2015 Conference Previews: Atlantic 10
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Atlantic 10 Projected StandingsProjected NCAA postseason teams in bold, Records in the standings are from 2014.
|Davidson||SoCon in 2014||29-19|
Projected Regional Teams (1): VCU
Player of the Year: Vimael Machin, 1b, VCU
Pitcher of the Year: Matt Eckelman, rhp, Saint Louis
Freshman of the Year: Kennan Bartlett, 2b/rhp, Richmond
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PROJECTED REGIONAL TEAM
• Head coach Shawn Stiffler has his best VCU squad in his third season at the helm of the Virginia Commonwealth program. The Rams return seven senior pitchers and most of their lineup as well. Last season, the weekend starts were split between JoJo Howie, Daniel Concepcion, Heath Dwyer, Matt Blanchard and Seth Greene. All five carried ERAs of 3.58 and below. Only Greene does not return this season after graduating. Stiffler is looking to make a calculated gamble putting Blanchard at the front of the rotation. Blanchard was 4-1 with a 1.77 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 45.2 innings and held opposing hitters to a .148 average, but he walked 35 as he has struggled to harness his 90-93 mph fastball and 12-to-6 curveball. Behind Blanchard will be a pair of lefties in Dwyer and Howie. Neither has overpowering stuff, but both know how to mix and match their pitches. Concepcion moves to the bullpen where he’s set to take over the closer role with his four-pitch mix and ability to throw any pitch in any count. He’ll sit at 88-92 while freshman Garrett Pearson could provide an even strong power arm out of the pen. Pearson had a strong fall and showed very promising flashes with a 92-94 mph fastball and a hard 82 mph slider. The Rams must replace some bats in the middle of the lineup, but return Shane Dressler, who has pop from the left side but missed last season with injury. They also still have sweet-swinging shortstop Vimeal Machin. Machin is the senior offensive leader and is solid defensively. He batted .307 with a .421 on base percentage, three homers and 52 RBIs last season. Machin’s double play mate last season, Matt Davis, a high school shortstop has moved to third base where he feels more comfortable, opening up second base for junior college transfer Cooper Mickelson. The outfield trio of James Bunn, Logan Farrar and Cody Acker each hit at least .291 last season and should be a strength.
KEEP AN EYE ON
• Besides having one of the best mascots in the Midwest, the Saint Louis Billikens will also sport one of the top 3-4 hitter combinations in the area. Senior first baseman Mike Vigliarolo is in contention for the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and if he is to win, he’ll probably want to thank his fellow corner infielder Braxton Martinez for supplying the necessary protection for Vigliarolo to succeed. The Billikens also feature a pair of dynamic corner outfielders in Michael Bozarth and Danny Murphy, who both have some power and speed. Bozarth hit .255, but had a .366 on base percentage. He knocked three homers and stole 20 bases. Murphy hit five homers and drove in 33 runs while swiping seven bases. Those pieces must lead a team that has questions up the middle. There are three catchers that could see time. The middle infield positions still hadn’t been determined after fall practice, but freshman Alex King looks like the frontrunner at shortstop. In centerfield, a junior college transfer takes over. Trent Liemkuehler comes over from Jefferson College where he hit .366/.390/.586. Our preseason A10 Pitcher of the Year, Matt Eckelman, and southpaw Josh Moore give Saint Louis a righty-lefty combo at the front of the rotation that’s as good as anyone they’ll face. Eckelman had a 7-2 record with a 1.63 ERA and nine saves in 60.2 innings as the Billikens closer last season. He’ll take over the Friday role that seventh-round pick James Norwood occupied last season. Clay Smith fills out the weekend rotation. He’s coming off a redshirt season that saw him make only three starts before having to be shut down due to injury. Unfortunately, he traded places with Nick Bates, who made 10 starts and was second in innings pitched last season, but tore his ulnar collateral ligament and will be out for the entire season. Bates’ injury opens up the potential of freshman Luke Sommerfeld stepping right into a mid-week starting role. Head coach Darin Hendrickson is also excited about the strides Zach Girrens has taken in his mission of taking over the closer role.
