. 2. An intriguing No. 3 starter emerged in the fall: Freshman righthander Dylan Oborne, who stands 6-foot-3 and can run his fastball up into the mid 90s. In the bullpen, Robert Wegielnik (4.34, 7 SV) returns, as does likely midweek starter or long reliever Jacob Josey (4-5, 5.85). Max Martzolf (2-2, 5.91) fanned 43 in 32 innings as a freshman and should only further develop, while junior college transfer C.J. Williams figures to play a key role. To have success, FAU will need the weekend rotation to eat up innings—including a breakout year for Oborne—and get more consistency out of the bullpen.
6. UAB (31-25, 13-17)
Year one of the Casey Dunn era in Birmingham went about as well as you could’ve hoped. The former Samford coach guided the Blazers to 30-plus wins for the first time since 2015 and even claimed a weekend series against conference-winner Southern Miss. Now, the Blazers will seek to build on it.
Top starting pitcher Jackson Reynolds, key reliever Brady Greene, and everyday starters Josh Sears, Caleb Floyd and Matt Golda have departed but the UAB roster is a strong mix of young and experienced. Christian Hall (.370/.443/.614, 11 HR), a former Tennessee-Martin transfer, is the top returning hitter by average in the conference, while catcher Henry Hunter (.286/.407/.474) was fantastic as a freshman. Second baseman John Marc Mullins (.317/.422/.438, 13 SB) took a big step forward last year. Another key returnee is Darryl Buggs (.301/.380/.422), while transfers are the name of the game in the rest of the lineup: Ben Abernathy (West Virginia) and Brayton Brown (Auburn) both should join the starting nine. Abernathy hit .318 in a small sample size, while Brown had just 67 career at-bats across three years but is a valuable addition.
On the mound, UAB can stake its claim on experience. While Reynolds is no small loss, and neither is Green, the Blazers do have a rotation of Brooks Walton (6-5, 4.68), Leo Harris (3-2, 5.59) and Tyler O'Clair (2-3, 5.23) that will be expected to improve after posting a combined 5.08 ERA across 88 innings a season ago. It’s not an overpowering rotation in terms of strikeouts, but could find success. In the bullpen, losing Greene—along with Collin Taylor and Aidan Moza, who transferred to Alabama—is difficult. Still, UAB does have Jonah Smith (1-1, 2.93) back after a breakout 2022 in which he established himself as a key relief arm.
7. Middle Tennessee State (29-26, 17-13)
A painful end to the 2022 campaign saw the Blue Raiders cough up 40 runs in two games, exiting the C-USA Tournament ingloriously. It was a strange end to a 17-win conference campaign that featured series wins against Charlotte and Louisiana Tech—as well as a taking a non-conference set away from Auburn. The Blue Raiders finished top 70 in RPI but saw coach Jim Toman resign a few months later, following a DUI charge.
Now, pitching coach Jerry Meyers has taken over as interim head coach and assumes control of a program that was trending upwards. Under Toman, the Blue Raiders finished 12th, eighth and then sixth in the conference. The pieces are there for a similar campaign in 2023. It starts on the mound; where the trio of Jaden Hamm, Eriq Swan and James Sells will look to shoulder the innings vacated by Trent Seibert, Peyton Wigginton and Zach Keenan. Hamm (4-2, 3.34) was excellent last year, while Swann (2-6, 7.62) might have the best pure stuff in the conference. He’s got a fastball up to 99 mph and pairs it with a slider. He walked 44 in 52 innings last year, but posted an 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in eight Cape Cod League innings this summer. Sells, meanwhile, was an all-freshman team selection last year after logging 45 innings with a 3.87 ERA.
The lineup lost a few pieces but no one player appeared in all 55 games—and just three saw time in 50-plus games. Two of those three return to anchor the lineup in infielders JT Mabry (.276/.316/.336) and Brett Coker (.282/.348/.436), with the latter driving in a team-high 35 runs. A pair of transfer additions figure to have an impact, too, with Jeremiah Boyd (Presbyterian) and Gino Avros (Austin Peay State) arriving for their graduate campaigns. The biggest addition might well be Jared Vetetoe, who played in just seven games as a true freshman before injuries cut his year short but earned preseason all-C-USA honors this year.
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8. Florida International (16-34, 8-22)
An improbable Conference USA title—as the eight seed—in 2015 marks the last time FIU reached the NCAA Tournament and it’s been turbulent tides since. Turtle Thomas stepped down following the next season, Mervyl Melendez managed one winning year in five seasons and now Rich Witten—after five years as an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth—takes the reins.
Witten inherited a team that finished last in the conference in hitting (.245 batting average) and pitching (7.09 team ERA). So, as you might’ve expected, he began to reshape the team this offseason. Eighteen newcomers, including 16 transfers, highlight the 2023 roster. The added depth alongside a group of returnees—the top six in plate appearances—should hopefully translate to offensive improvement. Outfielder Alec Sanchez (.274/.357/.528, 10 HR) will lead the way, while second baseman Dante Girardi (.255/.358/.329), VCU transfer Marcus O’Malley (.271/.374/.310) and Miami transfer Mike Rosario (.222/.357/.272) are other names to know.
