2024 Conference USA College Baseball Preview


Image credit: Ryan Johnson (Photo by Eddie Kelly / ProLook Photos)

Conference USA has been in a state of transition for the last year, with realignment affecting the league as much as any nationally.

Of the 12 programs that made up the conference in 2022, eight of them—Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss and Texas-San Antonio—are now gone. Marshall, ODU and Southern Miss left after the 2022 season for the Sun Belt, while the other five departed last summer for the American.

Four teams remain from 2022—Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky. Dallas Baptist joined a year ago and won the conference in its first season. Now, four new teams have joined for 2024—Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State. And the changes aren’t done—Kennesaw State will join next season and Delaware will arrive the following year.

Despite all that turnover, C-USA remains a solid baseball conference. The losses have definitely made an impact, but a league with DBU, La Tech, Liberty and Sam Houston State—all of which have enjoyed recent, high-level success—should continue to be a multi-bid league. For that to happen in 2024, La Tech and Liberty will have to bounce back from relatively down seasons, but there’s reason to believe that can happen.

C-USA’s neighborhood is effectively brand new. But it’s worth stopping to take a look around this spring.

Below, find the following as we dive deep into the C-USA…

  • Predicted order of finish
  • Player, Pitcher and Freshman of the Year predictions
  • Team-by-team breakdowns
  • Top draft prospects

Predicted Order of Finish (2023 Record)

1. Dallas Baptist (47-16, 25-5)
2. Louisiana Tech (28-31, 15-15)
3. Liberty (27-31, 16-14 ASUN)
4. Sam Houston State (39-24, 21-8 WAC)
5. Western Kentucky (33-26, 16-14)
6. Jacksonville State (27-30, 18-12 ASUN)
7. Middle Tennessee State (27-29, 14-16)
8. Florida International (21-34, 8-22)
9. New Mexico State (14-37, 9-21 WAC)

Player of the Year: Walker Janek, C, Sam Houston State

Janek is one of the most well-rounded catching prospects in the country. He has a plus arm and is a good receiver behind the plate. He’s also hit .304/.403/.507 over the last two seasons at Sam Houston State. He’s got solid, righthanded power and will be at the heart of everything this spring for the Bearkats.

Pitcher of the Year: Ryan Johnson, RHP, Dallas Baptist

Johnson last year earned first-team all-conference honors after going 8-4, 4.43 with 116 strikeouts in 87.1 innings. Listed at 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, his fastball can touch 100 mph and he pairs it with a devastating slider. He’ll again lead the rotation for the Patriots.

Freshman of the Year: James Ellwanger, RHP, Dallas Baptist

Ellwanger ranked No. 173 in last year’s draft class and now brings his premium stuff to the Patriots’ staff. His fastball gets into the mid 90s and he has a full four-pitch mix. No matter what role he settles into this spring, he’s sure to pitch important innings for DBU.

Conference USA Team-By-Team Breakdowns

1. Dallas Baptist (47-16, 25-5)

Last year, in its debut season in Conference USA, DBU won all 10 conference series to roll to the title. It nearly won the double but lost to Charlotte in the conference tournament championship game. The Patriots look to be set for an encore in 2024.

DBU players last season won the conference’s defensive player (Nathan Humphreys, .351/.450/.644, 14 HR, 19 SB), freshman (Grant Jay, .319/.445/.755, 21 HR) and newcomer (Ethan Mann, .319/444/.695, 20 HR) of the year awards, and that trio returns as the core of the lineup. Also back are shortstop Luke Heefner (.249/.346/.365, 12 SB) and second baseman Miguel Santos (.313/.363/.558, 15 HR, 15 SB), who has started every game over the last two seasons. DBU last season averaged 8.3 runs per game, making it C-USA’s highest-scoring offense. That will likely be true again in 2024.

DBU did lose six pitchers in the draft, including starter Braxton Bragg and closer Kyle Amendt. But with righthander Ryan Johnson (8-4, 4.43) back at the front of the rotation, the Patriots have a strong building block for their staff. Senior righthander Jaron DeBerry (3-1, 5.71) and freshman righthander James Ellwanger are slated to follow him in the rotation. DBU will have to find some new answers in the bullpen, but it has no shortage of power arms to call on.

