When the 2010 baseball season ended in Conference USA, Rice had regained its traditional position atop the league standings in the regular season, but saw Southern Miss claim the postseason tournament title. Those two schools again top the preseason polls for the 2011 season.
Rice will be led by third baseman Anthony Rendon, who followed his National Freshman of the Year season (Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball) with the Dick Howser Trophy and National Player of the Year honors from Baseball America, ABCA/Rawlings and Rivals. The Owls, ranked 15th in the NCBWA preseason poll, 18th in Baseball America and 21st in Collegiate Baseball, will also be counting on pitcher Taylor Wall and the bat of Jeremy Rathjen (both preseason all C-USA selections) as well as an improved Chase McDowell on the mound as they pursue their 17th straight NCAA Tournament selection.
Todd McInnis, the preseason C-USA Pitcher of the Year, will take the mound for his senior season at Southern Miss, which will be pursuing its ninth straight NCAA Tournament bid. A pair of preseason first-team all Americans, shortstop B.A. Vollmuth and pitcher Collin Cargill, will give Scott Berry a nucleus with which to build his team around as he enters his second season as the Golden Eagles’ head coach.
East Carolina will build its weekend fortunes around the arm of the top pitcher in the league a year ago, Seth Maness. Corey Thompson and Trent Whitehead will lead the Pirates at the plate as they try to return to the NCAA postseason. The fact that ECU returns its weekend pitching rotation intact should help the Pirates’ chances this season.
Terry Rooney, entering his third season as the head coach at Central Florida, has reeled in two recruiting classes that have been ranked in the top 20 nationally. He will be counting on those recruits as he looks to build on the Knights’ 33-win season last year. Chris Taladay, 2010’s C-USA Freshman of the Year, joined Darnell Sweeney and Joe Rogers on the league’s all-freshman team last year and will be counted on to boost UCF on the field in 2011.
Tulane is the only C-USA school besides Rice to crack the preseason polls, coming in at No. 25 in Baseball America. Coach Rick Jones’s squad took its lumps last year as he gave a number a freshmen the chance to take the field early, and he will be counting on that experience paying off this season as he looks to guide the Green Wave back to their traditional spot in the NCAA postseason party. Second baseman Brennan Middleton and shortstop Garrett Cannizaro plug the middle of what should be a stronger defensive team in 2011.
Memphis finished third in league play a year ago, its highest finish ever in C-USA. Coach Darren Schoenrock will be counting on the bats of Drew Martinez and Chad Zurcher to lead six returning position starters as the Tigers work to make some noise in the league.
Former Houston standout Todd Whitting returned to his alma mater as head coach after serving on the staff of a TCU ballclub that reached the College World Series in 2010. He will have seven seniors to help lead the rebuilding of this recent baseball powerhouse.
Victor Gomez, a third-team preseason all-American (NCBWA) who plays both first base and catcher, will be the cornerstone for the 2011 Marshall squad. The Thundering Herd are coming off a season that saw them set marks for the best league record (12-12) and highest finish (fourth) since joining C-USA.
UAB completed its second straight winning season in 2010, including a tie for fifth place in league play. The Blazers will be about equally mixed with veterans and newcomers for the 2011 season, with several of the newest members of the squad expected to plug holes – especially on the mound – as the Blazers look to build on their recent success.
When picking the cream of the C-USA crop, it’s hard to pick against the defending national player of the year, so Rice’s Rendon gets the easy nod for player of the year. McInnis from Southern Miss was tabbed by the league as the preseason pitcher of the year and he has the stats to back up the selection. However, health has been an issue for him his entire collegiate career, so we’ll hedge our bets by saying it will be a tossup between McInnis and ECU’s Maness for the top pitcher in the conference in 2011.
The league’s preseason picks were 1. Rice, 2. Southern Miss, 3. East Carolina, 4. UCF, 5. Tulane, 6. Memphis, 7. Houston, 8. Marshall, 9. UAB. The biggest question mark will be the middle of the order, as the younger players with UCF and Tulane will have a chance to show if the experience they received last year will pay off on the diamond this season. Both have the potential to take major steps this season and could make some noise before this year is done.
The Conference USA Tournament will begin a three-year run at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss., the home of the Atlanta Braves’ Double-A squad.