ST. LOUIS – Missouri State, which returns several key position players and pitchers and a wealth of depth from last year's NCAA Super Regional squad, has been tabbed as the league favorite in the annual coaches' preseason poll, receiving five of eight first-place votes.
The Bears tallied 60 points and were named the favorite over second-place pick Dallas Baptist (56 points), as the Patriots tallied two first-place votes. Wichita State (47 points, one first place vote) and Bradley (35 points) finished in the third and fourth positions, respectively.
Indiana State was selected in fifth place with 28 points, followed by Illinois State (27 points) in the sixth slot. Evansville (22 points) and Southern Illinois (13 points) round out the final two positions in the poll.
The Valley is coming off one of its most successful seasons in MVC baseball history, which saw three league teams selected for the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in league history, including one national seed and two Regional hosts.
The Valley demonstrates a depth of talent and experience returning to the league this season. The coaches have voted 14 players representing seven teams to the 2016 preseason all-MVC baseball squad.
Missouri State welcomes back six starters and eight pitchers from a record-setting 2015 squad that finished with a school record 49 wins, en route to capturing both the MVC regular-season and conference tournament titles, as well as advancing to the NCAA Super Regional. Sophomore third-baseman Jake Burger, a Louisville Slugger third team All-America selection in 2015, will lead the charge offensively for the Bears. Burger ranked in the league's top-10 in batting average (.342), hits (78), doubles (22), triples (3), RBI (42), total bases (118) and slugging percentage (.518) last season. The Bears also return senior outfielder Spencer Johnson (.310, 66 hits, 50 runs, 44 RBI, 18 doubles, six home runs), junior first baseman Justin Paulsen, a second team all-conference selection in 2015 (.274, 57 hits, 39 runs, 47 RBI, 12 doubles) and junior outfielder Blake Graham (.273, 41 hits, 30 runs, 31 RBI). On the mound, Missouri State welcomes back starters Jordan Knutson (6-2, 3.16 ERA, 61 K) and Andy Cheray (3-3, 4.95 ERA, 37 K), as well as relievers Bryan Young and Sam Perez. Young, a returning NCBWA first team All-American, led the Bears with a Missouri State single-season record 16 saves in 2015, to go along with a 1.30 ERA and a perfect 7-0 record, while Perez ranked in the Valley's top-10 in ERA (3.29), wins (9) and opponents' batting average (.250).
Dallas Baptist returns four position starters and several key pitchers from last season's 46-15 squad that advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time, including serving as a Regional host for the first time in program history. The Patriots are coming off a school record 46 wins in 2015 and will be led offensively by senior Justin Wall (.301, 78 hits, 45 runs, 58 RBI, 13 doubles, 12 home runs). Juniors Camden Duzenack (.286, 69 hits, 52 runs, 39 RBI, 14 doubles) and David Martinelli (.267, 56 hits, 34 runs, 37 RBI, 13 doubles, 10 home runs), also return to the Patriots' lineup, as well as seniors Trooper Reynolds (.269, 46 hits, 31 runs, 32 RBI, 7 home runs) and Daniel Sweet (.265, 27 hits, 20 runs, 12 RBI). Duzenack (SS) and Sweet (DH) were both first team all-MVC choices last season, while Wall (OF) was a second team selection. On the mound, Dallas Baptist welcomes back senior Sean Stutzman (8-1, 4.29 ERA, 51 K) and sophomore Dalton Higgins (2.95 ERA, 20 K) to the starting rotation. Stutzman was an honorable mention all-conference selection last season, while Higgins was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American in 2015.
Wichita State returns six position starters and eight pitchers from last season's 26-33 team. The Shockers will be led at the plate by senior first-baseman Ryan Tinkham, a second team all-MVC selection a season ago. Tinkham (.333. 70 hits, 53 runs, 46 RBI, 19 doubles, 10 home runs) will be joined by senior Mikel Mucha (.313, 61 hits, 26 runs, 18 RBI, 9 doubles) and sophomores Gunnar Troutwine (.298, 36 hits, 18 runs, 30 RBI) and Trey Vickers (.252, 30 hits, 18 runs, 14 RBI) in the Shockers' lineup. Troutwine and Vickers were both honorable mention all-MVC selections in 2015. Senior infielders Tanner Kirk (.248, 35 hits, 21 runs, 21 RBI, 13 doubles) and Chase Rader (.239, 42 hits, 36 runs, 28 RBI, 9 doubles) also return to the field for Wichita State. Sophomore Sam Tewes and junior Willie Schwanke are both back on the Shocker pitching staff after missing most of 2015 due to injury. Tewes went 8-3 with a 3.27 ERA in 15 starts, tallying 50 strikeouts in 2014, while Schwanke made seven appearances, including three starts, striking out 25, before earning a medical hardship in 2015. Senior John Hayes, an honorable mention all-conference player last season, finished 6-2 in 26 appearances, adding four saves and 55 strikeouts. Senior Chase Williams (3-4, 5.59 ERA, 57 K) also returns to the Shockers' pitching rotation.
