PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH – James Madison, Hofstra, College of Charleston, Towson, Elon, Delaware, UNC Wilmington, Drexel

After the Jump - why pitching reigns supreme in the CAA; JMU is Built Ford Tough; a new Phoenix rising; why the Seahawks hope to fly over calmer waters.

The College of Charleston was one of only six teams in the nation last season to win 40 games without an NCAA Tournament appearance; the two and out exit from the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in May might have been the only thing that kept the Cougars and their final #50 RPI ranking out of the regionals. Charleston enjoyed two 10-game win streaks and a seven-game run over the course of 2014 with wins over DePaul, Ole Miss, Stetson, UCF, Hofstra and James Madison (twice).

The Cougars graduated a pair of First Team All-CAA stars from the left side of the infield in third baseman Kelsey Hodgson and shortstop Lizzy Vaughn; the former led the team with eight home runs while the latter hit a team-high .369 with 12 stolen bases. Second Team outfielder Carly Corthell and her team-leading 17 stolen bases also graduted. Junior utility player Carly Hansis recorded a .967 OPS and hit .365; she returns following First Team All-CAA honors with Second Team junior outfielder Rebecca Mueller (.344, eight doubles, three HR, eight SB .913 OPS) to form the backbone of the 2015 Charleston lineup. CAA All-Freshman team infielder Katie Padilla hit .283; senior Mackenzie Maples and junior Chandler Frisbie each hit 12 doubles and one homer – the Cougars are facing a severe power shortage and those two could be huge helps in that regard if some of those balls can get up over the fences.

College of Charleston can still win a lot of games this spring thanks to a pair of excellent pitchers in First Team All-CAA senior Hope Klicker (20-12, 2.75 ERA, 135 K) and All-Rookie sophomore Samantha Martin (13-3, 1.88 ERA, 112 K). As if they weren’t enough for head coach Linda Kalafatis, junior relief ace Valerie Cassell went 5-1 with a team-best 1.66 ERA and 61 strikeouts, combining on five Cougar team shutouts in the process. Also returning for depth is senior Alex Pizzoli.

Outlook – the Cougars have six freshmen position players that will need to be impact players right away for a team whose returns combined for just nine home runs in 2014. The outstanding pitching staff should keep Charleston afloat until they find their feet, but it is their development that will determine if the Cougars take a serious run at making it back to the NCAA Tournament.

Delaware was no-hit by 13th-ranked UCLA in its season opener, was shut out four times in its first six games and started 3-9 overall before getting some things going later in the year. The Blue Hens won 12 of 15 from March 30-April 16, but six straight CAA losses to NCAA-bound rivals Hofstra and James Madison to end the year eliminated them from tournament contention.

A young Delaware squad was led by a trio of CAA All-Rookie hitters; third baseman Giovanna Kolofer was also a Second Team conference all-star after hitting .340 with four triples, 10 stolen bases and an .880 OPS. Cleanup hitting shortstop Sarah Bencivenga batted .289 with three homers and a team-high 12 steals while hitting pitcher Carolyn Szymanski contributed six doubles, four home runs and a .704 OPS. Senior outfielder Jessica Grisler (.318/.400/.452, nine doubles, four homers), junior outfielder Gabby Klecko (.296, 11 stolen bases) and sophomore catcher Danielle Wissinger (seven doubles) are also key returning pieces for head coach Jaime Wohlbach. Of note - Klecko is the daughter of New York Jets defensive great Joe Klecko; her brother Dan earned three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots and Colts.

Szymanski won a team-high 10 games in the circle for Delaware with a 4.33 ERA and 85 strikeouts as a rookie and will likely team again with juniors Kelly Lupton (8-8, three shutouts, 2.92 ERA, 75 K) and Kiersten Coffman (4-2, 3.20 ERA). Junior Taylor Curran and freshman Kennedy Lester are also on hand.

