BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The 2015 Southwestern Athletic Conference baseball season opens this weekend and teams are sprinting out the gate against great competition.
SWAC programs will face four ranked school in the first week of competition, with 10 other ranked teams on the horizon.
Opening weekend features reigning east division champion Alabama State taking on No. 7 Louisville Friday and No. 17 Cal State Fullerton Saturday at the University of South Florida Clearwater Tournament. On Tuesday, Texas Southern hosts No. 3 Houston and Mississippi Valley State will look to upset No. 14 Mississippi State on the road.
Reigning SWAC champion Jackson State opens its 2015 campaign with a nine-game home stand, beginning with Texas-Pan American today. There will be 12 games played on opening day in total.
Other ranked opponents on the slate for SWAC teams this season are No. 2 TCU, No. 2 LSU, No. 5 Oklahoma State, and No. 6 Texas. SWAC conference play begins the last weekend in February.
The Bulldogs return three all-conference selections from last year including SWAC hitter of the year Andrew Utterback The outfielder led the team with a .398 batting average and .579 slugging percentage. Also returning is fellow first team selection Austin Hulsey and second teamer Julio Nunez . With Hulsey at first and Nunez at second, AAMU will look to preseason all-conference shortstop Jordan Friend to help lock things down in the infield. Brandyn Crutcher is expected to step up also in the outfield. He finished 2014 fourth on the team in batting average behind Utterback, Hulsey, and Nunez, respectively, with a .321 average, and led the team in stolen bases with 18. The Bulldogs open their season February 13 at home in a three-day series against IPFW.
The Hornets will begin preparing to defend their east division title on the road at the University of South Florida Clearwater Tournament by opening against two ranked opponents in No. 7 Louisville and No. 17 Cal State Fullerton. ASU will rely on the arm of SWAC preseason pitcher of the year Joseph Camacho to lead their defense. The righty finished 2014 with a 10-1 record, 2.34 ERA, and was named pitcher of the year. He led the league in wins and was tied for third in strikeouts looking. Expected to make an impact offensively is preseason player of the year Waldyvan Estrada . The senior designated hitter started 56 games for the Hornets last year and earned a .347 batting average with six home runs and 60 RBI. Other returning all-conference selections are second baseman Einar Muniz and pitcher T.J. Renda Muniz started all 57 games last year, had 13 multi-hit games and five multi-RBI games. Renda started 13 of the 14 games he appeared in, earning a 4.10 ERA in 85.2 innings of work.
The Braves finished third in the east for the third consecutive season last year. They will be looking to the leadership of Scotty Peavey to help put Alcorn State back on top of the division. The senior outfielder is the only returning all-conference selection from last year. He led the team with a .382 batting average, 65 hits, 12 doubles, and 20 RBI, while starting in 44 of the 45 games he appeared in. Shortstop Moses Charles is a Brave to watch in the upcoming season. He was named first-team preseason All-SWAC and finished 2014 with a .320 batting average after collecting 64 hits.
JSU returns three all-conference selections from last year, including third baseman Melvin Rodriguez He was named first-team all-conference after earning team-highs of 61 hits and 46 RBI in 199 at-bats. First baseman Tilur Smith ed the Tigers with a .331 batting average and .521 slugging percentage. He racked up a team-best 17 doubles and 88 total bases. JSU will also rely on pitcher Alex Juday to help jumpstart the defense. Juday started in just 10 of the 27 games he appeared in, but finished second on the team in strikeouts, earning a 3.97 ERA.
Mississippi Valley State
The Delta Devils are looking to continue their improvements after winning four times as many conference games as they did in 2013. Leading hitter Arrington Smith returns for his sophomore campaign. The catcher finished with a team-high 43 hits and six doubles in his inaugural season. MVSU will also look to relief pitcher Trent Kinney defensively. He finished third on the team in strikeouts in just 39 innings of work.
The Tigers earned a 10-win conference record for the first time since 2012 last year and will look to senior Yariel Medina to help continue the success. Medina led the team with a .339 batting average, and tied for the team high of 63 hits after starting in all 48 games last season. Another offensive threat is Edwin Drexler The senior outfielder took advantage whenever on the base path, racking up a team-high 21 steals on 25 attempts. GSU’s bullpen is hurting for experience, returning just four pitchers and no starters from last year’s roster. They will need redshirt sophomore Ike O’Bear o step up as the only returner with over 30 innings on the mound. He appeared in 20 games last season, earning two starts. Grambling opens the season at the University of Louisiana-Monroe Tournament this weekend, facing off against Central Arkansas, Indiana State, and the host Warhawks.
PVAMU has finished third in the west, three of the last four years. They will be looking to 2014 SWAC Freshman of the Year, and preseason defensive player of the year, Cody Den Beste to help get them back into the top two. Den Beste was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American last year after starting in every game he played. He finished with a .309 batting average and committed just two errors in 112 chances. Fellow preseason all-conference selections Walter Wells and Grant Daugherty will also make an impact this season. Wells finished second on the team in stolen bases and Daugherty earned three home runs and a .368 slugging percentage last year.
The Jaguars are looking to rebound back to the top of the west after a skid last season. They welcome three all-conference selections back for 2015; second teamers D.J. Wallace, Santos Saldivar and Jose DeLaTorre Wallace started in all 36 games and led the team with nine home runs and a .577 slugging percentage. Saldivar was the Jaguars top pitcher starting in all nine of his appearances and earning team bests of 49 strikeouts and a 2.06 ERA. DeLaTorre finished with a .330 batting average and second on the team in home runs with five. Southern opens its regular season Tuesday, Feb. 17 at Nicholls State. First pitch is set for 6 p.m.
The Tigers steady improvement in conference play since 2012 culminated in a second place finish last year. Pegged to take the west division this season, TSU has three second team all-conference members returning. Designated hitter Jerry Ford led the team in hits with 56 and stolen bases with 21, finishing with a team-high .311 batting average. Outfielder Zach Welz was right behind him last year, earning a .304 batting average and team-best eight doubles. And Texas Southern will also look to the arm of pitcher Felix Gomez to steady its defense. The reliever earned a 3.79 ERA and team-high 47 strikeouts in 59.1 innings on the mound. Another key for the Tigers will be shortstop Robert Garza. Named preseason second-team all-conference, he started 46 of the 49 games he appeared in and led the team in home runs with six.
Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Arkansas-Pine Bluff is going to need the experience and leadership of Kevin Walsh and Josh Cassidy if it is going to defend its west division title with no seniors on the roster. Walsh is the only returning all-conference selection. The reliever finished with a team-best 2.57 ERA after 24 appearances. He held opponents to a team-low .230 average. Cassidy finished 2014 with 38 hits and a team-high 11 doubles. The junior infielder started in all 43 games he played in.