AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
By Bill Ballew
When Ty Neal stepped down after last season as head coach of the Bearcats, the Cincinnati brass did not have to look far for a replacement. The school hired Scott Googins, who guided nearby Xavier to four regional appearances in 12 years, to try to end the program’s post-season drought that dates to 1974. Fortunately for Googins, he welcomes back a wealth of experience and a deep pitching staff that believes it can compete in the AAC.
After going 28-30 last year and finishing seventh in the AAC with a 10-14 conference mark, the Bearcats return four of their top five hitters, led by junior outfielder and all-conference candidate AJ Bumpass (.287/.384/.491). In addition to ranking second on the team in all three slash categories, Bumpass also was second on the Bearcats with seven home runs and first with 40 RBIs. Redshirt senior infielder Connor McVey (.280/.382/.383) contributed 14 doubles, 30 RBIs and 14 stolen bases, while sophomore infielder Jace Mercer (.273/.345/.358) had a strong collegiate debut with 29 RBIs and 10 steals. Senior outfielder Treg Haberkorn (.157/.254/.324) struggled as a junior after posting a .367 on-base percentage as a sophomore. Other returners who started at least 37 games include senior catcher Joey Thomas (.258/.305/.326), sophomore infielders Eric Santiago (.234/.308/.305, 28 RBIs) and Kyle Mottice (.191/.284/.265) and senior infielder Manny Rodriguez (.242/.297/.331).
Most of the team’s pitching staff returns from a year ago, led by versatile senior righthander David Orndorf (5-4, 3.41 ERA), who started eight of his 21 outings last season while notching a team-high seven saves. Senior lefthander JT Perez (2-7, 4.47 ERA) made 12 starts among his 18 appearances and led the team with 60 strikeouts. Fellow senior southpaw AJ Olasz (2-1, 5.35 ERA) started 10 of his 12 contests. Six other pitchers worked at least 30 innings, a group that includes senior righthander Jared Yoakam (3-1, 3.62 ERA), sophomore righthander Reese Robinson (1-2, 3.86 ERA), sophomore righty Nathan Kroger (3-1, 4.38 ERA), 6-foot-9 senior righthander Tristan Hammans (1-0, 4.40 ERA), junior lefthander Cam Alldred (2-1, 4.85 ERA), and junior righthander AJ Kullman (5-7, 5.37 ERA, 2 saves).
CENTRAL FLORIDA KNIGHTS
After having success at Wright State, head coach Greg Lovelady showed his ability to lead in his first season at Central Florida. Lovelady took over a team that went 26-33 in 2016 under former head coach Terry Rooney and guided the Knights to a 40-win season and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012. UCF also won its first regular-season championship in the American Athletic Conference with a 15-9 record and is looking to claim the program’s first NCAA Regional title since the school made its debut on the diamond in 1973.
The strength of the Knights’ 2018 club is expected to be its pitching. Sophomore lefthander Joe Sheridan (10-4, 3.25 ERA) put together an impressive debut last year while starting 12 of his 17 appearances. Redshirt junior righthander Chris Williams (5-4, 2.65 ERA) split his time between relieving and starting, with 11 outings coming from the bullpen and 12 as a starter. Lefthander Bryce Tucker (2-2, 1.66 ERA) is one of the better closers in the college ranks after posting 10 saves and striking out 55 batters in 38 innings last season. Senior righthander Eric Hepple (0.46 ERA) and junior righty Thad Ward (4-0, 2.29 ERA) were consistent in relief, while a pair of hard-throwing newcomers, junior righthanders JJ Montgomery and Jordan Spicer, intrigued the coaching staff as well as scouts during fall practice. The Knights also return Cre Finfronk and Nick McCoy after both pitchers missed the 2017 campaign due to injury.