• Returning nearly its entire roster, including seven senior pitchers and seven junior position players, Richmond is primed for a big year. But those returning players have to take the next step for a team that batted just .264 and pitched to a 5.22 ERA. The pieces are in place. Now it’s time for the maturation process to prove itself. Ryan Cook was 4-2 with five saves and also batted .282 in 44 starts. He’ll take over the Friday night role, using a 90-94 mph fastball and a strong slider. His athleticism makes his delivery repeatable, but must be more consistent with his changeups to be able to go deep in games. Southpaw Zak Sterling, all 6-foot-6 of him, returns to the rotation after pitching 91.1 innings and having the best ERA on the team at 3.35. Peter Bayer is moving into the rotation from the bullpen where he amassed a 7.75 ERA last season, but head coach Tracy Woodson thinks he just needs more innings. Lefty Dylan Stoops will also be in the running for some starts as well. Tanner Stanley, son of former Major Leaguer Mike Stanley, will lead the offense. The Spiders centerfielder hit .296 with five bombs and 23 RBI last year. He’s a very instinctive player that gets great jumps on the ball in centerfield, which makes up for him not having overly blazing speed. Joining him in the outfield is a pair of new starters for Richmond. Michael Morman comes over as a graduate transfer after batting .296 for Valparaiso last year. Jansen Fraser can jump all over fastballs, but will he be able to hit off-speed pitching consistently enough to be a catalyst at the top of the Spiders’ lineup? The reliable gap-to-gap bat of Doug Kraeger returns the middle of the lineup, but the most intriguing Spider may be freshman second baseman Keenan Bartlett. Bartlett has the ability to play shortstop, but is sticking at second base to start with to save his arm for relief appearances on the mound. Shortstop Matt Dacey also has serious pop. He hit 12 home runs and drove in 47 runs last season.
• After finishing second in the SoCon last season with its best season in school history, Davidson moved to the Atlantic 10 (to become the 13th team in the league). And opposing conference coaches don’t really know what to think of the Wildcats. They were voted from second-best to third-worst by various coaches. Their lineup should continue to feast despite the move. They carry some really good power for a mid-major program. Last season, Davidson hit 100 doubles and 50 homers. Gone are the 12 home runs supplied by Co-SoCon Player of the Year Forrest Brandy, but Nathan Becker and his 11 dingers (in only 41 games) return, as does the bat of Lee Miller, who hit nine. Three-year starter at first base, David Daniels, is a rock in the middle of the lineup. He batted .332 last season while two-way stud Ryan Lowe hit .327 while also recording an ERA below 4.00. This season, Lowe and his 91-92 mph heater will move into the Sunday rotation spot. He’ll follow up veteran pitchers Nick Neitzal (7-2, 3.38 ERA in 61.1 innings) and Clark Beeker, who is looking to return to full strength after struggling to regain his freshman from after coming off of Tommy John surgery last year. Davidson is relying on some freshmen, including Alec Acosta, Josh Smutzer, Connor Gordon to step up and fill open spots. How well they progress could determine the success of this season.
THE REST OF THE PACK
• Gone are Anthony Montefusco and Jared Gaynor from the front of the weekend rotation, but George Mason will be in almost every game because its pitching staff still isn’t going to give up a lot of runs. Sophomore Tyler Zombro moves from the back of the bullpen to the front of the rotation and takes his stingy 1.91 ERA, fives saves and 6-2 record with him. Senior John Williams (5-2, 2.82 ERA in 60.2 innings last year) will follow him on the weekends and Jake Kalish will round out the rotation. Kalish will also take over at first base for the Patriots. He’s just part of a near completely restructured infield. Freshman Michael Smith will be at second base while Kent Blackstone, a transfer from New Mexico State, joins George Mason’s leading hitter last season, Brandon Gum, on the left side of the infield. Luke Willis gives the Patriots a dynamic speedster in centerfield. He hit .302 with 17 extra-base hits last season. Willis also stole 21 bags.
• The Atlantic 10 field becomes muddled after the top five teams. Of the remaining eight squads, only one finished above .500 last season. That team was St. Joseph’s, who finished 35-16 and just barely missed the regular season A-10 crown at 18-8, falling a half game shy of Saint Louis. But St. Joseph’s basically had to overhaul its entire starting lineup. The left side infield combo of Stefan Kancylarz (.349/.436/.529 with four homers and 29 RBI) and Taylor Boyd (.247with 21 RBI) are the only returning starters in the lineup. It’s not much better from a pitching standpoint. Tyler Pallante, who had a 3.57 ERA in 20 appearances (seven starts) will be the Saturday starter with Temple transfer Pat Vanderslice heading the rotation. Freshman right handers Dominic Cuoci and Justin Aungst will step right in and start from day one.
