2013 Preview – Conference USA

By Eric Sorenson. Posted on February 4th, 2013 in 2013 National Preview, Conference USA
 

2012 CONFERENCE ISR: 9

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HOW THEY’LL FINISH IN 2013:

1- Rice

2- UCF

3- Tulane

4- Southern Mississippi

5- East Carolina

6- Memphis

7- UAB

8- Houston

9- Marshall

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THE LOWDOWN.

Somebody check the I.D. of Conference USA. Please. It’s been a while since these guys have been major players in the national title chase and we’re getting cramps in our legs from standing around and waiting for it. See, 2012 was not exactly your vintage season from the CUSA mates here. For starters, the conference ISR ranking went from No. 5 in 2011 down to No. 9. And yes, even though there were four teams getting invites to the Big Dance, things took a dark turn from there as those four combined to go 4-8, with only UCF making it to the Regional finals. On the good side of things, seven of the nine teams won 30+ and there was also a big time jump up in quality from UCF and a return to relevance from Tulane. Still, and I cringe to write this, there hasn’t been a big time dominator (Rice was merely No. 20 in the ISR) and no CWS representatives since USM’s shocking run in 2009. I’m hoping for that to turn-around this year.

With seniors like Christian Stringer (5) and Michael Ratterree (8), the Rice Owls are the team to beat in CUSA circles once again.

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BREAKTHROUGH TEAM:

- Tulane.

As mentioned, the Green Wave were back to relevance last season and even put up a good argument for getting an at-large bid to the Big Dance. In 2010 and 2011, TU went 10-14 both times in conference play. Last year’s 14-10 finish included a 5-1 record vs. Memphis and USM, the two teams they tied with for 3rd place. Nearly every pitcher of note is back and the schedule is still pretty lilty soft, so look for the 38-win mark to be surpassed this year.

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TRENDING DOWN:

- Houston.

There will be another two steps back before the Coogs can take a step forward with the little amount of experience they have returning. But the incoming class has some moxie to it and coach Whitting will be coach Winning soon.

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BIGGEST CLEATS TO FILL:

- Ronnie Richardson, OF, UCF.

Sure, you could argue that power-stick D.J. Hicks absence will have a bigger impact, but it was RR who got the engines going for the Knights. Plus, he led CUSA in on-base percentage, runs scored, hit-by-pitches and stolen bases. Though he’s more of a Hicks-like slugger, getting Eric Hempe back after sitting out last year will be a big help to the UCF offense.

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BEST PLAYER:

- Drew Reynolds, 1B/RHP, East Carolina

The junior came up 3s in 2012, hitting .330, crushing 3HRs, going 3-0 on the mound and having an ERA of 3.00. He also added 10 saves to his stat sheet. With the recent suspensions and upheaval, Reynolds value just went up considerably.

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BEST PITCHER:

- Austin Kubitza, RHP, Rice

Though he’s had two straight 6-5 records, the Rice Rocket actually had a better freshman year than sophomore year, when he threw 102Ks and had an ERA of 2.34 and just 24 walks. Look for a return to triple digit strikeout numbers and a more commanding presence on the mound.

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IMPACT NEWCOMER

- Ryan Williams, RHP, East Carolina.

The 6’5 righty with the low-90s zinger should figure into the Pirate rotation from early on and his comfort level could be a major factor on whether this is a season to remember for ECU or not.

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STEAL A LEAR JET FOR…

- UCF vs. Rice, April 12-14.

The Owls will face USM, Tulane and ECU in the first three weekends of conference play, so there will be a lot decided by the time this UCF series finally gets tipped off. But it still should be the biggest series of the season, especially considering the Knights lost the regular season title last year by one game when they lost on the final day of CUSA play by a 5-2 count to the Owls. Revenge time?

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CAPSULES…

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- ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM (32-30, 9-15)

2012 ISR: 110

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

OF Ivan DeJesus (.295-3-23, 12SBs)

OF Jeff Schalk (.279-3-24)

RHP Ben Bullard (5-5, 2.96)

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NOTES:

- Odd year for the Blazers, including a season-opening win at Clemson, Friday wins at UCF and vs. Southern Miss and of course that big run in the CUSA tournament which allowed UAB to return to the Regionals for the first time since 1991. That was a much-needed breakthrough for coach Shoop and Company, being the first 7-seed to win the CUSA tournament crown. And the 32 wins was the most in a season for the Blazers since 1996.