OutlookDelaware went through the growing pains of playing with seven freshmen a year ago, added seven more this season, and now has the opportunity to start moving the program forward. If the Blue Hens don’t improve their record all that much in 2015, chalk that up to the much improved overall strength of the CAA.

The ugly Northeast winter of 2014 cost Drexel quite a few playing opportunities last spring as the Dragons only competed in a CAA-low 44 games. Head coach Miranda Ervin kept her non-conference schedule manageable and the Dragons went .500 in that portion of the season, but a season-ending nine-game losing streak featured prominently in a 4-14 last place finish in the CAA standings.

Infielder Kim Chan earned CAA All-Rookie honors with a .295 average and a .761 OPS by season’s end; she returns along with leading hitter Leticia Matsuoka (.301, 13 doubles, nine steals, .925 OPS). Very little power is in evidence on the Drexel roster following the graduation of seven home run-hitting Shelby Taylor, also the team’s #1 pitcher. Sophomore Bailey Reed and senior Liana Newton combined for 10 doubles last year, but Karli Boyer, the only Dragon underclassman besides Matsuoka to hit even two homers last season, is no longer listed on the roster.

Drexel will miss Taylor’s arm (12-11, 2.95 ERA, 119 K) even more than her bat as only junior Tara Konopka (4-6, 4.22 ERA, 59 K) and the ineffective sophomore Taylor Lee return from last year’s pitching staff. Freshmen Katie Haley and Alyssa Williamson and sophomore Lindsey Gibbs, a newcomer who wasn’t part of the program last year, will have to make major impacts for the Dragons to have a chance.

Outlook – On paper, this ballclub looks starved for offense and pitching. Barring incredible development by the returning cast and the new hurlers performing at a First Team All-CAA level, Drexel will have a hard time climbing out of the conference basement.

Elon opened the 2014 season 4-0-1 in its first five games and was 15-5-1 on the morning of March 11, but dropped 11 of its next 12 and eventually 10 of its final 13 games. The Phoenix stumbled to a 6-15 mark in their final season in the Southern Conference and were no-hit by Georgia Southern during a two-and-out exit in the SoCon tournament.

The Phoenix made the move to the Colonial Athletic Association over the summer and will have to face their first season in this tough new league without graduated First Team All-SoCon outfielder Carleigh Nester, who hit .300 with 11 doubles, 15 home runs, 42 RBI and a 1.071 OPS. Fellow outfielder Alaina Hall is back after an excellent freshman season that saw her lead the team with a .341 batting average and 17 stolen bases plus nine doubles, three homers and an .874 OPS. She was named to the Southern Conference Second Team and All-Freshman Team. Head coach Kathy Bocock’s team also returns three good power sources in junior infielder Emily Cameron, senior first baseman Grace Eng and sophomore catcher Emily Roper, a trio that combined for 23 home runs last season. Sophomore catcher Carey Million is a breakout candidate for Elon in 2015; although she batted just .189, 10 of her 23 hits went for extra bases with four homers.

Senior pitcher Caitlin O’Shea deserved better than her 8-15 record a year ago as she pitched to a 2.97 ERA in 150.2 innings, although she will need to bring her walks (59) down and strikeouts (36) up this season. Junior Kayla Caruso had a strong freshman season in 2013 but only saw 22 action in six games last year, putting up a 3.18 ERA; if she is fully healthy she and O’Shea should make a capable 1-2 combination. Sophomore Allie Burdette also returns along with seniors Eve Clausen and Chelsea White with freshman Kiandra Mitchum the lone addition to the Elon pitching staff.

Outlook – it’s hard to project teams that switch conferences, but Elon seems to have more talent on hand than its 2014 record would indicate. If the Phoenix can put everything together they are capable of qualifying for the CAA tournament.

Longtime CAA dynasty Hofstra sent legendary head coach Bill Edwards into retirement with yet another NCAA Tournament appearance, this one via at-large bid. The Pride earned non-conference wins over USF, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and LSU to put together an postseason-quality resume despite a third place finish in the CAA and a stunning two-and-out exit from the league tournament in Harrisonburg, Va.

