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January 6, 2009

Seniors hope to pave the way

When a team competing for a championship needs someone to rise to the occasion, a senior likely will be waiting to answer the call.

Several seniors have been key cogs for championships teams the past few seasons, and this year's class probably won't be different.

The top returning senior is Ole Miss right-handed pitcher Scott Bittle. Bittle was drafted by the Yankees in the MLB Draft this past summer, but decided to return to college for his final campaign. Bittle earned Rivals.com All-America honors last season, so his return is huge for the Rebels.

Texas A&M welcomes back hard-hitting first baseman Luke Anders, while Kentucky is ecstatic to have left-handed pitcher Chris Rusin back in the mix, and UC Irvine is glad to have shortstop and leader Ben Orloff back on the team.

We take an inside look at the nation's top 10 returning seniors.

RHP Scott Bittle (Ole Miss)

The Rebels received a gift this past summer when Bittle decided to return for his senior season. Bittle showed potential to be an elite pitcher as a sophomore two seasons ago, but really took a huge step forward as a junior last season. Bittle appeared in 27 games last season and had a 1.78 ERA in 70 2/3 innings. He also struck out 130 and walked 30, while opponents hit him at a .145 clip. There have been rumors swirling that Bittle might move to the weekend rotation this season, but the Ole Miss coaching staff recently said he would remain a closer. Getting Bittle back for his senior season is huge for the Rebels.

1B Luke Anders (Texas A&M)

As with Bittle, Anders turned down the Yankees to return to College Station for his senior season. Though Anders wasn't a household name two seasons ago, that changed last season with a monster offensive campaign. Anders was one of the nation's best power hitters last season, hitting .349 with 16 homers and 58 RBIs. He also hit 13 doubles and three triples, recorded 142 total bases, and had a slugging percentage of .660 and a .486 on-base percentage. With the Aggies hoping to take the next step and reach the College World Series this season, Anders' bat has never been more important.

UTI Cory Harrilchak (Elon)

When it comes to players that will help the Phoenix become a 40-game winner again this season, Harrilchak tops the list. Though he somehow went undrafted in the MLB Draft last summer, Harrilchak is one of the most talented players in the state of North Carolina. Harrilchak batted .410 with 11 homers and 46 RBIs last season. He also slugged .678 and had a .492 on-base percentage. In addition to his duties as a hitter, Harrilchak also was a consistent contributor on the mound last season, where he had a 5.13 ERA in 66 2/3 innings. He also struck out 46 and walked 20. Harrilchak's return gives Elon more hope.

RHP Chris Fetter (Michigan)

Without two-way star Zach Putnam this season, the Wolverines once again need a huge campaign from senior right-handed pitcher Chris Fetter. Fetter has had a fruitful career at Michigan, and really rose to the occasion last season. Fetter made 14 starts last season, had a 10-2 record and had a 2.47 ERA in 94 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 82 and walked 28, while opponents hit him at a .209 clip. In addition to being one of the Big Ten's top pitchers, Fetter also has potential to be an All-American this season. The Wolverines should be in good shape if Fetter has another solid campaign.

OF Nate Lape (Marshall)

Despite getting drafted by Colorado in the last MLB Draft, Lape decided to return to Marshall for his senior season. It's great news for the Thundering Herd, which hope to take another step forward this season. Lape is one of the nation's best hitters. The veteran led the team at the plate last season, hitting .388 with 17 homers and 63 RBIs. He also recorded 17 doubles and 151 total bases, while also having a slugging percentage of .706 and a .462 on-base percentage. He also ended last season 20-of-24 in stolen bases. Lape is the spark that really could get Marshall going once again this spring.

LHP Chris Rusin (Kentucky)

Kentucky coach Gary Henderson told me a few weeks ago his team likely would be in trouble without Rusin. Fortunately, the senior left-handed pitcher is back for another campaign this spring. Rusin has had a good career at UK and is one of the SEC's best returning weekend starters. Rusin started 13 games last season, threw a pair of complete games and had a 6-3 record. He also had a 3.33 ERA in 83 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 65 and walked 19, while opponents hit him at a .275 clip. Rusin had a productive '08 campaign, but must be even better this season for the Wildcats to reach an NCAA regional.

SS Ben Orloff (UC Irvine)

After losing weekend starter Bryce Stowell to the draft in the weeks leading up to the signing deadline, the Eaters received a huge boost when shortstop Ben Orloff decided to return for his senior campaign. In addition to being one of the best fielders and productive hitters in the Big West, Orloff also is the glue that keeps the Eaters going from a leadership standpoint. Last season, Orloff batted .344 with 23 RBIs. He also hit 17 doubles and recorded 95 total bases. He was 19-for-28 in stolen bases and fielded at an impressive .979 clip. Orloff hopes to lead the Eaters back to Omaha as a senior.

RHP Preston Guilmet (Arizona)

After a dominant sophomore campaign, Guilmet entered the '08 season hoping for a repeat. Instead, he had somewhat of a down season. Guilmet made 16 starts last season, threw one complete game and had a 6-4 record. He also had a 4.38 ERA in 96 2/3 innings of work, while striking out 93 and walking 22. Opponents hit Guilmet at a .272 clip. With the Wildcats losing several pitchers and hitters to the MLB Draft this past summer, Guilmet must return to his old form for the Wildcats to have a chance at returning to an NCAA super regional. Is the senior ready for the challenge?

SS Ben Soignier (Louisiana-Monroe)

He flew somewhat under the radar as a junior last season, but this season is Soignier's time to shine on the national stage. The veteran led the Warhawks at the plate last season. He batted .394 with 16 homers and 46 RBIs. He also recorded 21 doubles, a pair of triples and 166 total bases. Additionally, he had a slugging percentage of .703 and a .496 on-base percentage. Also worth noting, the veteran infielder walked 39 times last season, but only struck out on 25 occasions. Soignier hopes to guide the Warhawks to another Sun Belt regular season title this spring.

OF Michael Rockett (Texas-San Antonio)

Rockett somehow wasn't drafted this past summer, but he's back at UTSA and is ready for a strong senior campaign. Rockett was one of the nation's best hitters last season. He led the Roadrunners at the plate, hitting .360 with 10 homers and 68 RBIs. Most impressive, though, Rockett recorded 25 doubles, five triples and 154 total bases. Rockett also slugged .623 but had a less than impressive .385 on-base percentage. Rockett has the ability to be an All-American outfielder this season, but must improve his on-base percentage. Can the senior lead UTSA to an NCAA regional this spring?

The next five:

1B Nate Freiman (Duke)
RHP Trevor Holder (Georgia)
OF Matt Nohelty (Minnesota)
OF Brad Glenn (Arizona)
RHP Nate Newman (Pepperdine)

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.