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Change comes in many ways.
For Conference USA, change arrived last season with East Carolina winning the regular season conference title over Rice.
Fresh off that fantastic campaign, the Pirates hope to once again win a conference crown this season. But Rice might have something to say about that. The Owls welcome back one of the nation's best offenses and also has much potential on the mound.
Southern Mississippi, Houston and Tulane also are interesting teams to watch.
The Golden Eagles shocked the nation last season by reaching the College World Series in coach Corky Palmer's final season. But now the Eagles hope to continue where Palmer left off with new coach Scott Berry leading the way.
The Cougars didn't have an impressive 2009 campaign, but welcome back eight position starters and a plethora of talented pitchers this season. UH is a prime candidate to take a big step forward this season.
The Green Wave narrowly missed a trip to an NCAA regional last season. They don't welcome back too many key players this season, but have enough talent to make some noise as the campaign progresses.
Other C-USA programs have plenty of potential, too.
HOW THEY STACK UP
1. Rice – The Owls have a few questions to answer on the mound, but welcome back one of the nation's best offensive lineups.
2. East Carolina – The Pirates once again will have a productive offense, but the pitching staff may end up being the biggest surprise this season.
3. Southern Miss – The Golden Eagles have some key cogs to replace at the plate, but still will be productive. The pitching staff is the question mark.
4. Houston – The Cougars should return to a regional this season. They welcome back eight position starters and a plethora of talented pitchers.
5. Tulane – The Green Wave welcomes back few position players, but has enough overall talent to make a run at an NCAA regional this season.
6. UAB – The Blazers could be ready to take another step forward this season with the return of several talented hitters and pitchers.
7. Memphis – The Tigers are coming off a tough campaign but welcome back almost every key player from that club. This season could be different.
8. Marshall – The Thundering Herd welcomes back some talented pitchers, but the offense must hit better than .280 to take a step forward.
9. UCF – The Golden Knights welcome a talented recruiting class to campus, but experience definitely could be an issue throughout the campaign.
C Jeremy Schaffer, Tulane
1B Victor Gomez, Marshall
2B Adam McClain, Memphis
SS Rick Hague, Rice
3B Anthony Rendon, Rice
OF Devin Harris, East Carolina
OF Trent Whitehead, East Carolina
OF Steven Sultzbaugh, Rice
DH Kyle Roller, East Carolina
SP Todd McInnis, Southern Mississippi
SP Seth Maness, East Carolina
SP Taylor Wall, Rice
RP Collin Cargill, Southern Mississippi
The Golden Eagles have always had the respect of teams in Conference USA and the southern region. But last season, the Eagles took their game to another level. They earned national respect with their first trip to the College World Series. Fresh off that campaign, the Golden Eagles hope to make a second consecutive trip this season. USM has some tough holes to fill, but new coach Scott Berry is expected to continue where long-time coach Corky Palmer left off.
The Thundering Herd was expected to take a step forward last season after making some noise two seasons ago, but it didn't happen. The Herd finished the '09 campaign with a 22-32 record and a 9-15 mark in conference. The Herd once again welcomes back some talented pitchers this season, including Shane Farrell and Austin Coan. However, the offense must rise to the occasion after failing to impress last season. Marshall has potential but it must find a way to effectively put all the pieces together.
RHP Todd McInnis, Southern Mississippi
The Golden Eagles made a huge statement last season with a super regional win over Florida and their first trip to the College World Series. Now McInnis hopes to lead the Eagles to another Omaha trip. McInnis is coming off a fabulous campaign. He made 18 starts last season, had a 9-4 record and compiled a 3.73 ERA in 101 1/3 innings. He also struck out 90 and walked 34 and limited opposing teams to a .253 batting average. The Eagles expect McInnis to emulate those numbers this season.
3B Anthony Rendon, Rice
Rendon had a sensational freshman campaign for the Owls and enters his sophomore season as one of the nation's premier players. He's that good. In addition to being an elite hitter, Rendon also happens to be an exceptional fielder. Rendon finished last season with a .388 batting average, 14 doubles, a triple, 20 homers and 72 RBIs. He also ended the year with a .702 slugging percentage and compiled a .461 on-base percentage. The Owls certainly expect another fantastic campaign from the stud sophomore.
Rice, East Carolina, Southern Miss, Houston, Tulane
It once again will be an interesting postseason race for Conference USA. The conference only was granted three bids last season, but four bids is certainly doable. Rice and East Carolina are locks to make the NCAA postseason. The two programs also are the best bets to earn national seeds. Southern Miss once again is expected to make an NCAA regional. That leaves Houston and Tulane on the bubble. The Cougars have the better team on paper, but Tulane has plenty of talent to make noise in conference play and in the postseason. For now, we'll say Conference USA gets four bids with the final spot between the Cougars and Green Wave. We give UH the edge.
• UCF hopes to make a move this season, but it will need a couple of players to get healthy to accomplish that goal. For starters, sophomore two-way player D.J. Hicks is on his way back from a non-baseball related injury and the Golden Knights expect him to possibly be ready to be back in the lineup midseason. The Knights likely would let him hit before allowing him to pitch. Also, junior newcomer Derek Luciano did not participate in fall workouts because of an injury. He could be ready to start at third base by the season opener.
• Tulane will receive a huge boost with the return of third baseman Rob Segedin from an injury. Segedin is the top third basemen in Conference USA outside of Rice's Anthony Rendon. He only batted .286 in 14 at bats last season, but certainly has the potential to be a very high-average hitter. The Green Wave is confident Segedin will be ready to go on opening day, but still is monitoring his health.
• Southern Miss has a fantastic ace pitcher in Todd McInnis, but its success will boil down to how Scott Copeland and Jeff Stanley perform the rest of the weekend. Copeland started seven games and made 16 appearances last season. He compiled a 6.41 ERA in 39 1/3 innings. Stanley, meanwhile, started six games and made 16 appearances. He had a 4.23 ERA in 44 2/3 innings. With McInnis at the front of the weekend rotation and Collin Cargill spearheading the bullpen, the Golden Eagles are in excellent shape if Copeland and Stanley rise to the occasion.
• Houston returns eight position starters and is absolutely thrilled to have catcher Chris Wallace back and healthy. Wallace missed much of last season with a face injury but still managed to hit .285 with nine homers and 34 RBIs. The Cougars also welcome back David Murphy, Blake Kelso, Caleb Ramsey and Zack Presley.
• Rice will be nearly unbeatable in conference if its pitching staff exceeds expectations. The Owls welcome back an outstanding offensive lineup, but the staff has a fair share of question marks. One of those question marks is the health status of senior right-handed pitcher Mike Ojala. Ojala finished last season with a 2.17 ERA in 66 innings of work. Rice expects him to pitch in relief come April, but does not expect him to earn a start until the conference tournament or NCAA regional play.