On the mound, the weekend rotation will look much different with Patrick Pridgen and Carlos Lequerica gone. Ryan Cabarcas (2-3, 6.34), a redshirt junior, figures to headline the group, while Christian Santana—who threw just 14 innings over the last two years due to injuries—could have a big campaign. A reworked bullpen includes a trio of transfers: Evan Chenier (VCU), CJ McKennitt (Pittsburgh) and Cameron Knox (Fordham). While the offense should be improved in 2023, the pitching will be what the FIU campaign hinges on: Anything similar to last year could make Witten’s first year a frustrating one.
9. Western Kentucky (18-36, 7-23)
One of the most intriguing hires of the 2023 offseason belongs to the Hilltoppers, who tapped into the junior college ranks and grabbed Iowa Western’s Marc Rardin. Rardin spent 20 years at the helm of the Reivers, winning three NJCAA national championships. He’s overseen a plethora of future Division I players, including the likes of Notre Dame’s Tanner Kohlhepp and Louisville’s Cooper Bowman. The Hilltoppers haven’t had a winning season since 2014—two coaches ago—so Rardin will have time to rebuild the program.
A rebuild is exactly how this offseason played out. Just 14 return from last year’s 18-win club while Rardin hit the junior college and transfer portal for a plethora of interesting transfers. Of the returnees, there’s a few key pieces, none more significant than Tristin Garcia (.323/.367/.455), who clubbed 19 doubles a season ago. Ty Batusich (.286/.400/.481) is back after hitting 10 home runs, while Ty Crittenberger (.287/.395/.412) is another everyday starter. They’re joined by Drew Reckart (Ohio State), Brayden Johnson, a former first team all-SWAC selection at Prairie View A&M, and an assortment of other transfers including Kirk Liebert (Kentucky) and talented junior college infielder Bryson Arnette.
On the mound, Devyn Terbrak (7-4, 5.36) is back after leading the team in starts (14) and innings (89) but it’s a new-look staff around him. Cam Tullar, a lefthanded reliever with 45 career appearances at Mississippi State, is the biggest addition. CJ Weins—who threw 22 innings for South Carolina—is another veteran SEC addition. Beau Coffman and Cal Higgins are a pair of junior college transfers that figure to play key roles as well. Ultimately, with this many additions, there are more questions than answers—but at the least, Rardin has started to make his mark on the Hilltoppers program and 2023 could be the start of a turnaround in Bowling Green.
10. Rice (17-39, 9-21)
It has been a steady decline for Rice since Wayne Graham’s departure following the 2018 season, his only losing season in a 27-year tenure. Matt Bragga was fired after a 57-78-1 mark over three years, while José Cruz Jr’s first year saw the team post a .304 winning percentage—the program’s worst mark since 1927. For a storied program, it has been a difficult stretch, and Cruz Jr. will need to fight to restore relevance.
It’ll be a very new-look Rice pitching staff. Not only are six of the top seven pitchers by innings pitched gone, but there’s a new pitching coach as well. Parker Bangs arrives from Davidson and has some intriguing arms to work with. Parker Smith (2-3, 4.19) was effective across 10 starts as a freshman, Micah Davis (0-0, 14.73) has a big arm but needs to find better control and Mauricio Rodriguez is a junior college transfer who has a fastball in the mid 90s. Another interesting arm is Tennessee transfer J.D. McCracken—he struck out 31 in 25 innings in the New England Collegiate League this summer.
The biggest area the Owls need to improve is in the field—they were last in the conference in fielding percentage a year ago—but the lineup should take a step forward. Losing Austin Bulman's power (10 HR) aside, Rice runs it back with a team that was primarily composed of underclassmen a year ago. Nathan Becker (.302/.391/.413), Guy Garibay Jr. (.290/.392/.449), Aaron Smigelski (.272/.397/.517) and promising backstop Manny Garza (.385/.438/.585) all return. The left side of the infield pairing of Jack Riedel (.269/.352/.404) and Pierce Gallo (.264/.330/.340) are back as well.
Top 10 2023 Draft Prospects
- Nolan Schanuel, 1B, Florida Atlantic
- Jake Cunningham, OF, Charlotte
- Donye Evans, RHP, Charlotte
- Luke Heefner, SS, Dallas Baptist
- Ryan Johnson, RHP, Dallas Baptist
- Eriq Swan, RHP, Middle Tennessee State
- Jace Grady, OF, Dallas Baptist
- Dylan Goldstein, OF, Florida Atlantic
- Caleb Pendelton, C, Florida Atlantic
- Cam Fisher, OF, UTSA
Top 5 Newcomers
- Donye Evans, RHP, Charlotte
- Brody Drost, OF, Louisiana Tech
- Dylan Oborne, RHP, Florida Atlantic
- Bryson Hammer, RHP, Dallas Baptist
- Spencer Rich, OF, Florida Atlantic