FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
NEW ORLEANS – After winning its second tournament title and making its second appearance in the NCAA Tournament in five seasons, along with the majority of its line-up returning, Western Kentucky University is expected to top the Sun Belt Conference in 2009, according to a vote by the league’s 11 head coaches. The Hilltoppers veteran ace Matt Ridings has been tabbed Preseason Pitcher of the Year, while ULM’s shortstop Ben Soignier has been selected as the Preseason Player of the Year.
The Hilltoppers, who finished 33-27 overall last season, including a 16-14 record against Sun Belt foes, return eight position starters among 20 letterwinners, along with nine members of its pitching staff. WKU, which registered its first winning season since 2004, will lean largely in Ridings’ maturity on the mound as well as Preseason All-SBC Outfielder Chad Cregar’s productivity at the plate.
Picked to finish the Sun Belt second in 2009, Troy brings back 11 pitchers and seven position starters among 22 letterwinners from a team that went 32-26 overall and 16-14 last season. Top reliever and preseason All-Sun Belt selection Josh Storm returns for his second year in the bullpen for the Trojans, after making 27 appearances on the mound in 2009, posting a 2.09 ERA and recording a school-record 12 saves. The Florida native ranked second in the league and 14th in the nation in total saves.
Led by two-time All-American Soignier, ULM is predicted to round out the top three teams in the Sun Belt this season. The Warhawks were 34-24 last season, including a top-place finish in the league during the regular season with their 20-10 mark. Head Coach Jeff Schexnaider, the 2008 Sun Belt Coach of the Year, returns to Monroe for his third season, along with the help of 17 letterwinners and 18 newcomers.
New Orleans, a 2008 NCAA Tournament participant, has been picked to finish fourth among the 11 league teams this season. Head Coach Tom Walter’s squad received an at-large bid to compete in the NCAA Regional a year ago – handing UNO its second consecutive trip to the NCAA postseason – the only Louisiana school to achieve back-to-back postseason bids over the last two campaigns. The Privateers, who will rework their starting rotation this season, return 17 letterwinners and welcome 16 newcomers to the Big Easy from a team that went 43-21 overall in 2008.
Louisiana-Lafayette, which was 30-29 overall and 16-14 in the Sun Belt last season, will be led by preaseason all-conference selections, Justin Robichaux and Scott Hawkins. Robichaux, a reliever, was 3-0 last season in his 21 appearances on the mound and led the Cajuns’ bullpen with his 2.30 ERA. Hawkins paced Louisiana at the plate, with his .306 batting average including his 11 homers and 40 RBI. The Ragin’ Cajuns will return six position starters and two starting pitchers among 22 letterwinners.
In addition to his Sun Belt preseason honor, Soignier was selected to the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA), Louisville Slugger and Recruitingcloser.com preseason All-America Teams. The West Monroe, La. Native was also named one of the top 10 seniors in the nation by Rivals.com and was selected to the Brooks Wallace National Player of the Year Watch List. Soignier returns for his senior season after earning a pair of All-America (Louisville Slugger and Ping!Baseball) honors last year. He batted .394 with 21 doubles, 16 home runs and 46 RBIs in his junior season. Last year the West Monroe, La., native set the ULM single-season school record for runs (83), hits (93) and total bases (166), while his home run total ranked second, his batting average ranked fourth and his doubles tally ranked sixth. Soignier led the NCAA in runs scored per game (1.29) and ranked seventh in total runs scored, 27th in total bases, 38th in slugging percentage (.703), 41st in on-base percentage (.496) and 43rd in hits last season.
Ridings also piled up the preseason accolades, as he was named to the Brooks Wallace National Player of the Year Watch List, along with earning spots on the Preseason Ping!Baseball, Louisville Slugger and Recruitingcloser.com All-America Teams. Last season, Ridings was the ace of the Hilltoppers staff with a 10-3 record in 15 starts with a 3.88 ERA. He tossed one complete game while recording one save. In 97.1 innings pitched, Ridings allowed 42 runs and 99 hits, striking out 98 and walking just 36. He earned ABCA South Central All-Region Second-Team honors. In 2007, Ridings earned Freshman All-America honors from Ping! Baseball. Making 15 starts, he led the Hilltopper staff with seven victories, posting a 4.83 ERA in a team-high 91.1 innings of work. Ridings threw three complete games — all coming in Sun Belt play against Arkansas State, ULM and Middle Tennessee.
The 2009 baseball season is set to begin Feb. 20, as all 11 league teams will take on non-conference foes around the country. Sun Belt teams will battle throughout the season for the opportunity to contend for title, May 20-23, in Troy, Alabama. The Sun Belt Conference has sent multiple teams to the NCAA Baseball Tournament each year since 1988. The 20-year stretch of two or more teams each NCAA play is matched by only four other conferences.
1. WKU (9 first-place votes) 119 points
2. Troy 100 points
3. ULM 84 points
4. New Orleans (1 first-place vote) 79 points
5. Louisiana-Lafayette (1 first-place vote) 78 points
6. Florida Atlantic 66 points
7. South Alabama 64 points
8. Middle Tennessee 55 points
9. FIU 42 points
10. Arkansas State 22 points
11. UALR 17 points
ALL-SUN BELT CONFERENCE PRESEASON BASEBALL TEAM
Starting Pitchers – Chase Ware, Arkansas State; Matt Ridings, WKU
Relief Pitchers – Justin Robichaux, Louisiana-Lafayette; Josh Storm, Troy
Catcher – David Doss, South Alabama
First Base – Tyler Townsend, FIU
Second Base – Ryan Mollica, FIU
Shortstop – Ben Soignier, ULM
Third Base – Wade Gaynor, WKU
Outfield – Bryce Brentz, Middle Tennessee; Nathan Hines, Middle Tennessee; Chad Cregar, WKU
Designated Hitter – Scott Hawkins, Louisiana-Lafayette
PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR – Ben Soignier, ULM
PRESEASON PITCHER OF THE YEAR – Matt Ridings, WKU