- The Blazers just lacked any sort of star power last season, not getting any players in the top 10 of hitting or pitching in the Conference USA ranks and seeing their offense finish second-to-last at .266, their pitching finish third-to-last at 4.46 (which actually ain’t too shabby, all things considered) and their defense finished third-to-last at .968. By the by, not a single returning hitter went over the .300+ mark.

- The Blazers came up clutch when they needed to, going 13-5 in one-run games. It may be hard to emulate that again this year unless a viable replacement for saves ace Ryan Nance can be found. RHP Chase Mallard (4-4, 3.50, 2svs) made 24 appearances out of the pen and could move toward the end of games. He held opposing batters to a .243 average last season.

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- UCF (45-17, 16-8)

2012 ISR: 33

Starters Returning: 4

Weekend Starters: 3

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 1

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Ben Lively (9-2, 3.00)

LHP Eric Skoglund (5-3, 3.21)

LHP Chris Matulis (7-0, 3.68)

3B Chris Taladay (.298-5-49)

DH Jeramy Matos (.276-5-20)

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NOTES:

- The Knights keep making strong steps in the Terry Rooney regime. Last year, they increased their win total into the 40s, came within a game of the CUSA crown and then made it further than any other conference team in the Big Dance, playing for the  Regional title in Coral Gables.

- As the season went on the Knights tended to give up some big run totals, including surrendering 30 runs in their final three games of the year vs. Stony Brook. Roman Madrid and Joe Rogers were great saves guys out of the pen, but they both moved on after last season. The rest of the arms corps needs to step things up significantly in 2013.

- To that point, the good news is that the weekend rotation returns RHP Ben Lively, the Friday ace, and will also have lefties Chris Matulis  and Brian Adkins (3-6, 4.78). Between those three hurler the Knights will have 39 starts on the mound coming back to the roster. Also, LHP Eric Skoglund was a Freshman All American last year, starting eight games and making 17 appearances. He should reach even more of a comfort zone this season.

- A newcomer worth watching is former Texas A&M RHP Spencer Davis, who spent last season at Howard College. Davis, who was drafted in the 35th round of last June’s draft, throws around 92-93mph on his heater and could be a versatile arm for the bullpen. OF Bo Decker was a 39th round pick and brings a projectable 6’2 frame to the meadow and at the plate.

- Getting back the services of OF Eric Hempe (.307-7-29) couldn’t have come at a better time since there isn’t a single player returning with starting experience that hit .300 or better last season. With D.J. Hicks and Ronnie Richardson flying the coup, Hempe will provide some much-needed pop with his 15 doubles and seven home runs he swatted in 2011.

- Also watch out for 1B James Vasquez, who hit .418-12-42 in 32 games last summer in the Cal Ripken League. Vasquez was just .276-0-17 as a freshman last season but looks like he may be ready to blossom this spring.

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- EAST CAROLINA (36-24-1, 13-10-1)

2012 ISR: 53

Starters Returning: 5

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

1B/RHP Drew Reynolds (.330-3-24 & 3-0, 3.00, 10svs)

SS Jack Reinheimer (.294-2-22, 10SBs)

DH/1B Chase McDonald (.283-4-30)

RHP Jeff Hoffman (3-2, 3.67, 1sv, .224OBA)

RHP Andy Smithmyer (5-2, 1.92, 1sv, .227OBA)

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NOTES:

- There’s good news and bad news associated with the Pirates 2012 season. On the good side, they won 36 games and got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. On the bad side, this wasn’t the kind of banner year ECU’s rabid fan base was expecting, especially not a 6th place finish in the conference and a controversial at-large bid. They’re used to winning championships and going chest-first into the Big Dance.

- An 11-14 stretch from Tax Day onward is what put the Pirates in that “controversial” predicament… especially since the NCAA Selection Committee usually leans more toward teams that are playing on an uptick toward the end of the season. Coach Billy Godwin and Co. hope for a stronger finish this time around.

- Job one for this pre-CUSA slate is to find some quality depth in the bullpen. The Pirates leaned mostly on seven pitchers last year and lost starters Kevin Brandt and Jharel Cotton, two legit intimidators. In addition to Hoffman and Smithmyer above, also look for dual vital roles from saves leader Drew Reynolds, who is also one of the best two-way players in the country and held his opponents to .229 average.