• Dayton is a team that could make some noise if the core group of Flyers in the lineup and on the mound can get some supplementary assistance. They have a pair of three-year workhorse starters spearheading the weekend rotation. Noah Buettgen and Charlie Dant combined to make 30 starts and pitched 215.1 innings last season. They’ll give Dayton a shot to win every series. They’ll be bolstered by the middle of the lineup combination of Alex Harris and AJ Ryan. The senior sluggers both hit .333 or better last year with 15 doubles each and 70 combined RBI. Harris gets on base like a boss (.472 on base percentage thanks to 31 BB and 20 HBP) and can run once he does (15 SB). Ryan provides some left-handed power (four HR) in the middle to balance Aaron Huesman’s right-handed bat (.295, 12 2B, 3 HR, 40 RBI). But it’s guys like Glenn Jones (.241, 20 R, 6 RBI in 108 AB) and Zach Schira (.240, 19 RBI in 104 AB) that have to step up to make the Flyers a contender this year.
• The rest of the pack is such a toss up heading into the season that teams like George Washington and Fordham both were selected to finish anywhere from fifth to 12th. The Colonels return eight position players that started 30 or more games last season, including seven who started as freshmen last year. They took their lumps, but will be better for it in the long run. Five-foot-seven senior spark plug Ryan Xepoleas provides the leadership for that cluster of young players and a steady bat. Xepoleas hit .337 with two homers, 27 RBI and 12 stolen bases last year. Fellow outfielder Joey Bartosic provides another solid bat and speed in the lineup after hitting .298 and stealing 20 bases as a freshman. George Washington also returns their two top starters in juniors Bobby LeWarne (3.38 ERA in 77.1 innings) and Jacob Williams (3.72 ERA in 82.1 innings). Like George Washington, Fordham returns a number of experienced, but unproven players in the lineup. The Rams have two solid building blocks in junior catcher Charlie Galiano — a high school MLB draft pick that batted .280 with four homers and 28 RBI last season — and junior swift second baseman Joey Runco, who batted .298 and stole 23 bases last year. Fordham also possesses the power arms that teams covet. Junior ace Brett Kennedy is the workhorse of the staff, sitting 91-94 mph with his fastball. He struck out 75 batters in 88.1 innings, but he’s got to improve his secondary stuff to lower his .300 opponents batting average against. Joe Serrapica is also 91-94 mph and appears to be back to full strength after pitching just 25.1 innings last year after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Jimmy Murphy also is coming off an injury. He faced just three batters in 2014 because he tore his hamstring, but he’s back from his redshirt season throwing 88-91 with the team’s best breaking ball.
• La Salle has an experienced squad that returns nearly everyone, but must avoid a similar fate of last season. So Explorers head coach Michael Lake went out and added a handful of junior college players that have the potential to really propel this team. An Atlantic 10 title isn’t out of the question if Ethan Springston and Jared Mattera, who both originally went to Arizona before transferring to South Mountain CC, and Jordan Meyer, who comes from Lackawanna JC — the same junior college that produced middle of the lineup bat Cameron Johnson — produce as expected. Throw in Tennessee transfer Michael Flax and La Salle’s transfer core could push this team to new heights. The lineup will still revolve around Justin Korenblatt. He has the potential to be the A10 Player of the Year, if he continues his upward trajectory, though it will be tough to top his .372/.438/.539 slash line to go with 20 extra-base hits and 34 RBI. Mark Williams (five homers, 31 RBI) and Josh Savakinus (.295, 4 homers, 22 RBI) should provide some protection for Korenblatt. Along with juco transfers — Mattera, Meyer and Freddy Andujar — in the rotation is ace Joe Ravert, who will use his 90-94 mph fastball on Friday nights and swing the stick the rest of the weekend. If the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder can develop into an ace, the Explorers could be dangerous.
• The trio of Rhode Island, UMass and St. Bonaventure combined to lose 101 games last season. They’ll try to scrap their way out of the cellar in different ways. Under new head coach Raphael Cerrato, Rhode Island has several players back from injury, creating a lot of competition for guys to break into the starting lineup this season. The Rams also focused on getting more athletic and have that with six potential starters running between 6.4-6.9 seconds in the 60-yard dash. They return nine pitchers that threw at least 16 innings, including their front of rotation duo of Steve Moyer and Lou Distasio. The coaching staff also thinks freshman lefty Tyler Wilson could be special. UMass returns a trio of top pitchers from last season with Brandon Walsh moving from the bullpen to the front of the rotation this season. Andrew Grant and Conor LeBlanc return as weekend starters. The Minutemen also have big lefty-swinging sophomore, 6-foot-4 Mike Geannelis at first base after he hit .347 with two homers and 16 RBI in 95 at bats last season. For St. Bonaventure, junior shortstop Thad Johnson is someone to build around since he doubles up and comes out of the bullpen to be the Bonnies’ closer. He had a 4.35 ERA in 19 appearances along with batting .290. Tyler Bell also gives them some speed on the basepaths. He stole 21 bases in just 24 tries last season..