By Russell Anderson
The 2012 college baseball season is upon us. Around Conference USA, nine schools are about to take to the diamond and start down the road that they all hope will end in Omaha, at the College World Series.
What are some things that you need to know about C-USA Baseball in 2012? In honor of the league's 17th season, here are 17 tidbits to consider:
1. There are no new head coaches in Conference USA this season. The league is stacked with talented leaders in each of the nine dugouts. Among this successful group of skippers, three (Rice's Wayne Graham, Tulane's Rick Jones and UAB's Brian Shoop) rank among the top 23 winningest coaches in the NCAA.
2. When UCF takes the field Friday night for its opener against Long Island, it will be doing so at a renovated Jay Bergman Field. Seating capacity has doubled so that more fans can watch this rising program. The facility now seats 3,300 fans.
3. Besides having one of the best names in Conference USA Baseball, Marshall senior C Thor Meeks boasts a strong swing to go with his solid moniker. Meeks has moved into the school's top 10 for career home runs and averages a round-tripper once every 19 at-bats.
4. East Carolina received a boost in the off-season when C Zach Wright, a sixth round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies, turned down an offer to go pro and returned to Greenville. Wright is an All-C-USA performer who had 15 doubles and 13 homers for the Pirates last season.
5. Tulane senior C Jeremy Schaffer is a preseason All-American who led the Green Wave in 12 different offensive categories. He also paced C-USA in doubles with 23 and owns the top on-base percentage among returning players in the league.
6. Southern Miss C Jared Bales was named to a number of Freshman All-American teams last season. Bales threw out 12 potential base-stealers and made just four errors behind the plate. Bales will be also be counted on to help guide some new faces in the Golden Eagles pitching rotation this spring.
7. You may have noticed that the last four notes all dealt with catchers. There is no doubt that the backstops are among the most talented positional group in C-USA going into 2012. And I haven't even mentioned players like John Cannon of Houston, Craig Manuel of Rice and Ryan Breen of UCF. These talented men behind the plate will play a big part of their team's success at the plate, in the field and working with the pitchers this season.
8. Memphis junior RHP Dan Langfield had 16 strikeouts in a game last year against Kennesaw State, the most by a C-USA Pitcher last season and the third-highest single-game total in league history. He went on to finish with 94 strikeouts, the third-highest total in C-USA.
9. UAB junior RHP Dillon Napoleon became the first Blazer to win a major individual award in C-USA, garnering Newcomer of the Year honors in 2011. The 2012 preseason All-Conference USA selection was 5-3 with a 2.87 ERA in 13 starts.
10. One of the other top newcomers last year was Houston junior SS Chase Jensen. He is the Cougars leading returning hitter (.320) and roped 12 doubles and 45 RBI for Todd Whitting's first UH team. Jensen will be a leader for a Cougar club that welcomes 20 newcomers (13 high schoolers and seven junior college transfers) this spring.
11. Six of the nine schools are at least receiving votes in one of the four major polls. Rice leads the way, earning a top 10 listing in each, placing as high as No. 6 (Baseball America). UCF is ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time since 1991, with the Knights ranked as high as No. 21 (Baseball America). Southern Miss is No. 29 in the NCBWA poll and No. 30 by Collegiate Baseball, with East Carolina, Houston and Tulane each receiving votes in the national listings.
12. There are always talented newcomers to watch each season in C-USA. Baseball America has published its list of top 50 national freshmen for 2012 and C-USA has five players listed among that group. Southern Miss produced the top two, with SS Connor Barwin at No. 2 and OF/LHP Mason Robbins at No. 17. UCF LHP Eric Skoglund is No. 44, Rice RHP Jordan Stephens is No. 48 and Tulane RHP Alex Massey checks in at No. 49.
13. Conference USA always produces its share of preseason All-Americans and this year is no different. Five different players earned these preseason accolades including four Rice standouts. Representing the Blue and Gray are sophomore RHP Austin Kubitza (the preseason C-USA Pitcher of the Year), junior IF/OF Michael Ratterree and junior utility player J.T. Chargois. Also earning preseason All-American honors were Tulane senior C Jeremy Schaeffer and UCF junior 1B/P D.J. Hicks (the preseason C-USA Player of the Year).
14. Having a good closer is the cornerstone to any bullpen and UCF has a very good one in junior LHP Joe Rogers. The southpaw was named to preseason watch list for the NCBWA Stopper of the Year, given to the nation's top relief pitcher. Last season, Rogers had nine saves, the second-highest single-season total in UCF history. He also had 38 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 41.1 innings pitched.
15. Four C-USA schools are coming off NCAA Regional appearances. East Carolina, Rice, Southern Miss and UCF represented the league in the 2011 NCAA Championship. For Rice it was its 17th consecutive appearance (trailing only Miami (Fla.), Florida State and Cal State Fullerton for the most trips in a row. Southern Miss has now played in nine straight NCAA's, which gives the Golden Eagles the tenth-longest string among all D-I schools. In total, C-USA has produced 68 NCAA appearances in its first 16 seasons.
16. Fans who cannot make it to the park to see their favorite C-USA school in person will be able to follow the league better than ever on television. A record-24 games will appear on national or regional television. Most games not televised are available to view on the C-USA Digital Network.
17. The 2012 Conference USA Championship returns to Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss. The championship will employ a slightly different format this year with games spread out over five days instead of four. From Wednesday through Saturday there will be three games each day (11 am, 3 pm and 7 pm). The Championship game will now be played on Sunday, May 27 at 1 pm CT.
Poised once again to be one of the nation's top baseball conferences, Conference USA is excited to get the 2012 season underway. Play Ball!