- On the major bummer side of things, one arm that won’t be around this season is returning wins leader Tyler Joyner, who was 6-2, 3.01. But Tyler is going to sit out the 2013 season with an injury. Oh, and Tanner Merritt (3-6, 2.91, 8svs) was expected to be a big contributor again but was suspended indefinitely from the team in January. As of this writing it’s unsure if he’s going to make a comeback to the team this year or not.

- Collegiate Baseball magazine had ECU’s recruiting class ranked at No. 2 in Conference USA and No. 33 nationally. The coaches were impressed by incoming JUCO RHP Ryan Williams, a big righty from Morgan Hill, CA who has a low-90s heater and is projected to join the weekend rotation. Also, look for fellow righty Justin Taylor, who also hits the low-90s from his 6’4″ frame.

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- HOUSTON (18-35-1, 5-18-1)

2012 ISR: 171

Starters Returning: 3

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 1

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Austin Pruitt (3-4, 4.25)

OF Landon Appling (.324-3-26, 10SBs)

OF Michael Pyeatt (.326)

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NOTES:

- Aye-mama! This ain’t what the Coogs were expecting. Especially not for a team that had all three weekend starters back on the mound and some proven relievers too. Eighteen wins and a second-to-last finish in CUSA play. Yuck. The pitching and defense finishing a dead-last 5.32 and .953 respectively can have a lot to do with that. But we can sort of give these guys a pass since there was so much upheaval and new blood to work with here as the program went into a makeover.

- Don’t expect Coach Whitting’s charges to be down long. I think he’s got the pedigree deeply ingrained to be a winner there in H-town, it just might take a wee bit longer than expected. Bringing in the 36th-ranked recruiting class in the country will certainly help. JC All American RHP Daniel Ponce de Leon, a 38th round draft pick last June, is the best of a good group of incoming pitchers who should make a difference. Also look for quality innings from freshman lefties Jared West and Jacob Lemoine, who both come to campus with the ability to hit the high-80s on their fastballs.

- Landon Appling was the top hitter on the team last year and will be the straw that stirs the drink again, though his stolen base totals went down from 22 as a freshman to just 10 a year ago. But with only two returning starters in the field, the Coogs are thankful to get the services of 1B Casey Grayson, who started 23 games and hit .289 before being injured, and OF Ashford Fulmer, a highly-regarded freshman who had to sit out 2012 with a hand injury.

- One thing that will have to turn around immediately is the knack of sluggish starts. In 2012, the Cougars were outscored by 42 runs in innings one-through-three.

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- MARSHALL (17-37, 5-19)

2012 ISR: 221

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

1B Nathan Gomez (.316-3-39)

OF Issac Ballou (.308-2-24, 21SBs)

SS Sergio Leon (.302)

RHP Aaron Blair (2-8, 3.98, .238OBA)

RHP Josh King (2-5, 2.30, 23apps, .250OBA)

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NOTES:

- In last year’s preview on the Herd I wrote “Unless the new crop of frosh and transfers comes up huge, this year may be even more of an uphill struggle.” Well ya’ dern tootin’ I was right. Randy Moss U. hit rock bottom in the CUSA standings again and saw their ISR ranking plummet from 2011′s 187 down to last year’s 221.

- Getting Friday ace Aaron Blair back will give the Herd a chance to win every opening game of the weekend. Blair had a bang-em-up summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer, posting 6-0, 1.17 numbers for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. The big problem comes in trying to find capable Saturday and Sunday guys. Senior LHP Wayland Moore (1-4, 7.90, 9starts) was shoddy at times last season, though he threw well in the fall so look for a much better season.

- RHP Josh King proved to be a reliable bullpenner last year, making 23 appearances on the season. He could move into a starting slot on the weekend if the incoming class doesn’t provide enough workable arms that are ready for CUSA play right away.

- The coaches are very high on incoming frosh Aaron Bossi, who lit up in the fall workouts and scrimmages. He could be a firestarter with his speed and skill at the top of the batting order for the years to come. Also watch for fellow first-year guys like Travis Myers and another speed-merchant Mardu Smith. Also, C Matt Kirkwood led the fall scrimmages with a .500 average. He sat out 2012 with an injury after transferring from Cleveland State. Kirkwood could be the missing lock-down backstop that MU has gone without for a number of years now.