The Knights’ top returning hitter is sophomore Rylan Thomas (.303/. 359/.530), who led UCF with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs in his first collegiate campaign last spring and made seven relief appearances on the mound. Junior infielder Matthew Mika (.278/.344/.339) added 12 doubles and 28 RBIs while pacing the Knights with 25 steals in 27 attempts. Junior Brandon Hernandez (Sante Fe Community College) took over the shortstop duties during fall practice and will upgrade the defense. Former SEC outfielders Ray Alejo (Ole Miss) and Brody Wofford (LSU) as well as Chipola Community College transfer Tyler Osik proved during the fall that they can play significant roles this spring. Junior catcher/infielder Anthony George (.294/.357/.391) and senior catcher Logan Heiser (.248/.330/.406) saw part-time duty last year but could garner additional at-bats this season.
Greg Lovelady podcast on College Baseball Now
EAST CAROLINA PIRATES
The Pirates were a popular pick to make their first trip to Omaha prior to the 2017 season before stumbling for much of the year despite having a senior-laden roster. ECU struggled to find its rhythm due to injuries and inconsistency and wound up 32-28 overall and 7-17 in the AAC, good for last place. Despite last year’s hiccup, head coach Cliff Godwin has established his program as a perennial national championship contender during his first three seasons in Greenville, which includes reaching the Lubbock Super Regional in 2016. Godwin’s direction and recruiting ability combined with one of the most passionate fan bases in the country has the Pirates seeking bigger treasure on an annual basis.
Last season’s veteran roster led to the departure of 12 letterwinners, including three First Team All-AAC selections, from the 2017 club. Five starters are back in the lineup, led by sophomore first baseman Spencer Brickhouse (.310/.385/.513), who tied for the team lead with 10 home runs a year ago. Switch-hitting junior shortstop Turner Brown (.263/.366/.359) was fourth on the Pirates with 11 doubles and 31 RBIs. Junior Dwanya Williams-Sutton (.286/.403/.509) and sophomore Dusky Baker (.268/.366/.289) are expected to hold down two of the three outfield positions, while sophomore Bryant Packard (.276/.328/.407) will see activity at designated hitter as well as the outfield. Catcher Spencer Smith, a 37th-round draft pick of the Rangers, NJCAA DII National Player of the Year Chandler Jenkins (Catawba Valley Community College), and transfer third baseman Connor Litton (Cowley County Junior College) are among the newcomers who could contribute this spring.
The Pirates also welcome back three pitchers with starting experience. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Trey Benton (3-4, 4.18 ERA) led last year’s team with 14 starts and struck out 74 batters in 71 innings. Sophomore lefthander Jake Agnos (3-3, 3.22 ERA) started 10 of his 16 outings, while junior righthander Chris Holba (4-2, 3.38 ERA) started six of 14 appearances. Right-handed relievers Matt Bridges (21-3, 4.82 ERA, 2 saves), redshirt senior Wes Covington (2-1, 3.14 ERA), redshirt senior Davis Kirkpatrick (1-0, 5.25 ERA), junior Sam Lanier (2-2, 5.17 ERA), sophomore Tyler Smith (2-0, 3.95 ERA), and senior lefthander Ryan Ross (0-2, 3.38 ERA) give Godwin a deep bullpen.
It would be hard to overstate the work head coach Todd Whitting has done since he assumed Houston’s dugout helm in 2010. The Cougars endured four straight losing slates before turning things around in 2013 and then tying the program’s single-season record with 48 triumphs and a trip to a Super Regional a year later. In 2017, Houston won the American Athletic Conference and finished second in the Houston Regional while going 42-21, including 15-9 in the league. Consistently one of the league’s strongest teams, the Cougars have won at least 36 games in each of the past five slates and hosted two regionals in the last three seasons.
Whitting and the Cougars expect to be back in post-season play in 2018 thanks to the return of a veteran, athletic roster. Six starters from last year’s lineup are back, headed by first baseman Joe Davis (.299), who hit eight home runs and compiled 46 RBIs last spring but missed fall practice due to ankle and wrist injuries. Senior Connor Hollis (.266/.387/.369) and sophomore Jared Triolo (.271/360/.372) are expected to hold down second and third base, respectively. Stellar defensive shortstop Cooper Coldiron (.245/.355/.283) should be ready from the start after missing much of last season due to transfer credit issues from junior college. Center fielder Grayson Padgett (.309/402/.414) compiled 40 RBIs despite hitting for minimal power but covers the gaps with aplomb. Freshman Drew Minter displayed above-average power during the fall and is the leading candidate to play right field. Two-way player Lael Lockhart Jr. (.276/.393/.356) and catcher/outfielder Nick Slaughter (.282/318/.436) should find their way into the starting lineup for most games.
