Down South’s Peach Belt Conference 2017 Preseason Rankings

The Peach Belt may not only be the premier conference in the southeast, but in the entire nation.  Last year the PBC qualified 5 of the 8 participants in the postseason for Southeast Regional play and 3 of the 4 teams meeting in the championship game of the regional round were PBC teams.  Armstrong was able to unseat North Georgia last season in the Super Regional to make the College World Series.  We are looking for them to take that swagger and lock up the #1 spot this season.  But don’t worry North Georgia is following them closely at the #2 spot.

UNC Pembroke has jumped all the way up to the #3 spot in help to some teams losing some key pieces while the Braves return some of their biggest assets.  Georgia College, Lander, and Young Harris round out the top 6.  Rounding out the second half is Francis Marion, USC Aiken, Georgia Southwestern, Columbus State, Montevallo, Flagler and Augusta State for the complete preseason rankings of the PBC.

1. Armstrong State
2603901_mktg_logoLast Year Finish: Finished 2nd in Regular Season, 3-0 winning Southeast Regional Round, Defeated North Georgia in Super Regional to advance to World Series.  Lost to Humboldt State in semifinals.
2016 Record: 43-15 (19-5)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 10
Players on Down South Watch List: 4

Armstrong State finished one game shy of reaching the College World Series Championship series falling to Humboldt State in the semifinals after forcing an if necessary game, beating Humboldt 3-2.  To reach the College World Series the Pirates defeated fellow PBC member North Georgia in the Southeast Super Regional 2 games to 1 clinching their berth.  After falling to USC Aiken in the first round of the PBC conference tournament Armstrong State went 8-3 in the month of May including sweeping the teams in the Southeast Regional round, 3-0.

New head coach, Kim Dean, will have a majority of players returning from last years College World Series team.  The Armstrong offense will be retuning 48 of the 57 homeruns from last season including three players who hit double digit and Hanna Reppert who led all of the Southeast with 20 homeruns.  Reppert will also be one of the 5 returning players with a batting average over .300.  More importantly Armstrong State is returning the deepest pitching staff in the PBC with all pitchers returning from a staff that logged 236 strikeouts and an impressive staff ERA of 1.87.

Big Questions:  The weapons are there and the timing is right for Armstrong State to unseat North Georgia as the powerhouse of the PBC but can they do it?  The question remains is how much will the controversial removal of former head coach Ted Evans affect the team.  New head coach, Kim Dean, comes into a perfect situation however this will be her first season as a head coach.  If Dean is able to rally the troops Armstrong is set to make another run to the College World Series.  However if Dean struggles in her first season, we will look like a fool in picking a team over North Georgia in the Peach Belt.

2. North Georgia
ng540bluewebLast Year Finish: Finished 1st in Regular Season, Conference Tournament Champions, 3-0 winning Southeast Regional Round, Lost to Armstrong State in best of three in Southeast Super Regional
2016 Record: 54-8 (23-1)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 5
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

North Georgia had yet another impressive season after coming off a National Championship in 2015.  After dropping the first 4 games of the season, the Nighthawks ripped off 19 straight wins.  In the conference North Georgia dropped only one game to Georgia College, a 3-2 loss.  Following the loss to Georgia College on March 29 the Nighthawks had another 19 game winning streak including winning the PBC conference tournament and the Southeast Regional Round.  After beating Armstrong State in the first game of the Super Regional they dropped the next two to fall just short of reaching their 2nd straight World Series.

The Nighthawks offense will not be the question bringing back All-American, Stephanie Hartness, who brings with her a .469 batting average and last years PBC player of the year award.  Hartness is one of three returners with batting averages above .300.  The pitching staff will miss Courtney Poole who threw 378.2 innings of the Nighthawks 421.2 total innings.  Macy Watkins has the most experience with 28.1 innings pitched, but posted a 5.93 ERA.  The transfers for North Georgia are the biggest additions adding two former SEC players including sophomore pitcher Bria Bush who will be transferring from Tennessee.

Big Questions: Is North Georgia going to make us look stupid?  There is a good chance that picking against the 3 time conference champ may bite us, however the lack of returners, especially the loss of Poole, leaves too many questions for us in their ability to repeat.  The success will hinge on how talented Tennessee transfer Bush is on the mound.  At Tennessee she only threw 14.2 innings and had a 3.82 ERA.  If the transfers can play like Florida State transfer, Hartness, then North Georgia is prime to have another great season and have us second guessing ourselves for putting them at 2nd.  