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- MEMPHIS (31-28, 14-10)

2012 ISR: 85

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Jonathan Van Eaton (6-2, 1.58, 8svs)

OF Derrick Thomas (.273-4-37)

RHP Sam Moll (5-5, 3.48)

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NOTES:

- The 100th year of Memphis Tiger baseball won’t be the smoothest go-round. coach Daron Schoenrock knows there are a lot of works-in-progress on the diamond this year. The top three hitters and the top three starting pitchers have all flown the coop and will need to be replaced.

- Memphis lost three of the better hitters in the conference in Adam McClain, Jacob Wilson and Eli Hynes, who all finished in the top 15 of hitting in CUSA ranks. Wilson was drafted in the 10th round of the June draft.

- There’s a chance there will be an expanded role for Jonathan Van Eaton, who made 30 appearances out of the ‘pen last season and gave up just seven earned runs in 40.0 innings of work. His pinpoint accuracy and control could be greater utilized in a starter’s role for 2013. Sam Moll and Michael Wills (4-2, 4.73) will be the headliners on weekend mound duty, unless Van Eaton is given the golden ticket first.

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- RICE (41-19, 17-7)

2012 ISR: 20

Starters Returning: 3

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 2

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Austin Kubitza (6-5, 2.69, .211OBA)

2B Christian Stringer (.343-3-36)

RHP Jordan Stephens (2-3, 4.38, .227OBA)

SS Ford Stainback (.289)

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NOTES:

- When I saw the Owls play in person back in mid-March of the 2012 season, little did I know they were playing against the eventual national champions in Arizona, but I also thought they had the better team. But in the ebb and flow of a long season, it turns out that coach Wayne Graham’s Owls started to wilt in the late-season heat, going 11-7 down the stretch, seeing their bats go near-silent (just eight runs in their final five games). It hurt my heart to see this happen to these boys. (Sniffle. Sniffle… sorry, I’m getting verklempt here.)

- Okay, we’re being a little too negative here kids, I mean these guys DID win another CUSA title, nabbed 40+ wins, led the loop in pitching (at 2.85 team ERA), were second in defense (.975) and hosted a Regional at Reckling once again. So yes, looking at the big picture, the world is back on its axis and all is good. Well, that is, until we start to discuss this year’s rebuilding project…

- It will be odd to see the Rice arms staff without familiar names like Reckling, Wall, Benak and particularly the one-two punch out of the bullpen from Tyler Duffey and J.T. Chargois, who combined for 89inns, 2.02ERA and 15svs.  So besides getting the bats some electricity, finding some additional arms for starting assignments and bullpen work will be of utmost importance.

- The incoming class was typical of the Owls, not the top-rated group in the country or anything, but still came in at No. 27 nationally by Collegiate Baseball. Add RHP Kevin McCanna to the rotation of capable arms as he was a 27th round draftee in the MLB draft last June. Also, it looks like swift-footed Leon Byrd, a 25th round pick of the Mets, will eschew his usual middle-infield position and cover the meadow in CF. He has the speed, ability to be a top-part-of-the-order kind of guy.

- Speaking of the draft, Coach Graham will also get back the very versatile Chase McDowell, who was picked up in the 30th round by the Pirates, but chose to come back for his senior year. McDowell has had a star-crossed career with injuries playing a big role. But he has a high ceiling, despite his .245 career average. McDowell also has a 2-1, 4.85 mark on the bump, where he has made 20 appearances.

- As mentioned above, the defense was exemplary last year (I’m trying use big words to impress those smarties at Rice). With Christian Stringer at 2nd, Ford Stainback at short and Shane Hoelscher at 3rd, the Owls might have one of the better infields in the country. Michael Ratteree also comes back to his left field spot, though the staff hopes he reverts to his soph form where he hit .327-6-53, and not last year’s curious .233-6-32 numbers.

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- SOUTHERN MISS (32-24, 14-10)

2012 ISR: 83

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

OF/RHP Mason Robbins (.330-3-38 and 1-0, 4.01, 33.2inns)

RHP Andrew Pierce (7-4, 1.99, 14starts, .238OBA)

RHP/DH Bradley Roney (2-1, 2.42, 11svs and .227-2-10)

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NOTES:

- We can’t be too bummed out over the Eagles 2012 showing, considering everyone knew this was going to be a rebuilding year at Pete Taylor Field. And sure enough, it showed, especially at the dish where they hit just .278. But the pitching was solid – a 3.83 ERA despite not having any weekend starters coming back – and the defense was a capable .974. Still… the Eagles NOT in the NCAA tournament field? Pshaw. That has become a thing of rarity.

