Sun Belt has pair of new leaders

Call it a changing of the guard for the Sun Belt.

Traditionally speaking, programs such as South Alabama, Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette and New Orleans have competed for the Sun Belt crown.

Last season was much different. Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State put together fabulous campaigns and recorded 40-plus win seasons. They also dominated the Sun Belt title picture. Third-place Troy finished 2 1/2 games out of first.

The Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders hope to do enough this fall to continue their successful ways in the spring. Other programs, though, are looking to make a statement.

It’s time to dissect the Sun Belt in the midst of fall workouts.

Arkansas-Little Rock

Biggest loss. Matt Apfel

What to watch. The Trojans actually have a solid coaching staff, but found it tough to win last season. UALR finished last season at the bottom of the Sun Belt and ended the campaign with a deplorable 16-34 record. That’s unacceptable. UALR must improve at the plate after hitting just .274 as a team last season. They are without leading hitter Matt Apfel this fall, but welcome back Nate Brown and Tim Emmons, who each hit over .300 last season. The Trojans also have much work to do on the mound. They finished last season with a 7.14 ERA. UALR welcomes back ace pitcher Adam Champion and top reliever JR Boling. However, the staff as a whole must improve if they want to gain some ground in ’10.

Arkansas State

Biggest loss. OF Derrick Coleman

What to watch. Tommy Raffo’s inaugural campaign with the Red Wolves didn’t exactly go as planned. State finished last season near the bottom of the Sun Belt and compiled an unimpressive 23-30 record. Some things need to change to improve between now and the spring. For starters, the Red Wolves must improve their pitching staff. They finished last season with a 5.67 ERA and must replace ace reliever Chris Bullington and starter Chase Ware. That will be a difficult chore. The Red Wolves also have some tough holes to fill at the plate, but welcome back leading hitter Todd Baumgartner and Murray Watts, who finished last season with 10 homers and 44 RBIs. ASU has a solid nucleus at the plate, but has something to prove on the mound.

Florida Atlantic

Biggest loss. 2B William Block

What to watch. The Owls finished last season in the bottom half of the Sun Belt. They hope to improve enough this fall to make a statement in the spring. That starts with rebuilding an offense that finished last season with a .313 batting average and has several key cogs to replace. FAU needs a big fall and spring from Colby Gratton and Nick DelGuidice. It needs an even better fall and spring from the pitching staff, which had a dismal 6.41 ERA last season and must replace ace reliever Alex Pepe. FAU returns several often-used pitchers from the previous squad, but consistency needs to improve. FAU will take a step forward if the pitching staff rises to the occasion.

Florida International

Biggest loss. OF Tyler Townsend

What to watch. FIU coach Turtle Thomas made a statement last season. Sure, his Panthers didn’t reach an NCAA regional. However, they finished near the top of the Sun Belt and compiled an impressive 34-22 record. Now the Panthers hope to improve enough this fall to make a regional in the spring. FIU has the tough chore of replacing three excellent hitters, but also welcomes back a solid nucleus of sluggers. FIU must establish some consistency on the mound. It lost Tom Ebert in the offseason, but Scott Rembisz, who had a 4.69 ERA in 94 innings last season, is back. FIU returns other solid arms. But again, consistency will be the key with this pitching staff.

Louisiana-Lafayette

Biggest loss. DH Scott Hawkins

What to watch. There’s no question the Ragin’ Cajuns have something to prove this fall and in the spring. They entered last season with high hopes, but finished the campaign with a losing conference record and a 27-30 overall record. That’s not good for a program of this caliber. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly the Cajuns respond. They have some work to do. ULL finished last season with a .278 batting average and has a few key hitters to replace. That means hitters such as Greg Fontenot, Kyle Olasin and William Long must rise to the occasion. ULL also needs some assistance on the mound despite the return of leading arms Justin Robichaux and Zach Osborne. The Cajuns will be vastly improved if the offense makes strides the next few months.

Louisiana-Monroe

Biggest loss. SS Ben Soignier

What to watch. The Warhawks had one of the nation’s best players last season in shortstop Ben Soignier. He certainly will be tough to replace in the spring, but the ‘Hawks should be confident about their offense with the return of at least five key hitters from a lineup that hit .325 last season. The pitching staff, though, is a different story. ULM has high hopes for Don Williams and Corey Brown, but still must improve on a deplorable 6.27 ERA last season. ULM will have a solid club if the pitching staff rises to the occasion. That’ll be a tough chore to accomplish.

Middle Tennessee State

Biggest loss. 3B Rawley Bishop

What to watch. The Blue Raiders made a huge statement last season by cruising through Sun Belt play, making an NCAA regional and compiling a fabulous 44-18 record. However, last season may have only been the tip of the iceberg. The Raiders welcome back an even better team this fall. Bryce Brentz leads an offense that returns several key hitters and finished last season with a .340 batting average. The pitching staff also is in great shape with the return of ace Kenneth Roberts and Brentz in addition to Nick Montgomery, Chad Edwards and Brett Wilson. Now for the only question: How will the Blue Raiders handle high expectations? We’ll soon find out.

New Orleans

Biggest loss. P David Burch

What to watch. The bad news is the Privateers finished last season near the bottom of the Sun Belt. The good news is they return most key players from that team. UNO hit .291 last season and welcomes back five key hitters, including leading hitters Jay Morris, Alan Harris and Nick Schwaner. The pitching staff, though, is what needs to improve between now and the spring. The Privateers are without their best pitcher in David Burch and finished last season with a horrendous 7.76 ERA. This team will be solid if the pitching staff establishes an identity sooner rather than later.

South Alabama

Biggest loss. C David Doss

What to watch. It wasn’t too long ago South Alabama had one of the best mid-major programs in the country. Now the Jaguars hope to improve just enough to join the NCAA regional discussion. The Jaguars finished last season with a 25-30 record and have much to prove on the mound. They compiled a 6.70 ERA last season and are without their top two starting pitchers in Brandon Sage and Matt Jackson this fall. That puts much pressure on Lance Baxter to produce in ’10. USA must improve on the mound to compete in the Sun Belt. The offense finished last season with a .328 batting average and returns enough firepower to put together another successful campaign. Still, this team’s success hinges on the pitching staff.

Troy

Biggest loss. 2B Trevor Tyre

What to watch. The Trojans would love nothing more than to return to an NCAA regional in the spring. They finished last season with a respectable 33-23 record, but missed the mark for a postseason appearance. Troy finished last season with a .309 batting average and has several holes to fill. However, they can take solace in the return of Miles Hoyle, Ryan Ditthardt, Chad Watson and Adam Bryant. On the mound, the Trojans have the tough chore of replacing starting pitchers Jason Walls and Travis Burge. They also must find a way to replace reliever Chris Sorce, who made 24 appearances last season and had a 3.26 ERA in 38 2/3 innings. Troy could have a solid team if the pitching staff improves.

Western Kentucky

Biggest loss. 3B Wade Gaynor

What to watch. The Hilltoppers now are a program to watch in the Sun Belt. They compiled an impressive 42-20 record last season and reached the Oxford Regional final. WKU hopes to build off its postseason success. The Hilltoppers have the tough chore of replacing key hitters Wade Gaynor, Terrence Dayleg and Chad Cregar, but welcome back Matt Rice, Jake Wells and Matt Payton. On the mound, the Hilltoppers welcome back starting pitchers Matt Ridings and Shane Cameron. However, they also could have some depth issues. WKU is fine at the plate, but the pitching staff has some work to do. Can the Hilltoppers become a consistent postseason contender?

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009