Bradley returns five position starters and eight pitchers from its 2015 team that finished 36-21 and returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1968. The Braves will be led offensively by junior third-baseman Spencer Gaa (.351, 54 hits, 21 runs, 9 doubles, 32 RBI), a second team all-MVC selection a season ago. Senior first-baseman Paul Solka (.295, 57 hits, 35 runs, 12 doubles, 31 RBI), an honorable mention all-conference player in 2015, and junior Evan Gruener (.247, 46 hits, 27 runs, 10 doubles, 7 home runs, 26 RBI) will add to the offensive firepower for the Braves. Senior Tyler Leffler (.354, 64 hits, 34 runs, 29 RBI, 13 doubles, second team all-MVC in 2014), junior Carson Weber (.218, 39 hits, 23 runs, 13 RBI) and sophomore Ian Kristan (.248, 28 hits, 11 runs, 7 doubles, 18 RBI) also return to the Bradley lineup. On the pitching side, the Braves bring back starters Brent Stong (5-6, 5.42 ERA, 58 K) and Cameron Roegner (4-0, 3.79 ERA, 33 K), while junior closer Matt Dennis (3-0, 1.51 ERA, 45 K, 12 saves), a third team NCBWA All-America choice and a 2015 second team all-MVC selection, also returns to the mound for Bradley, where he is expected to move into a starting role.
Indiana State welcomes back four position starters and seven pitchers from last year's 28-26 team. The Sycamores will be led offensively by seniors Andy Young (.296, 60 hits, 31 runs, 14 doubles, 7 home runs, 42 RBI, honorable mention all-MVC in 2015), Andy DeJesus (.277, 46 hits, 24 runs, 14 RBI) and Kaden Moore (.272, 41 hits, 20 runs, 22 RBI). Sophomore Tyler Friis (.264, 37 hits, 23 runs, 21 RBI) and junior Hunter Owen (.344, 33 hits, 15 runs, 10 doubles, 12 RBI) will also add to the offensive mix for Indiana State. On the mound, the Sycamores bring back several key pieces of their pitching staff. Junior left-hander Ryan Keaffaber (1-5, 2.73 ERA, 53 K) returns to the starting rotation for Indiana State, while junior reliever Austin Conway (4-2, 2.26 ERA, 52 K, 8 saves), will also be back on the mound for the Sycamores.
Illinois State returns five position starters and seven pitchers from last year's 27-27 squad. The Redbirds welcome back senior second-baseman Joe Kelch, a second team all-MVC performer last season, who ranked fifth in the league in batting average (.338), while adding 47 hits, 18 runs and 24 RBI, while also recording a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Kelch will be joined by a solid group of seniors, including Daniel Dwyer (.292, 61 hits, 48 runs, 9 doubles, 19 RBI), Jared Hendren (.281, 50 hits, 38 runs, 27 RBI), Sean Beesley (.252, 38 hits, 29 runs, 17 RBI) and Jean Ramirez (.257, 35 hits, 18 runs, 22 RBI), who will add punch to the Redbird offense. On the mound, Illinois State welcomes back senior lefty Jacob Hendren, a Louisville Slugger third team All-American in 2015. Hendren ranked in the Valley's top-five in wins (10), ERA (2.80), strikeouts (99), innings (106), starts (15) and complete games (3). Senior Steve Heilenbach (2-2, 4.04 ERA, 36 K) returns to the starting rotation, while junior Jack Landwehr (3-5, 6.58 ERA, 37 K) and senior Jake Sale (2-2, 6.41 ERA, 29 K) add depth to the Redbirds' bullpen.
Evansville returns six position players and five pitchers from last season's 29-24 squad. Seniors Josh Jyawook (.314, 58 hits, 47 runs, 32 RBI, 14 doubles) and Jonathan Ramon (.304, 59 hits, 25 runs, 48 RBI, 14 doubles, 3 triples) will lead the way offensively for the Purple Aces. Seniors Shain Showers (.239, 43 hits, 27 runs, 25 RBI) and Eric McKibban (.236, 48 hits, 25 runs, 31 RBI) and sophomores Stewart Nelson (.220, 31 hits, 27 runs, 11 RBI) and Korbin Williams (.174, 20 hits, 19 runs, 16 RBI) will add to the offensive punch at the plate for the Aces. Evansville welcomes back senior righty Connor Strain (3-6, 6.43 ERA, 33 K) as a part of the starting rotation, while senior closer Brett Jurceka (3-2, 4.55 ERA, 31 K, 9 saves) also returns to the Purple Aces' bullpen.
Southern Illinois returns seven position starters and seven pitchers from last year's 12-46 squad. The Salukis will be led at the plate by sophomores Greg Lambert (.276, 61 hits, 23 runs, 23 RBI, 8 doubles) and Chase Slone (.268, 64 hits, 27 runs, 19 RBI) and junior Ryan Sabo (.292, 40 hits, 17 runs, 6 doubles, 8 RBI). Sophomore Logan Blackfan (.244, 43 hits, 23 runs, 16 RBI, 19 doubles) and juniors Will Farmer (.216, 48 hits, 21 runs, 18 RBI), Jake Hand (.231, 27 hits, 13 runs, 13 RBI) and Dyllin Mucha (.260, 32 hits, 17 runs, 9 RBI) will add to the Salukis firepower offensively. On the mound, the Salukis return senior Bryce Sablotny (2-4, 3.95 ERA, 33 K) to the starting rotation, while juniors Chad Whitmer (5.81 ERA, 34 K) and Anthony Shimkus (6.11 ERA, 27 K) and sophomores Michael Barid (7.63 ERA, 44 K) and Ryan Netemeyer (1-4, 7.04 ERA, 28 K) will also add depth to the Southern Illinois bullpen.
All eight Missouri Valley Conference baseball teams begin action the third week of February with tournament play and non-conference games, while league battles will heat up starting Friday, April 8.
Indiana State will host the 2016 Missouri Valley Conference Championship, May 25-28, in Terre Haute, Ind. All games will be played at Bob Warn Field at Sycamore Stadium, and will be shown live on ESPN3.