Best Hardball in the Group of Five: 2017 Sun Belt Baseball Preview

It’s a rare treat, to say the Sun Belt is the best at something. But when it comes to play on the diamond, the Sun Belt enters the 2017 season unmatched. The evidence? Coastal Carolina, newly minted to the Sun Belt, enters the season as defending national champion. Two Sun Belt programs appear in the USA TODAY Preseason Coaches Poll – #9 Coastal Carolina and #16 Louisiana. The only  G5 programs appearing in the poll are the American’s East Carolina (#10) and CUSA’s Rice (#25).

Baseball makes sense for the Sun Belt. As a conference positioned squarely in the American South, the warm and sunny winter climate is ideal for hardball. (While MAC and most Mountain West baseball programs are freezing inside cramped indoor facilities, Sun Belt teams are shagging flies in the sunshine.) In the South, baseball is not the religion that is football, but the game is deeply ingrained in region’s fabric. There is no shortage of talent to be found within the recruiting grasp of Sun Belt programs. With the acquisition of Coastal Carolina, the Sun Belt should invest more in baseball. The potential for gaining relevance is high.

New for 2017: Divisional Play

The Sun Belt ditched divisional play for basketball only to apply the concept to baseball. Personally, I enjoy divisional play as it creates more tension. Personally, I wish the Sun Belt had been more creative with the division naming than the standard old East and West. How about celebrate the world’s greatest buddy cop duo with “Tango and Cash?” Or earn some corporate branding dollars with “Left Twix vs Right Twix?” Why am I doing all the thinking, Sun Belt?

East Division
Appalachian State
Coastal Carolina
Georgia Southern
Georgia State
South Alabama
Troy

West Division
Arkansas State
Little Rock
Louisiana
ULM
UT Arlington
Texas State
Also new in 2017, the number of teams allowed into the conference tournament has increased from 8 to 10, meaning only the bottom team from each division stays home.

Who’s gonna be good in 2017?

Yes, Louisiana and Coastal Carolina are the conference’s flagship programs, combining for  seven of fourteen preseason all-conference selections. But is there a program not named “Cajuns” or “Chanticleers” that can compete for the Sun Belt title this year?  Let’s make a case for three:

Georgia Southern Eagles

Last year, 6th seeded Georgia Southern powered its way to the championship game at the Sun Belt Tournament in San Marcus, upsetting third seeded Little Rock and 2nd seeded South Alabama along the way. The Eagles fell to the Cajuns 5-0 in the title game, but Georgia Southern may just be warming up. The Eagles see the return on starting pitcher Evan Challenger and Al Sun Belt first baseman Ryan Cleveland. Challenger led the Eagles staff with 77 strike outs, and Cleveland supplied the muscle with 15 home runs and .586 slugging percentage. Look for Georgia Southern to put some pressure on Coastal and South Bama in the East this season.

UT-Arlington Mavericks

If you’re not going to contribute in football, contribute somewhere else. The Mavericks rarely field a substandard baseball team, and UTA is once again expected to compete. Solid talent returns to the lineup. The Mavericks lose aces Jacob Moreland (6-1. 2.27 ERA) and Joe Kuhnel (6-4, 2.99 ERA), but Kadon Simmons (9-4 3.05) returns, and so do serial hitters Brady Cox (.385) and Quintin Rohrbaugh (79 hits). The Mavericks finished the 2016 season in 7th place, but the West Division is soft enough for UTA to earn a choice seed in the Sun Belt tournament.

South Alabama

Last year, eternal baseball powerhouse South Alabama joined Louisiana at the College World Series, But the Jaguars failed to emerge from the Regional. This season, the Jags find themselves wrestling in the difficult Sun Belt East Division, but they have the horses to pull them through. Slick-fielding short stop Drew LaBounty (47 runs, .444 OB%) returns to spark the offense, and Randy Bell (7-1, 2.45 ERA) returns to lead the staff. The pitching should be a South Alabama strength. The staff’s 3.77 ERA and 418 strikeouts was second and fourth in the Sun Belt. It’ll need the same production to compete in the East.