2. Louisiana Tech (28-31, 15-15)

The Bulldogs took a step back in 2023, as they posted their first losing record since 2015. They’ll be looking for a rebound in 2024 with an experienced lineup leading the way. Senior catcher Jorge Corona (.282/.387/.513) last season was named first-team all-C-USA. Along with corner infielders Dalton Davis (.290/.371/.543, 15 HR) and Logan McLeod (.304/.448/.392), as well as two-way standout Ethan Bates (.270/.377/.540, 16 HR), that’s a solid offensive core for La Tech.

The Bulldogs have a different look on the mound, as Jonathan Fincher, one of the program’s all-time greats, has graduated. Righthander Turner Swistak could take over at the front of the rotation. He missed last season at Tennessee due to injury, but previously impressed at Pearl River (Miss.) JC. Lefthander Luke Nichols (junior college), lefthander Ryan Harland (0-5, 5.98, team-high 29 appearances) and Bates (4-3, 3.02, 10 SV) will also pitch in key roles. La Tech last season ranked eighth in C-USA with a 6.06 team ERA. How much it’s able to improve that mark will weigh heavily on how well the Bulldogs bounce back in 2024.

3. Liberty (27-31, 16-14 ASUN)

Liberty joins C-USA after spending the last five seasons in the ASUN Conference, winning the conference tournament in 2019 and reaching the NCAA Tournament in three straight seasons from 2019-22. Last season was a step back, however, as the Flames finished sixth in the ASUN and recorded their first losing season since 2004. Now, they will join the new-look C-USA, where they will be expected to be among the annual contenders.

It starts on the mound for the Flames, led by lefthander Garrett Horn (5-5, 4.09). He is back to lead the rotation, while Cole Hertzler (4-1, 5.40) and Nick Moran (1-2, 6.36) have the stuff to move from the bullpen to the rotation. Righthander Trey Carter (2-1, 5.89) also returns after leading the team in appearances. Liberty struggled offensively last season, averaging 6.3 runs per game (198th nationally). The Flames will need to find a way to score more runs this spring, but do bring back a solid core of Brayden Horton (.341/.471/.543), Kane Kepley (.310/.457/.432, 17 SB) and Cam Foster (.272/.374/.512, 12 HR).

4. Sam Houston State (39-24, 21-8 WAC)

Sam Houston joins C-USA after a short, two-year stint in the Western Athletic Conference, and last season won the conference tournament. The Bearkats were longtime members of the Southland Conference, and it was under that banner that they reached super regionals in 2017, but their upwardly mobile football program has taken them to C-USA. They are traditionally one of the best mid-major programs in Texas and should be ready to compete in their new conference.

Catcher Walker Janek (.301/.377/.549, 13 HR, 10 SB) headlines the roster. He last season was named most outstanding player in the WAC Tournament and projects as a top-100 draft pick. Most of the rest of the lineup will be new, however, and Sam Houston needs some newcomers like freshmen infielders Blake Brown and Jace Martinez to step up. On the mound, the Bearkats are deeper. They welcome back Coltin Atkinson (9-5, 4.80), who will lead the rotation, and Chandler David (6-0, 2.34) to anchor the bullpen. Lefthander Marshall Wales (2-6, 5.43) is set to take on the No. 2 starter role and could be key to the success of the staff.

5. Western Kentucky (33-26, 16-14)

In 2023, in coach Marc Rardin’s first season, the Hilltoppers put together their best season in more than a decade. They posted their first winning season since 2014, their most wins since 2011 and reached the conference tournament semifinals. The league has now changed around them, but the Hilltoppers look like they’ll be able to build off that success.

It starts on the mound for WKU. Starters Dawson Hall (7-4, 3.58) and Lane Diuguid (2-4, 4.52) return, as does key reliever Mason Burns (6-2, 2.95, 4 SV). Jack Bennett (0-3, 7.34) is ready to take a step forward as a sophomore and lefthander Jacob Bimbi (Tennessee) arrives with high-level stuff. So, while closer CJ Weins was drafted and top starter Devyn Tebrak graduated, the Hilltoppers again should have one of the conference’s top pitching staffs. Meanwhile, WKU is nearly completely resetting its lineup. It last year had 10 players who recorded at least 100 at-bats and all of them are now gone. The newcomers to watch are shortstop Zayd Brannigan (junior college) and outfielders Caleb Marmo (junior college) and Dylan O’Connell (St. Thomas).

