This year it?s a little different. The head shark in the conference, Florida Atlantic head coach Kevin Cooney, smells the blood in the water and finally came out on top at the end of the spring and fall race and has more than enough firepower to push the A-Sun coaches to vote the Owls (or Blue Wave as they prefer to be called) in first for regular season and playoffs.
Here?s how I see them finishing:
1. Florida Atlantic 2. Stetson 3. UCF 4. Gardner-Webb 5. Belmont 6. Jacksonville 7. Troy State 8. Georgia State 9. Campbell 10. Mercer 11. Lipscomb
1. FLORIDA ATLANTIC (47-16, 25-8 A-Sun) #19
Kevin Cooney wasn?t about to let a gift like southpaw Randy Beam (13-2, 2.39 ERA) drop back into his program after getting shunned by the draft and not take advantage. With a powerful lineup that returns eight starters and a bullpen that can stay solid or make the move to the rotation, Cooney has options. His biggest mistake last season was saving pitcher Travis NeSmith for a Regional Championship game he never got to pitch in, and instead got blasted by Florida 22-14 proving he still has a lot to learn. Don?t save today what you might not get to use tomorrow.
If Beam isn?t voted preseason Player-of-the-Year, outfielder Jeff Fiorentino will. Fiorentino (OF, .382, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 71 R, 14 SB) in one word, ?weapon?. The FAU infield will consist of Rusty Brown (.368-11-66), Derek Hutton (.289-7-39), Evan Brannon (.293-1-27, 11 E at SS) and newcomer Jordan Hafer who set a CC record for home runs by a switch-hitter (Mike Cox who?). Rob Orton will begin his seventh season (or how ever long he has been at FAU, seems like forever) behind the plate. In the outfield, Fiorentino will have speedster Tim Mascia (.344-2-14, 17/16 BB/SO) and Rob Horst (.283-7-36) as returning starters or newcomers Mike McBryde, Anthony Albano (.309-7-40, Transfer from Evansville) or Jon Shapland can earn a slot.
On the mound, Beam will be flanked by Matt O?Brien (1-1, 2.49 ERA, 43.0 IP) and Chris Saxton (4-4, 2.68, 57.0), pitchers who made noise last year. This year, CC transfers Brent Speck (LHP) and Jason Costello (LHP) might help bolster the rotation, while freshmen Mike Crotta (6?7, 220) and Andrew Tomlin will be ready to go early. Crotta could make a run at the rotation, but will more likely be suited to start out as a stopper/closer. Tomlin has a resume of accolades a mile long. A good pitching coach could slide him right in the rotation. George Roig is a former position player and John McCormack is running out of years to be pulling double duty.
Florida Atlantic has a very difficult schedule this season compared to the cupcake beat down list of 1999 when they went 54-9 and tied the NCAA win streak. I see three critical points of the season. 1. Feb 27-Mar. 7 where they play eight games in 10 days against Minnesota, Notre Dame, Winthrop, Florida International and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Owls are not going to take a beat down by the Redbirds, but don?t want to exhaust pitchers for the four-game FIU series right after the ?Weekend from Hell? at home. 2. Mar. 23-24 vs. Ohio State. Why this midweek series? See UCF at Notre Dame in a two-game midweek, then at Clemson also in May. Who knows? 3. March 19-April 10. The Owls first four weekend conference series are vs. Gardner-Webb, at Jacksonville, at Stetson, vs. UCF. If they survive that stretch, they will run the table in the conference.
All-Conference First Team
C-Chris Westervelt, Stetson (.238-4-26)
1B-Rusty Brown, Florida Atlantic (.368-11-66)
2B-Derek Hutton, Florida Atlantic (.289-7-39)
3B-Jordan Hafer, Florida Atlantic (Transfer)
SS-Clint Abernathy, Gardner-Webb (.288-8-26)
OF-Clay Timpner, UCF (.347-1-35, 22 SB)
OF-David Futrelle, Gardner-Webb (.314-12-39)
OF-Jeff Fiorentino, Florida Atlantic (.382-15-49)
At-Large/DH-Bryan Zenchyk, Stetson (.322-8-53)
SP-Randy Beam (13-2, 2.39, 101.2 IP, 83 K)
SP-Matt Fox, UCF (3-4, 6.60, 45.0 IP, 48 K)
SP-Cy McCuen, Stetson (9-5, 3.95, 95.2 IP, 64 K)
RP-Kyle Bono, UCF (4-2, 0.83, 23 APP, 2 SV)
All-Conference Second Team
C-Jason Warpool, Belmont (.361-5-25, 14 SB)
1B-Gordie Gonkowski, Jacksonville (.366-9-47)
2B-Larry Best-Berfet, Jacksonville (.283-1-26, 27 SB)
3B-Braedyn Pruitt, Stetson (Freshman)
SS-Tom Rispoli, Campbell (.309-4-32)
OF-John DeStefano, Stetson (.327-3-28, 57 R)
OF-Brian Lipman, Troy State (.281-10-33)
OF-Tim Mascia, Florida Atlantic (.344-2-14)
At-Large-Dan Soukup, Belmont (.364-7-40)
SP-Taylor Cobb, UCF (4-3, 4.39, 53.1 IP, 41 K)
SP-Josh Deel, Jacksonville (4-5, 4.65, 50.1 IP, 49 K)
SP-Brian Jones, Mercer (3-6, 5.98, 58.2 IP, 50 K)
RP-Will Tucker, Belmont (3-2, 4.58, 12 SV)
Florida Atlantic Preseason Hype: This is a team that is garnering its highest preseason ranking ever. Kevin Cooney reloaded in the best way and still has two of the best (if not the best pitcher and position player) in the conference on his roster.
EXPECT: FAU to win 40-50 games and drive the pollsters nuts all season trying to figure out how high to slot them based on their unusually strong schedule. They will be a very exciting team to watch.
DON?T EXPECT: An easy road to Omaha or FAU to slaughter conference or in-state opponents and run away with the season.