But the Cajuns and Chanticleers clearly run the show

Coastal Carolina ace starting pitcher, Andrew Beckwith, was named the Sun Belt Preseason Pitcher of the Year. You might remember Beckwith. All he did was post three starts in Omaha last year (allowing all of two earned runs), clinch the victory game, and be named the 2016 College World Series Most Outstanding Player. Yawn! Anyway,   Sure, Coastal loses heavy hitter Zach Renillard (.341, 19 HRs), but Billy Cooke (.324, 77 hits) and Seth Lancaster (.236, 7 HRs) can fill the bases in their absence. The Chants do lose a little power, with Renillard, Connor Owings (16 HRs) and G.K. Young (18 HRs) gone.

Louisiana went 21-9 last year to win another conference championship and earned a 1-seed in the Lafayette Regional. The Cajuns’ magic season ended with a loss to eventual national champion runner up Arizona. But Louisiana is not showing any signs of weakness, loading the Sun Belt Preseason All-Conference team with sizzling hot Cajuns, including starting pitcher Gunner Leger (7-3, 2.26 ERA) and relief pitcher Dylan Moore (14 saves). Designated hitter Steven Sensley and utility fielder Joe Robbins give the lineup spark, but it’s pitching that’s going to carry the Cajuns to another College World Series.

2017 Sun Belt Conference Baseball Coaches’ Preseason Poll

EAST DIVISION
1. Coastal Carolina
2. South Alabama
3. Georgia Southern
4. Troy
5. Georgia State
6. Appalachian State

WEST DIVISION
1. Louisiana
2. UTA
3. Little Rock
4. Texas State
5. Arkansas State
6. ULM

Guys to Know

2017 Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference Baseball Team

  • Andrew Beckwith (Coastal Carolina, Starting Pitcher, Senior)
  • Evan Challenger (Georgia Southern, Starting Pitcher, Redshirt Senior)
  • Gunner Leger, (Louisiana, Starting Pitcher, Junior)
  • Dylan Moore  (Louisiana, Relief Pitcher, Junior)
  • Brady Cox (UT Arlington, Catcher, Senior)
  • Ryan Cleveland (Georgia Southern, First Base, Senior)
  • Jonathan Ortega (Texas State, Second Base, Sophomore)
  • Drew LaBounty (South Alabama, Shortstop, Redshirt Junior)
  • Seth Lancaster (Coastal Carolina, Third Base, Junior)
  • Dalton Thomas (Little Rock, Outfield, Senior)
  • Billy Cooke (Coastal Carolina, Outfield, Junior)
  • Travis Swaggerty (South Alabama, Outfield, Sophomore)
  • Steven Sensley (Louisiana, Designated Hitter, Junior)
  • Joe Robbins (Louisiana, Utility Player, Senior)

2017 Preseason Player of the Year
Dalton Thomas (Little Rock, Outfield, Senior)
 
2017 Preseason Pitcher of the Year
Andrew Beckwith (Coastal Carolina, Starting Pitcher, Senior)

Bold Predictions

The Sun Belt will place three (and possibly four) teams in the NCAA Tournament

The Sun Belt was talented enough last year to put two teams in the College World Series in 2016. With the addition of Coastal Carolina, and the bump it brings to conference RPI, look for a third and possibly fourth team to come out of the Sun Belt in 2017.

Arkansas State and Georgia State won’t be terribly bad

The Panthers have solid talent returning – a whopping ten seniors, including leading batsman Jarrett Hood (.338, 69 hits) and strike out pitcher Bryce Conley (70 Ks). If Georgia State can improve on the conference’s third worst team ERA (5.57), it may have the experienced leadership to make the tough SBC East even tighter.

In the SBC West, Aransas State has lost a including sluggers Matt Burgess (7 HRs and 41 RBI) and Tanner Ring (.304, 8 HRS). But infielder Joe Schrimpf returns (.299, 7 HRs) and so does a large chunk of its pitching staff, including strike out leader Tyler Zuber (71 Ks) and senior lefty Coulton Lee. The Red Wolves surprised many by making the semi-finals of last year’s SBC tournament. Maybe there’s enough magic in Jonesboro for an encore.

By season’s end, the Sun Belt will be a legit baseball power

The Sun Belt received the 5th most preseason poll points this year – more that the AAC, Conference USA and the Big 10 combined. This is the Sun Belt’s year to shine.

 

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