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January 15, 2009

Atlantic Sun race wide open this season

Rivals.com's Atlantic Sun Preview
Predicted order of finish Preseason all-conference

1. Kennesaw State
2. Florida Gulf Coast
3. Lipscomb
4. Stetson
5. Belmont
6. South Carolina-Upstate
7. Jacksonville
8. North Florida
9. Mercer
10. East Tennessee State
11. Campbell
1B. Jeremy Cruz, Stetson
2B. Mikel Alvarez, Florida Gulf Coast
SS. Casey Frawley, Stetson
3B. Robert Crews, Stetson
OF. Jacob Robbins, Kennesaw State
OF. Joe Winker, Mercer
OF. Ryan Hamme, Campbell
C. Jeremy Gillan, Jacksonville
SP. Brandon McClurg, Lipscomb
SP. Andy Mauldin, Stetson
SP. Chad Jenkins, Kennesaw State
RP. Kenny Faulk, Kennesaw State
DH. Paul Hoilman, East Tennessee State
A-Sun breakdown
Team on the rise
Kennesaw State
After Florida Gulf Coast made a huge splash in the Atlantic Sun title race last season, it appears to be Kennesaw State's turn to carry the torch. The Owls have improved the past few seasons and have showed gradual improvement in the Atlantic Sun. The Owls finished the '06 season 12-18 and eighth place in conference. They also had an overall record of 24-32. In '07, the Owls finished fifth in conference with a 13-14 record. They were 32-23 overall. Last season, though, the Owls took a huge step forward by finishing second in conference with an impressive 21-12 record. They also had an overall record of 30-26. With the Owls returning eight often used position players and at least three very solid pitchers from last year's team, the sky is the limit this season.
Coach on the rise
Dave Tollett
Remember the name Dave Tollett for the next few years. Though few Division I baseball aficionados know what Tollett is all about, that soon will change. What he accomplished at Florida Gulf Coast last season was impressive. Tollett was the program's first coach and has been at the university for eight seasons, this year marking his ninth season. In just his program's first season in the Atlantic Sun in '08, Tollett guided the Eagles to a regular-season title and a 25-8 league record. They also had an overall record of 38-15 with an RPI of 67. Though the Eagles still aren't allowed to compete in the NCAA postseason because the program is still in a transition period, their voices already have been heard.
Best pitcher
RHP Brandon McClurg
It's not a strong year for starting pitchers in the Atlantic Sun, but keep an eye on Lipscomb senior right-hander Brandon McClurg. McClurg is seasoned and ready for a strong senior campaign for the Bisons. The veteran made 11 starts last season and tossed a pair of complete games. He also had a 3.34 ERA in 91 2/3 innings, while striking out 77 and walking 39. Opponents hit McClurg at a .237 clip last season. With Lipscomb hoping to once again earn the A-Sun's automatic berth to an NCAA regional this season, McClurg will be a key cog.
Best hitter
1B Jeremy Cruz
Stetson always has had a successful program, but entered unfamiliar territory last season by finishing with an overall record of 26-33. Disappointed with how last season transpired, senior first baseman Jeremy Cruz hopes to turn the tide back the Hatters' direction this season. Cruz is coming off a monster junior campaign. The veteran started 55 games last season and batted .404 with 15 homers and 57 RBIs. He also recorded 18 doubles, two triples and 157 total bases. Additionally, he had a slugging percentage of .704 and a .467 on-base percentage. In the field, Cruz had a serviceable .978 fielding percentage. The Hatters should feel confident this season with Cruz leading the charge.
Kendall's analysis
Kennesaw State coach Mike Sansing is ecstatic about the upcoming season and believes his team can win the conference title. Sansing said the Owls' strengths are experience and balance in all areas of the game. In terms of weaknesses, Sansing said pitching depth could become an issue at some point this season East Tennessee State had a tough '08 campaign, but hopes to show marked improvement this season. The Buccaneers believe the offense will be able to manufacture runs this season. They also are very pleased with how much team speed improved during the offseason. In terms of weaknesses, the Bucs said starting pitching is the biggest question mark. ETSU really likes freshman two-way player Bo Reeder. ETSU said Reeder is a special player and is tremendous defensively at third base. As a pitcher, he'll either start or close Jacksonville coaches said they had a very young team, but believe the players have the athletic ability to compete for the conference crown this season. The coaches said junior right-handed pitcher Carson Andrew is a player to watch this season. They also said pitching will be the team's strength this season, while infield defense is a question mark entering the season Stetson had a tough '08 campaign but hopes to return to its winning ways this spring. The Hatters said hitting and power are their strengths, while youth and inexperience could be an issue. In terms of newcomers, keep an eye on freshmen Alex Hudak and Ryan Sweat. Also watch for junior right-handed pitcher Robby Donovan to have a good campaign this season. Donovan didn't have a great '08 campaign but hit 94 mph during fall workouts and showed signs of greatness North Florida coach Dusty Rhodes listed his team's strengths as experienced returning starting pitchers and talented position players, but listed short relief as a worry area entering the season. In terms of newcomers, keep an eye on junior left-handed pitcher Mike Kelly, who previously was a successful pitcher at Santa Fe CC Lipscomb coaches said their strengths are an experienced pitching staff with good depth in the bullpen is a huge boost. They also like the fact all three weekend starters already have had quality innings on the mound. The Bisons believe having several young players on the roster could cause some depth issues in the field. In terms of newcomers, keep an eye on freshman first baseman Tennyson Dodd Campbell coach Greg Goff believes his team's strengths are depth in the field and team defense. He also views lack of depth on the mound as a weakness. In terms of newcomers, keep an eye on junior infielder Alex Aycoth.

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