The American Athletic Conference (AAC) enters the upcoming season with talent scattered across the eight teams that encompass the conference. The greatest balance among the eight teams is in the middle of the conference after setting aside the powerhouse that has become East Carolina (ECU) under head coach Cliff Godwin.
A Look Back at 2021
ECU was the only team in the AAC that won more than 40 games in 2021, earning 44 wins before all was said and done. The four closest teams to the Pirates, Tulane, Wichita State, UCF, and South Florida all won 31 games apiece.
ECU and South Florida were the lone teams from the AAC to advance into the NCAA postseason. ECU gained a bid because of its overall record and national ranking; South Florida received an automatic bid by winning the AAC Championship in Clearwater, Florida over neighboring UCF. ECU and South Florida both advanced to Super Regionals but their seasons ended there.
Fifteen players were drafted from the AAC in July’s Amateur Baseball Draft. Each team had at least one player drafted, except for South Florida. Tulane saw five players drafted, four of them were pitchers. ECU and UCF both had three players drafted.
A Look Ahead to 2022
East Carolina (44-17) returns strong having restocked after losing very few players from their 2021 squad. Sophomore Carson Whisenhunt (6-2, 3.77 ERA) has been picked as the conference’s Preseason Pitcher of the Year and sophomore reliever C.J. Mayhue (8 Saves) also made the Preseason All-Conference team. The Pirates return 25 players including Zach Agnos, Josh Moylan, Jake Kuchmaner, and Bryson Worrell. In all, the Pirates roster consists of 13 freshmen, 19 sophomores, five juniors, and five seniors.
Wichita State (31-23) returns sophomore pitcher Jace Kaminska (8-1, 2.32 ERA) conference Newcomer Pitcher of the Year was a unanimous preseason all-conference selection and was joined by senior first baseman Garrett Kocis (.286, 12 HR, 45 RBI). Ross Cadena and Jack Sigrist round out a Shockers team that will welcome the return of seven position players who started 20 or more games a season ago.
Tulane (31-24) was picked by the coaches of the AAC to finish second in 2022. The Green Wave has four members on the preseason all-conference team, the most of any team, including catcher Bennett Lee (.440, 28 RBI), second baseman Chase Engelhard (.299, 9 HR) and designated hitter Luis Aviles (.255, 7 HR). The core of a team that won 12 straight games during the 2021 season returns for head coach Travis Jewett, despite the massive toll the MLB Draft took on the pitching staff.
Cincinnati (29-26) returns their entire outfield from 2021, including Paul Komistek (.364, 9 HR 44 RBI) who was selected as the conference’s Preseason Player of the Year. Griffin Merritt (.274, 10 HR) and sophomore Cole Harting (.289, 10 HR) join Komistek in the Bearcats outfield.
UCF (31-30) lost 14 players, including three that were drafted, from its 2021 squad. The Knights will return Gephry Pena (.290, 27 SB), Tom Josten (.253, 8 HR), and Alex Freeland (.288, 7 HR) in 2022. UCF begins 2022 with 18 newcomers, 11 of those are freshmen.
South Florida (31-30) won the Gainesville Regional in 2021 and advanced to the Austin Super Regional where they were eliminated by Texas in two games. The Bulls return Jack Jasiak (2.93 ERA, 93 K), and seven starting position players including third baseman Carmine Lane (.306, 11 HR) and outfielder Drew Brutcher (.294, 8 HR). The Bulls also return Daniel Cantu, Brad Lord, Matt Ruiz and Nelson Rivera.
Houston (19-34) returns an experienced pitching staff that includes starters Jaycob Deese and Ben Sears along with reliever Derrick Cherry (5 Saves, 2.85 ERA). Senior first baseman Ryan Hernandez (11 HR) is set to lead an offense that is otherwise unknown going into 2022 as Houston returns 14 lettermen, including three positional starters, but also welcomes 24 newcomers for the 2022 season. A season ago, the Cougars lost many close games despite solid pitching performances. To compete in 2022 the staff will need more offensive support.
Memphis (18-39) returns four starters from their 2021 lineup and added pitchers Connor Shamblin (Alabama) and Dalton Fowler (Oklahoma) via transfer. Prior to the 2022 season, Tigers head coach Daron Schoenrock has announced that he will retire after 18 seasons and over 400 wins as the leader of the program. The Memphis players may work to send their coach into retirement with a better performance than the team compiled in 2021. It will not be an easy task as the Tigers will face defending national champion Mississippi State and Ole Miss as part of season where they will play 15 games against teams that played in the postseason a year ago.
Conventional wisdom says that East Carolina is poised to lead the conference once again in the regular season. The AAC coaches agreed with that assessment and voted ECU the favorite, while College Baseball Nation ranked ECU #12 in the Preseason Top 50, with the next closest choice Wichita State a distant #41. The AAC coaches have voted Tulane to finish second.
It takes a special effort for the AAC to send multiple teams into the postseason, especially if ECU continues to dominate the regular season. Marquee series wins were difficult to come by for the AAC in 2021, and in such a case, a team must “go on a run” at the AAC Championship as South Florida did last season to earn an automatic bid. Who will break through in 2022?