- And don’t forget, that banner recruiting class from a year ago that was ranked 3rd-best in the country by Baseball America is now a bunch of experienced sophomores. So watch for talents like Mason Robbins, Michael Sterling, Connor Barron, Jake Drehoff and Brad Roney to hit even more of a comfort zone for this program and lead them back to hovering in the 40-win range.

- This year’s incoming class wasn’t as highly regarded as 2012′s stellar group of frosh, but keep an eye on RHP Conor Fisk, a JC transfer who the coaches were really high on after seeing him perform in the fall. Fisk could end up as a mid-week starter at the beginning of the year.

- Mason Robbins had an All Star summer in the Cape Cod League, once hitting a sprint-off, inside-the-park home run in the 14th inning of a game. He was tabbed as the 15th-best pro prospect in the Cape League by Baseball America, so look for him to be a mainstay on the post-season accolades circuit. Fellow soph Michael Sterling could be primed for a breakout season as well, hitting .288 in 38 starts as a freshman. Sterling has a knack of getting plunked – team-best 28 times last year – and stole 11 bases. His .486 on-base percentage led the team.

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- TULANE (38-20, 14-10)

2012 ISR: 65

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

SS Brennan Middleton (.357, 14SBs)

OF Brandon Boudreaux (.330-8-36, 10SBs)

3B Garrett Cannizaro (.305-4-42)

LHP David Napoli (7-3, 2.86)

RHP Alex Byo (9-4, 3.38)

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NOTES:

- The Green Wave were given the shaft on selection day last year, but there are signs they are definitely on the way back to prominence. This year could be the year they break the sumbitchin’ door down. All 58 of their starting assignments on the mound return to the roster, including the one-two punch of David Napoli and Alex Byo (who seems to have been at Tulane since the late 90s). The only real question mark for this team is whether they can find a rock-solid closer to fill the cleats of David Ponder, who had 12 saves and held opponents to a .193 average.

- The Greenies finished 11th in the country in defense last season and will return Brennan Middleton, Garrett Cannizaro and 1B Sean Potkay (.313-5-30) to the infield. So the dirtbaggers look ready to go and ready to excel.

- It was said that the schedule was the biggest anchor to the 2012 squad’s post-season hopes of the Green Wave. And, rated at No. 142 in the land by Boyd Nation, it’s easy to see why… especially since East Carolina’s was rated at No. 74. Still, on the surface, it doesn’t look like 2013′s slate is any great shakes either with 3-gamers vs. Notre Dame, Alabama, High Point and UT-San Antonio marking their pre-CUSA work. But they will open the season at the Texas State Tournament, playing against the host Bobcats and also Sam Houston State and Missouri State.

- Before we leave the schedule talk alone, it should be noted that TU may have the toughest road to pave in the conference, having to go on the road to face Rice, USM and UCF this season. That’ll put some hair on your chest…. that is, if the Hurricanes down at Pat O’Briens don’t do that first.

 

COMMENTS:

February 4, 2013 at 2:42 pm
waltgreenberg says:

Great jpob, as usual, Eric…but I do think you’ve got UCF way too high (I have tthem coming in 5th in the conference) and USM way, way too low (IMO, and that of several others, they’re at Top 25 caliber team). BTW, Rice returns two weekend starters (Kubitza, Stephens); not one…and if you add McDowell, who will very likely pitch on sundays (as he did in 2011, before going down to injury), that makes three. Also, in the bullpen, McNair, Fant and Spurlin– who all contnbuted in 2011, but missed last season due to injury– return to join Simms, Lemond and Rutter.


February 8, 2013 at 12:39 am
irvinebaseballfan says:

Stitch,

With the departures of Memphis, Tulane, UCF, East Carolina, and Houston next year, replaced by FIU, FAU, and Old Dominion, how do you see the future of CUSA as being one of the conferences with clout? Is it getting watered down? Reloaded?

I think FIU will be a solid add, but the jury is out on the others. Does Rice carry the whole thing from here on out?

*Apologies if I missed any departures or adds.