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Conference USA Weekend Preview (April 1st-3rd)

By: John Lockwood
CUSA enters its second weekend of conference play with four teams tied for first with 2-1 conference records. Nationally, after last week’s thrashing of Tulane, Southern Miss enters the weekend at #28 while Rice—after dropping its first series ever to UCF—has dropped to #25.

Still riding high from that series win, UCF (19-6, 2-1) also hopes to carry their momentum from Tuesday’s 8-2 win over #29 Stetson as they travel into hostile territory to take on Southern Miss (19-5, 2-1)—in what this writer considers to be a potential preview of the CUSA championship in May. The Golden Eagles are coming off an extra-inning stunner against Ole Miss Wednesday night, winning 4-3 in the bottom of the tenth on a walk-off error by the leftfielder. The series promises some offensive fireworks as USM (.317) and UCF (.315) come into this weekend as the top two hitting teams in Conference USA. The Golden Eagles hope to come out of this weekend with another decisive series win against a top 40 opponent. CUSA Player of the Week Adam Doleac and CBD Player of the Week Tyler Koelling look to remain hot against the trio of Ben Lively (5-0, 1.38 ERA), Brian Adkins (4-1, 2.27 ERA) and Ray Hanson (2-0, 2.41 ERA), while CUSA/CBD Pitcher of the Week Geoffrey Thompson looks to quell the sizzling bats of the Knights’ D.J. Hicks (.356, 5 HR, 21 RBI) and Jonathan Griffin (.320, 4 HR, 21 RBI). A key for the Golden Knights will be keeping UCF second baseman and lead-off man Travis Shreve off the base-paths, as he leads all of CUSA in steals with 19. USM SS B.A. Vollmuth will be looking to add to his league leading 9 homeruns and 29 RBI.

Tulane (18-6, 1-2) this week was saddled with even more bad news with regards to their pitching staff as sophomore starter Kyle McKenzie will be out for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. McKenzie left Saturday’s 16-15 win in the third inning with pain in his elbow. McKenzie underwent a follow-up MRI which showed the tear, which will require Tommy John surgery. This would be the second such surgery for a Tulane pitcher this season as freshman stand-out Randy LeBlanc underwent Tommy John surgery on March 11th. Coach Rick Jones was quoted as saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this. Anyone who has been around our program knows we are overly cautious with our pitchers when it comes to pitch counts and their health.” This does not bode well for Tulane as they take on a Houston (12-14, 0-0) team batting .304, led by sophomore SS Chase Jensen who is batting .393 on the season with 3 homeruns and 29 runs batted in. However, the Cougars have been facing pitching problems of their own—as evidenced by the fact that not one Houston starter has an ERA below 5.06 and the Cougars have used 8 different starters this season. This will be Houston’s first conference series this season.

#25 Rice (17-11, 1-2) rebounded nicely from dropping their opening series against the UCF Knights by taking game 2 of the Silver Glove Trophy against cross-town rival Houston, 7-0. Sophomore RHP Tyler Spurlin tossed six scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and striking out four in his first collegiate start. The Owls then traveled to nearby Huntsville on Wednesday evening to wrap-up their mid-week with a 5-2 win over Sam Houston State. Highly touted freshman right-hander Austin Kubitza will be looking to improve on his 2-3 record, despite having a staff-best 1.76 ERA. Marshall (10-13, 1-2) looks to improve in the CUSA standings after dropping two to visiting UAB last weekend in Charleston despite some terrific pitching performances and only giving up seven runs in three games. However, as Marshall’s .257 team batting average and .352 OBP both rank last in Conference USA, the Herd will need to rely on some timely hitting—and maybe a little luck—to come out on top against a very talented Owls pitching corps.

On Tuesday, UAB (14-10, 2-1) took on SEC-rival #24 Alabama (18-7) at home, ultimately getting the best of the tide in this, their second meeting of the season, 5-1. Junior LHP David Hayes went six-and-a-third, giving up just one run on six hits. The Blazers broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the seventh on third baseman Patrick Palmeiro’s solo shot over the left-center field fence, on their way to scoring four runs in the inning. Coach Shoop and the Blazers hope to carry this offensive momentum over as they host conference-leading ECU (19-5, 2-1)—and possibly the best starting three in CUSA—for a three-game set at Young Memorial Field starting Friday.

Memphis (12-10, 1-2) has the conference bye-week, taking on Alcorn St. at FedEx Park. They host Ole Miss next Tuesday, before resuming conference-play against USM next weekend.

Probable Pitching Rotations

UCF vs. #28 Southern Miss

Friday: Fr. RHP Ben Lively (5-0, 1.38 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Todd McInnis (5-1, 2.68 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. RHP Danny Winkler (3-1, 5.52 ERA) vs. Jonathan Thompson (2-0, 6.12)
Sunday: Jr. RHP Ray Hanson (2-0, 2.41 ERA) vs. So. RHP Geoffrey Thompson (5-1, 1.33 ERA)

Prediction: USM wins 2-1

Houston vs. Tulane

Friday: Jr. RHP Mo Wiley (1-1, 5.49 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Conrad Flynn (2-3, 3.21 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Jordan Lewis (2-0 5.06 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Robby Broach (1-1, 8.04 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. RHP Codey Morehouse (2-4, 6.07 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Drew Zizinia (1-0, 2.61 ERA)

Prediction: Tulane wins series 2-1

Marshall vs. #25 Rice

Friday: Jr. RHP Shane Farrell (2-0, 3.03 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Austin Kubitza (2-3, 1.76 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Mike Mason (1-2, 4.60 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Abe Gonzalez (3-0, 2.48 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Arik Sikula (1-3, 3.26 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Matt Reckling (3-0, 2.14 ERA)

Prediction: Rice sweeps 3-0

East Carolina vs. UAB

Friday: Sr. RHP Seth Manness (4-1, 1.99 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Dillon Napolean (3-1, 2.13 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Brad Mincey (4-1, 0.36 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Ryan Woolley (3-3, 2.70 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. LHP Kevin Brandt (2-0, 2.84 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Michael Busby (0-1, 4.50 ERA)

Prediction: ECU wins 2-1

Alcorn St. vs. Memphis

Friday: TBD vs. So. RHP Dan Langfield (2-2, 3.89 ERA)
Saturday: TBD vs. Sr. LHP Ryan Holland (3-2, 3.18 ERA)
Sunday: TBD vs. So. RHP Clayton Grant (3-1, 3.74 ERA)

Prediction: Tigers win 3-0