Houston has an ace in Friday night starter Trey Cumbie (10-10-2, 2.04), a junior lefthander who is the reigning AAC Pitcher of the Year and received several Pre-season All-America honors prior to the 2018 season. Junior righthander Mitch Ullom (6-3, 3.57 ERA) piled up 95 2/3 innings in 2017. Redshirt junior southpaw Aaron Fletcher (2-1, 2.40 ERA) had eight saves last year but is expected to get a long look as a weekend starter. Sophomore righthander Fred Villarreal (1-2, 4.25 ERA) could become the closer if Fletcher starts. Senior Kyle Ott, a graduate transfer from Baylor, should become a solid piece to the bullpen.
Todd Whitting podcast on College Baseball Now
The Tigers have been competitive during the tenure of Daron Schoenrock, who is in his 14th season as Memphis’ head coach. Last year’s 30-29 record, which included an 8-16 mark in the AAC, represents the sixth consecutive campaign the program has attained 30 victories. Since baseball began at the university in 1913, the Tigers have reached the NCAA tournament on five occasions, the last coming in 2007, Schoenrock’s third campaign at the dugout helm.
A deep stable of pitchers will give the Tigers a shot at putting together a strong run in the AAC. Junior righthander Jon Bowlan (4-5, 3.75 ERA) is the top returning starter after striking out 78 batters in 84 innings in 2017. Senior righthander Connor Alexander (6-4, 5.08 ERA) tied for the team lead in wins last year while starting 10 of his 19 appearances. Junior righthander Alex Hicks (4-5, 5.26 ERA) started 11 times in 16 outings, while sophomore lefthander Danny Denz (1-1, 4.71 ERA) showed promise in seven games as a freshman. The bullpen is bolstered by redshirt junior righthander Blake Bennett (2-2, 3.79 ERA, 1 save) and junior lefty Hunter Smith (1-0, 5.47 ERA). The Tigers also have high hopes for righthander Riley Corbral, a transfer who earned All-America honors at Chipola Junior College.
The Tigers lost four of their top five offensive contributors from a year ago but welcome back a pair of steady hitters with some pop. Senior center fielder Tyler Webb (.305/.389/.474) has attracted pre-season all-conference honors after stroking 16 doubles with six home runs and 25 RBIs last year. Sophomore shortstop Alec Trela (.263/.342/.461) added 20 doubles and eight home runs, leading to 34 RBIs. Three other players who started at least 27 times and played a minimum of 45 games are also back in junior outfielder Colton Neel (.238/.366/.315), junior catcher Jason Santana (.227/.299/.276), and redshirt senior outfielder Carlos Williams (.225/.361/.313). Memphis is also expecting some output from first baseman Kyle Ouelette, a transfer from Walters State Junior College who batted .404 with nine home runs last spring.
SOUTH FLORIDA BULLS
The Bulls tied for third in the AAC last year with a 14-10 conference mark but earned the second seed in the Gainesville Regional by posting an overall record of 41-17. Along the way South Florida swept three-game series versus UCF and ECU and took two of three from Iowa and Houston. Since then Mark Kingston has taken over the head coaching duties at South Carolina and was replaced at the South Florida dugout helm by Billy Mohl, who spent the past three years as an assistant coach with the Bulls and has the administrative support and Florida-oriented recruiting base to make an impact in post-season play as soon as this year.