3.  UNC Pembroke
2752867_mktg_logoLast Year Finish: Finished 5th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 29-24-1 (14-10)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 7
Players on Down South Watch List: 3

In each of her last three seasons Coach Bennett has seen her team move from 11 to 10 to a 5th place finish last year in conference.  In 2016 the Braves had one of the best seasons including reaching the PBC conference semifinals for the first time in program history.  Beating nationally ranked Georgia College in the quarterfinals Pembroke fell to eventual tournament champ, North Georgia.   The Braves finished 2016 strong going 12-4 in the month of April including series splits with eventual Southeast Regional participants, Georgia College, USC Aiken, and Armstrong State.

Heading into 2017 the Braves will be carried by their three headed monster on offense.  Senior Abbey Walters and juniors, Jamie Johnson and Taylor Gerhart who return as the 3 top leaders in almost every offensive categories for the Braves last year.  On the mound they lose primary pitcher Katie Saunders who threw 174.0 innings, however they are one of the few teams returning a pitcher with over 100 innings pitched with the return of Taylor Strickland.  Walter also helped with pitching hurling 82.2 innings and a team best 2.71 ERA.  

Big Questions: Pitching will be the key for Pembroke this season needing  better team ERA than the 3.26 posted last season.  Strickland will have to step us as a sophomore leader for a young battery which showcases 3 freshman arms on the roster.  If Walters can fill the gaps where needed and the freshman pitchers can step up, Pembroke can log their best season yet ending with a chance to make the Southeast Regionals.

4.  Georgia College
2192007
Last Year Finish: Finished 4th in Regular Season, 2-2 in Southeast Regional Round losing to North Georgia in Final game.
2016 Record: 41-18 (14-10)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 8
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

Georgia College started off the year on fire ripping off wins in the first 12 games of the season.  The Bobcats were also the only team to hand North Georgia a conference loss in the regular season with a 3-2 win at North Georgia.  Georgia College lost in the first round conference but earned a bid for the NCAA regionals.  After falling to Catawba in the first round the Bobcats rallied winning two in the loser’s bracket including a 3-0 win in a rematch versus Catawba.  Georgia College fell just short losing to North Georgia in the regional round championship.

Returning only three of their six players who hit over .300 from last season, the Bobcats will lean heavily on Faith Flanders as the primary offensive weapon for this team.  Flanders led the team in RBI which is a great return, however the Bobcats lost 4 seniors who had over 30 RBI each.  Sophomore Brooke Taylor will be the most experienced pitcher returning with 69.0 innings.  Last years leader in all pitching categories Carly Lewis is not on the roster for her senior season leaving a big hole after pitching 193.0 innings for the Bobcats.

Big Questions:  This year’s team will be much different then the team who won two games in the regional round.  Replacing the offensive numbers can be daunting however it is the loss of Carly Lewis in the circle that is the biggest scare.  If Lewis had returned for her Senior campaign, this team would have been a frontrunner, but now there may be too much to replace.  We will have to wait and see which arm Georgia College can depend on.

5.  Lander
lander-bearcats-logo
Last Year Finish: Finished 6th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 26-21 (12-12)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 14
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

In his first season at Lander Coach Glen Crawford showed why they brought in him from NAIA powerhouse Reinhardt University.  In his first season, Lander recorded their most wins in PBC history, their first winning season since 2003 and first appearance in the PBC tournament since 2010.  Even though they fell to Young Harris in the first round making it to the PBC quarterfinals was a huge stride for a young Lander team.

While their success was great the fact that coach Crawford did this with only 4 juniors as the total upperclassman on a 20 man roster.  This team returns all of their weapons including 7 players with batting averages over .300 and all of their pitchers who saw innings.  McKenzi Ferguson will be the leader for the battery hurling 181.0 innings last year with a 2.90 ERA.  

Big Question: Can this young team take the next step? Coach Crawford, who took his last team to the NAIA tournament in 5 of his 8 season, looks to see if this team can snag a spot in the NCAA Regionals for the first time in program history.  We don’t feel that Lander is far off, if they can use last season’s success to help we can see Lander become a power in the PBC, and oh yeah Lander only has 4 seniors this season.