Former assistant coach Larissa Anderson was promoted to the top spot over the summer; she inherits a lineup that will feature one returning All-CAA First Teamer and two Second Teamers to keep the assembly line moving on Long Island. Junior outfielder Chloe Fitzgerald hit .370 with four triples, 19 stolen bases and an .841 OPS to share First Team honors with first baseman Maggie Hawkins (.348, nine doubles, nine home runs, 48 RBI, .994 OPS)**. Senior catcher Erin Trippi made the Second Team along with sophomore Lacey Clark; the former hit .312 with nine doubles, eight homers, 41 RBI and a .975 OPS while the latter, also an All-Rookie pick, batted .280/.368/.415 with five doubles and a pair of longballs. Junior infielder Kim Smith hit .327 with a team-high 14 doubles, plus three homers, 10 steals and an .862 OPS and also returns for the Pride, as does junior outfielder Caryn Bailey (.281/.344/.489, seven homers) and sophomore Michaela Transue (.266/.319/.469, three homers).

Hofstra’s pitching staff will be as formidable as ever in 2015 thanks to the returns of First Team All-CAA Taylor Pirone and Second Teamer Morgan Lashley, both seniors. Pirone went 17-8 with a 1.75 ERA and 66 strikeouts with three shutouts, only allowing four home runs in 156 innings in the process while Lashley posted a 17-5 record, 2.39 ERA and 161 strikeouts. For depth purposes, sophomore Jessica Peslak and freshman Nikki Michalowski are also on hand.

Outlook – many mid-major programs would be crippled to graduate .300-hitting everyday starters like Becca Bigler and Rachael Senatore, but Hofstra has the returning talent to barely notice their absence.** Expect the Pride to once again be among the best teams in the northeastern United States, a CAA contender and, due to an incredibly powerful non-conference slate, in line for an at-large bid to the postseason if necessary.

**EDIT - Hawkins transferred to N.C. State over the summer. Tough loss for the Pride and something of a ding to their 2015 hopes, but far from fatal.

James Madison narrowly missed a few chances at big non-conference victories early in the season with close losses to Georgia, UCF, Illinois State and USF (they did beat DePaul and Louisiana-Lafayette) and was sitting at 8-8 on March 1. Following another one-run loss to Kent State that day, the Dukes run-ruled Fairfield to kick off a nine-game winning streak and a run of outstanding softball that saw JMU go 36-5 the remainder of the regular season and conference tourney. The Dukes shut out #2 Oregon and California, swept twinbills from three different ACC foes and beat CAA rival Hofstra four times en route to a regular season and tourney championship; they opened regionals with a second win over DePaul before falling at #15 Kentucky and to the Blue Demons the next day.

JMU graduated CAA Player of the Year Caitlin Sandy (.354/.408/.560, eight HR), but returns the likes of Freshman of the Year/First Team All-CAA outfielder Niki Prince (.287/.385/.446, seven doubles, six HR, 14 SB), First Team junior catcher Erica Field (.354, 10 doubles, eight HR, .968 OPS) and Second Team selections Hannah Hayes and Taylor Newton. Hayes, a junior, hit .280 with 12 steals and a .735 OPS while Newton clubbed eight home runs as a rookie with an .809 OPS. All-American junior Jailyn Ford, however, is the piece de resistance, batting .268 with nine doubles, a team-high nine home runs, nine steals and an .892 OPS.

What else does Ford bring to the table for the Dukes? Just a 24-7 record, 1.26 earned run average, nine shutouts, 233 strikeouts, a .200 batting average against and the CAA Pitcher of the Year award, that’s all. Adding to CAA Coach of the Year Mickey Dean’s embarrassment of riches is senior Second Team All-CAA pitcher Heather Kiefer, who went 20-8 with a 2.04 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 161.2 innings. Sophomore Kelly Wishard saw limited time as a rookie, pitching to a 3.77 ERA in eight frames. Freshmen Jessica McCabe and Megan Good join the team to provide depth to an already formidable JMU pitching staff.
Outlook – JMU brings back a boatload of key pieces from the 45-win CAA championship team, but Ford, the kind of all-around special talent that rarely lands at a mid-major school, is the engine that should drive the Dukes to another outstanding season. James Madison is the team to beat in this conference for the immediate future.