Seven starters from the 2017 slate are back, led by senior outfielder Duke Stunkel (.335/.427/.453), a Second Team All-AAC recipient who ranked sixth in the conference in batting average. Joining Stunkel in the garden are juniors Garrett Zech (.257/.369/.354), who stole 17 bases in 20 attempts last year, and Chris Chatfield (.234/.341/.435), who tied for second on the team with seven home runs. Three of the four infielders from a season ago are back, a trio that includes junior first baseman Joe Genord (.261/.348/.450), who led the team with nine roundtrippers while adding 37 RBIs, junior second baseman Coco Montes (.292/.362/.399), and junior third baseman David Villar (.303/.430/.468), who is coming off a seven-homer, 46-RBI campaign. Junior Tyler Dietrich (.262/.338/.315) and redshirt senior Levi Borders, who missed all of last year with an injury, are expected to handle the catching duties.
The Bulls also are solid on the mound with the return of two weekend starters in redshirt senior righthander Peter Strzelecki (3-4, 2.42 ERA), who led the team in ERA in 14 starts, and redshirt sophomore lefty Shane McClanahan (4-2, 3.28 ERA), who topped the conference with a .181 batting average against and ranked eighth in the nation with an average of 12.32 strikeouts per nine innings. Sophomore righthander D.J. Roberts (3-0, 3.35 ERA) made nine weekday starts among his 11 appearances. Returning bullpen arms include junior lefthander Andrew Perez (6-2, 2.23 ERA, team-high six saves), sophomore lefty Noah Yager (3-0, 2.70), and sophomore righthanders Collin Sullivan (0-1, 6.23 ERA) and Carson Ragsdale (7.27 ERA).
TULANE GREEN WAVE
The Green Wave fell below the break-even mark last year in head coach Travis Jewett’s first season after former head coach David Pierce (now at Texas) led Tulane to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2015-16. Last year’s team got off to a rough start, finished with a 27-31 overall record, and was on the outside looking in come tournament time. A former assistant coach under Tim Corbin at Vanderbilt, Jewett is an excellent recruiter with a firm understanding of what it takes to attract student-athletes to an academic-oriented school, which should bode well for the long-term success of the program.
The potential for this year’s team is more of a crapshoot. Jewett is hoping that a plethora of newcomers from the junior college ranks will combine with a handful of returning players to create a rising tide in New Orleans. Junior outfielder Grant Witherspoon (.299/.370/.420) had five home runs and 36 RBIs last season and displayed additional power potential during fall practice. Sophomore shortstop Sal Gozzo (.211/.291/.252) has added strength and should anchor the Green Wave’s middle infield. Sophomore infielder Kody Hoese (.213/.287/.279) also could make a significant step after getting his feet wet at the D1 level last spring. New arrivals expected to contribute right away include utility man Trevor Jensen (St. Petersburg Community College) and catchers Ty Johnson (Central Arizona Community College) and Acy Owen (Hinds Community College).
Sophomore righthander Chase Solesky (5-3, 3.84 ERA) started eight of 25 outings last year and could join the weekend rotation or relieve, based on the Green Wave’s needs. Junior lefthander Ross Massey (0-8, 9.68 ERA) has tremendous promise but struggled for much of 2017 and needs to rebound to give Tulane solid pitching depth. Righthanders Kaleb Roper (San Jacinto College) and Will McAffer (Central Arizona Community College) are strong candidates to start on weekends after impressing the coaching staff during the fall. Freshman righthander Josh Bates and freshman lefty Brendan Cellucci also are expected to contribute on the mound early in their collegiate careers.
Jim Penders, who is entering his 15th season as head coach, has made UConn relevant on the national stage. UConn reached the Super Regionals in 2011 behind current Boston Red Sox hurler Matt Barnes, which helped establish the team’s reputation for pitching. Regional appearances followed in 2013 and 2016 (when they won the AAC championship) and nearly happened again last spring, when the Huskies posted an RPI of 38 but failed to earn an invitation to the tournament despite finishing third in the conference with a 14-10 mark while going 33-25 overall.