6.  Young Harris
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Last Year Finish: Finished 3rd in Regular Season, 0-2 in Southeast Regional Round.
2016 Record: 32-20 (17-7)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 8
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

Young Harris had another successful season with a third place finish in the PBC coming up just short to Armstrong and North Georgia.  The Mountain Lions used some good wins with a split on Armstrong and a sweep on Pembroke.  However with a great start the finish was not what they had hoped going 1-5 in the last 6 games of the season including a 3-11 loss to USC Aiken in the PBC tournament.

Senior Jeanie Perrucci will be the most important returner for the Mountain Lions.  Perrucci returns with the highest batting average, and the most innings pitched with 100.2.  Offensively the Mountain Lions will need to replace their RBI and homerun leaders while defensively replacing a 200 plus inning pitcher with a sub 2.00 ERA.  

Big Questions: While we think Young Harris may be down this year, the PBC competitors do not need to count on this.  The Mountain Lions will be young this year with only 2 seniors with 9 freshman.  Perrucci will need to be big this year to help Young Harris have a similar season to last year.  However there is no need to count out the Mountain Lions, history shows they will be competitive with anyone in the Southeast.  

7.  Francis Marion
patriots_logo_2001_clr
Last Year Finish: Finished 8th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 34-21 (11-13)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 6
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

Francis Marion claimed the 8th spot in the PBC tournament after an 11-13 record in conference play.  This included a sweep over the #4 seeded Bobcats of Georgia College.  In the conference tournament the Patriots fell to the #1 seed and eventual tournament champion North Georgia.

While they may only be returning 6 players who appeared in 25 or more games, luckily two of them hit over .300 for the Patriots.  They will also return Chelsea Welty who led the team with 7 homeruns and 15 doubles while being 2nd on the team with 30 RBI.  Samantha Wroblewski will return to the circle with a team best ERA of 2.12, however the team does lose their inning leader Kelley Shelby who threw 191.1 innings last year.  Three of the six incoming freshman are listed as pitchers for the Patriots.

Big Question: This will be another young team in the PBC this season.  With only 16 players on their roster of which only 6 are upperclassman.   The freshman class is the largest having 6 players with no college experience.  The Patriots do return some strong players including two seniors who led the team in most offensive categories last season.

8.  USC Aiken
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Last Year Finish: Finished 7th in Regular Season, 0-2 in Southeast Regional Round.
2016 Record: 29-22 (11-13)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 8
Players on Down South Watch List: 0

USC Aiken parlayed a great run in the PBC tournament to clinch a spot in the NCAA regionals.  Coming in as the 7th seed the Pacers beat #2 Armstrong and then #3 Young Harris to make the PBC championship game where they lost to the #1 seed North Georgia.  In the regionals Aiken lost to Armstrong and Lenoir Rhyne to be eliminated from the post season.

The Pacers return only 1 player with a batting average over .300 last season in Magan Thrower who posted a .321 batting average with 6 homeruns. Offensively the team will need to fill the void by losing their top 3 players in RBI.  In the circle, Western Carolina transfer Chandler Terrapin, returns with the most innings throwing 99.0 last season.  

Big Question: Who is USC Aiken? Their 5 seniors last year refused to lose when the season was on the line making a historic run in the tournament, however the team had 13 underclassman last year who now have experience.  If the team from last season can grow from their experience last year then there is a chance Aiken can remain successful, however these are big ifs with a lot of holes to replace.

9.  Georgia Southwestern
2126355_mktg_logo
Last Year Finish: Finished 11th in Regular Season, did not make conference tournament.
2016 Record: 24-32 (7-17)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 11
Players on Down South Watch List: 3

Southwestern struggled last season at the end losing 15 of their last 17 games.  In the month of April the Hurricanes were swept by Lander, Georgia College, Armstrong, and Flagler in conference action.  However Southwestern did get good conference splits with USC Aiken and UNC Pembroke to help salvage their season.

While team struggled their freshman came in and shined.  Four of the six players that hit over .300 were freshman including Down South’s #1 sophomore to watch Hayley Tierce who had a .392 batting average and 16 homeruns.  All five players who had double digit RBI for Southwestern were freshmen or sophomores.  Defensively, junior Brittany Childs will be the primary arm after logging 120.2 innings last season, second to graduate Haley Goodson who threw 155.1 innings.  

Big Questions: Can the youth movement in Southwestern revitalize the Hurricanes?  Offensively Georgia Southwestern should have a solid foundation for the next couple of years, but to take the next step they will need the arm to keep them in games in the competitive PBC.  