Towson went 21-14 against non-CAA foes in 2014 and may have been very close to a much better overall record if not for a 2-6 mark in extra-inning games. The Tigers put a string of five losses in seven games behind them at the very end of the season, eliminating higher CAA seeds College of Charleston and Hofstra from the league tournament to reach the finals where they fell to host James Madison.

Senior infielder Hailey Balk leads the cast of returning starters for head coach Lisa Costello’s Tigers in batting average, coming back after a .366 campaign with 11 doubles, eight stolen bases and an .861 OPS. Junior outfielder Olivia Yarbrough earned First Team All-CAA honors with a .322/.400/.350 slash line and six stolen bases; CAA All-Rookie Team catcher Holiday Cahill batted .311 with three home runs, five doubles and an .818 OPS. A pair of big bats in Maureen Hepner and Delanie Dunham (18 combined home runs) graduated, but two-way senior star Missy McCormick is still around to make life tough on Towson foes. She was named the All-CAA Second Team in 2014, hitting .276 with nine doubles, 12 home runs, a team-high 53 RBI and an .886 OPS. Sophomore Jessica South and junior Courtney Johnson combined for nine home runs a year ago and are also back in Black and Gold.

McCormick led the way for Towson in the circle as well with a 17-11 record, 2.78 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 179 innings; junior Ambar Hickman, who was the #2 Tiger starter last year, also returns after eight wins, 46 strikeouts and a 4.66 ERA. Freshmen Olivia Baltazar and Megan Dejter will compete for innings along with sophomore Carly Delauder (who didn’t see any game action last spring).

OutlookTowson’s lineup has enough of a mix of power, contact and speed to support a pitching staff looking for an identity behind McCormick. Once again, the Tigers should be no pushover in the CAA tournament if they qualify.

UNC Wilmington Softball has battled through turbulent times both on the field and off in recent seasons; in fact, the program was nearly shut down due to budget cuts in 2013 before the administration went a different direction, electing a few weeks ago to terminate the men’s and women’s cross country/track and field squads instead. On the diamond, the Seahawks held their own for the first two-thirds of the season and stood 17-17 overall after a doubleheader split with powerful rival Coastal Carolina on April 2. After that, however, things went south as UNCW dropped 12 straight and 17 of its last 18 games to plummet out of CAA tournament contention.

Head coach Kristy Norton’s team lost quite a number of contributors from what was already a not particularly potent offense; sophomore Nella Chamblee is the top returning hitter with a .264/.356/.395 line, eight doubles, three home runs and 21 RBI. Senior Jessica Rappe hit three home runs and combined with junior Erin Brown for 17 stolen bases in 2014 while sophomores Lauren Moore and Merritt Wilkinson showed flashes of extra-base pop as rookies with 13 doubles between them. Seven freshmen and UCF transfer outfielder Brittanne Gasser will have every opportunity to seize major playing time.

Senior pitcher Casey Rowland was named a Second Team All-CAA selection due not only to her nine win, 3.04 ERA, 179 strikeout pitching performance, but also her five doubles, two triples and two home runs at the plate. Her leadership in all phases of the game will be key to whatever progress UNCW makes this spring. Sophomore Peyton Jordan (7-17, 4.60 ERA, 80 K) and lightly used junior Darian Roberts also return to a Seahawk pitching staff that adds freshman Sarah Davis.

Outlook – recruiting has to be next to impossible with rumors flying around that the program itself is about to be eliminated, so with that scenario quashed, the future should be brighter in Wilmington. The Seahawks won’t be tabbed to do much in the CAA race, but don’t be surprised if that freedom from expectations helps UNC Wilmington surprise some opponents this season.

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