6. Jacksonville State (27-30, 18-12 ASUN)

The Gamecocks come to C-USA after a brief, two-year stint in the ASUN. Longtime members of the Ohio Valley Conference, they’ve moved to C-USA as their football team has moved up to the highest classification. As they join their new conference, they’ll do it under new leadership, as Jim Case last year retired following his 22nd season as head coach and Steve Bieser, the former Missouri and Southeast Missouri coach, was hired to replace him.

The Gamecocks got hit hard in the transfer portal following the coaching change, as four key players moved to SEC programs. First baseman Derrick Jackson Jr. (.340/.405/.673, 11 HR) and catcher Bear Madliak (.330/.389/.490) are key returners offensively. Jax State’s top five pitchers by innings pitched have all moved on. Righthander Alex Pipes, a junior college transfer, will take over as the top starter, while senior lefthander Will Baker (3-2, 6.35) is set to move from the bullpen to the rotation. A lot will be riding on Jax State’s newcomers this season.

7. Middle Tennessee State (27-29, 14-16)

The Blue Raiders are preparing for their second season under coach Jerry Myers and they have a couple big holes to fill after losing pitchers Eric Swan and Jaden Hamm in the top-five rounds of last year’s draft. They do return relief ace James Sells (6-5, 5.23, 6 SV), as well as sophomore righthanders Ollie Akens (2-0, 5.50) and Patrick Johnson (3-5, 5.56), who both earned spots on the conference’s all-freshman team last season.

Middle Tennessee returns five regulars from last season, including speedy outfielders Eston Snider (.286/.373/.438, 17 SB) and Luke Vinson (.311/.384/.383, 12 SB). Catcher Briggs Rutter (.306/.384/.430) adds more veteran experience.

8. Florida International (21-34, 8-22)

Last year, under first-year coach Rich Witten, FIU tied with Alabama-Birmingham for last place in C-USA and missed the conference tournament. The Panthers brought in a bevy of newcomers during the offseason, both from the junior college ranks and the transfer portal. Those players will be critical to their success in 2024.

Ryne Guida (.366/.444/.587, 11 HR) is the team’s top returner and last season finished third in the conference in batting. Shortstop Alex Ulloa (junior college) is probably FIU’s most toolsy player. An unsigned fourth-round draft pick out of high school in 2021, he hasn’t put everything together, but has serious upside. Kishon Frett last season hit 20 home runs in junior college and catcher Nelson Rivera Flores (South Florida) is a solid defender behind the plate. On the mound, freshman lefthander Tristan Dietrich brings high-level pedigree after being drafted in the 18th round. FIU last year finished last in C-USA in team ERA (7.12, 241st nationally) and will need to make a leap on the mound.

9. New Mexico State (14-37, 9-21 WAC)

The Aggies last season got behind the eight ball early and never recovered. After an 0-7 start, coach Mike Kirby was fired two weeks into the season. NMSU endured its worst record since 2015. Following the season, it hired Jake Angier as its new coach. Angier spent the last four seasons as Oregon’s pitching coach and previously served in the same role at Sacramento State and North Dakota State.

Leading hitter Keith Jones II (.377/.490/.611) is back, as is senior catcher Nick Gore (.279/.362/.464). Look out for center fielder Titus Dumitru (junior college) to be an impact newcomer. On the mound, top starter Treyjen Meza (1-7, 6.81) returns and the Aggies added powerful arms like Fernando Barreda (junior college) and Hayden Lewis (Arizona) to bolster the bullpen.

2024 Top 100 Prospects

See the full Top 100 entering the 2024 season headlined by Orioles SS Jackson Holliday.

Top 10 2024 Draft Prospects

1. Ryan Johnson, RHP, Dallas Baptist
2. Walker Janek, C, Dam Houston State
3. Garrett Horn, RHP, Liberty
4. Nathan Humphreys, OF, Dallas Baptist
5. Cole McConnell, OF, Louisiana Tech
6. Mason Burns, RHP, Western Kentucky
7. Luke Heefner, SS, Dallas Baptist
8. Alex Ulloa, SS, Florida International
9. Travis Dumitru, OF, New Mexico State
10. Ethan Mann, OF, Dallas Baptist

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