10.  Columbus State
CSU Finals_53_ELast Year Finish: Finished 9th in Regular Season, did not make conference tournament.
2016 Record: 27-26 (9-15)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 9
Players on Down South Watch List: 0

Columbus State finished just two games back from making the PBC Tournament.  The Cougars had some success with splits against Armstrong, Georgia College, and  UNC Pembroke.  However splits with Augusta, Montevallo, and being swept by Flagler helped to keep the Cougars from reaching the tournament.

Columbus State will be lead by the three juniors, McKenzie Fagiolo, Kia Smith, and Cali Star who were the only players to hit over .300 last season.  The Cougars will also return all of their offensive leaders from last season.  On the mound they return Peyton Sorrells who had a team high 125.0 innings and a 12-8 record.  

Big Questions:  Can their pitching staff improve?  As a team last season the pitchers had a 3.71 ERA and this season the staff will be losing their best arm from last season who threw 3.18.  With two pitchers in the freshman class adding to the 3 returners who saw innings last season the Cougars will need to fish and see what arm can give them an ERA below 3.00 for them to be competitive in the PBC.

11.  Montevallo
montevallofalcons
Last Year Finish: Finished 13th in Regular Season, did not make conference tournament.
2016 Record: 19-38 (3-21)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 8
Players on Down South Watch List: 2

Playing in only their second season of softball ever Montevallo took a step back after finishing 11-13 in the conference in 2015, their first season.  With a hard finish to the end of the 2016 season going 2-15.  The Falcons started off the conference season at a 3-3 record, but lost their last 18 conference games, finishing last in the conference

Returning Down South’s #1 junior with Kelsey Vinning is the most important part of Montevallo getting back to their 2015 season.  Fellow junior Celestia Davila will also be a main part of the Falcons offense as her and Vinning led the team in almost all offensive categories.  Jocelyn Rivera will return throwing the most innings last season, however this was on a revolving staff that could never find their ace posting a team ERA of 6.99.

Big Questions:  Where a lot of teams wonder who will be pitching for them in the PBC this is the biggest concern for Montevallo.  To be competitive in a strong hitting PBC you have to have some arms, but a team ERA of 6.99 will put you out of almost every game no matter how good your offense is.    

12.  Flagler
flagler_saints_logoLast Year Finish: Finished 10th in Regular Season, did not make conference tournament.
2016 Record: 24-25 (9-15)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 5
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

The highlight for Flagler may have been the 4 game win streak at the end of the season to bring Flagler up to the 10th spot by sweeping Georgia Southwestern and Columbus State after being 5-15 heading into the final week of the season.  Flagler was able to notch a win against Georgia College who was ranked #8 at the time and an early win against #9 ranked Valdosta State for highlights on their season.

While the team only returns 5 players with 25 games of experience, 2 will return hitting over .300 from last season including team leader, senior Whitney Woodard who hit .383.  The Saints will also return Mackenzie Conley who tied for the most homeruns with 10 last season.  Callie Reed returns as the most experienced arm throwing 92.0 innings, however they lose 2 arms who threw over 200.0 innings and posted the two best ERA’s.

Big Question:  The Saints will be the most inexperienced team in the PBC this next season.  The few players who logged innings last year will need to step up and be leaders for a team that has 9 freshman on their roster while having only 8 upperclassman.    

13.  Augusta University
augusta-university-mascot
Last Year Finish:  Finished 12th in Regular Season, did not make conference tournament.
2016 Record: 18-34 (7-17)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 7
Players on Down South Watch List: 0

After starting the season on a 10 game losing streak Augusta could just never get back into the game.  Despite having a difficult schedule the Jaguars were able to get 2 wins over Lenoir Rhyne, and a win against Catawba.  Augusta was also able to get a sweep in a series against USC Aiken, however they were never able to parlay their wins into a run.

Junior Lindsey Stokes is the best returning offensive weapon having a .252 batting average which tops all returners.  Augusta will lose all their offensive leaders from this last season and will be searching for a bat to lead the lineup.  In the circle Augusta loses both of their 100 inning pitchers.  While the team only has 3 freshman on their roster, all 3 are listed as pitchers for a team seeking for an ace.

Big Question:  Everything is a question for Augusta.  We are not sure what team will be playing this season.  A lot of players from last year’s roster are not returning leaving the cupboard a little bare for the Jaguars.  Unless this team has a few surprises from some players it could be a long season for the Jaguars in 2017.

 

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