Lefthander Tim Cate (4-3, 3.33 ERA), who garnered AAC Rookie of Pitcher of the Year honors in 2016 when he struck out 101 batters in 82 1/3 innings, had another dominant season as a sophomore in 2017. Cate whiffed 102 batters in 75 2/3 innings and is a two-time member of the USA Collegiate National team. Sophomore lefthander Mason Feole (7-4, 3.38 ERA) joined Cate on the AAC all-conference team and garnered ACC Rookie Pitcher of the Year honors for 2017. Junior righthander Ronnie Rossomando (3-2, 4.01 ERA) started eight of his 17 appearances last year and should see activity in both roles again this season. The bullpen is led by senior righthander John Russell (3-2, 2.84 ERA), who had 14 saves in 2017. The relief corps also features redshirt senior righthander Sam Neplarsky (1-0, 1.75 ERA), redshirt junior righthander CJ Dandeneau (2-0, 2.93 ERA), junior lefthander PJ Poulin (2-0, 3.28 ERA), and redshirt junior righty Dan Rajkowski (2-1, 5.09 ERA).
The Husky lineup is headed by junior catcher Zac Susi (.286/.362/.376), the team’s top clutch player last year. Among his 40 RBIs, good for second on the UConn club, 15 came from the seventh inning on. Sophomore shortstop Andrew Prato (.304/.376/.388) received Freshman All-America honors last year and led UConn with 69 hits, 50 runs and 15 stolen bases. Redshirt senior outfielder Isaac Feldstein (.264/346/.457) contributed 17 doubles, seven home runs and 43 RBIs. Senior infielder Willy Yahn (.317/.376/.434) led the team in batting average and was second with 12 doubles and fourth with 26 RBIs. Senior outfielder Troy Stefanski (.222/.300/.291) and sophomores Conor Moriarty (.226/.277/.336) and Chris Winkel (.225/.283/.338) had 31 or more starts apiece.
WICHITA STATE SHOCKERS
The Shockers have had three straight losing seasons, although head coach Todd Butler’s team did make a seven-game improvement last year by going 28-30 after posting a 21-37 slate in 2016. Possessing one of the richest traditions in college baseball thanks to the long-term efforts of Hall of Fame head coach Gene Stephenson, Wichita State last reached an NCAA Regional in 2013 but may have the talent to return to that level this spring. Making the challenge more difficult, however, is the Shockers’ shift in conferences, with the program moving from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic, which ranked fourth in RPI among leagues last year.
The Shockers have an experienced roster, headed by first baseman/outfielder Greyson Jenista (.320/.413/.509) and third baseman Alec Bohm (.305/.385/.519), a pair of juniors that emerged as two of the top hitters in the Cape Cod League this past summer. The Cape’s Most Valuable Player in 2017, Jenista has led the Shockers in hitting in each of the last two seasons, while Bohm was the Coastal Plains League top prospect in 2016. Both players provide significant power, joining redshirt junior second baseman Jordan Boyer (.295/.379/.448), who led the team with 42 RBIs last year. While senior infielder Trey Vickers (.296/.351/.398) and sophomore infielder Alex Jackson (.251/.297/.318) should continue to see regular activity, several other returners must produce more consistently in order to maintain their jobs. That includes redshirt junior outfielder Travis Young (.231/.354/.347), junior infielder Luke Ritter (.223/.348/.349), and junior outfielder Dayton Dugas (.206/.268/.298).
Experience on the mound is not as encouraging for the Shockers, which in all likelihood will determine whether or not the team reaches post-season play. None of the returning hurlers attained significant success on the bump last year. Redshirt senior lefthander Cody Tyler (4-5, 6.24 ERA) tied for the team lead in wins while starting 11 of his 12 contests. Sophomore righthander Tommy Barnhouse (2-3, 6.04 ERA) made eight starts in 17 outings but pitched only 44 2/3 innings, and redshirt sophomore lefthander Keylan Kilgore (0-1, 6.08 ERA) started eight of his 12 appearances but worked only 26 2/3 frames. Junior righthander Codi Heuer (2-2, 4.42 ERA) was one of the Shockers’ most consistent pitchers in his 23 appearances, including three starts. Contributions will be needed from a freshman class that includes righthanders Tyler Davis, Jacob Lindemann and Ryan Stuempfig.