Last spring, Cincinnati got bit by a tough seeding in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. By finishing 13-10-1 in league play, the Bearcats were stuck with the No. 4 seed, giving them a first round matchup with the No. 5 seed Houston Cougars. However, Houston is a program that isn’t usually on the bottom part of the league, as it had won at least 40 games and made it to the NCAA Tournament in the two years before last. A 9-1 UC loss in that opening round showed that Houston’s 11-12 record in league play was less indicative of how good it was as compared to its relatively solid 36-23 overall mark.
In 2015, the Cougars won their first six games and ended up going 43-20, coming in as the runner up in the American Athletic Conference Tournament and falling short in the NCAA Houston Regional. It was, by all accounts, a very good season. The hope was they could do more in 2016.
That didn’t happen.
Woah, sorry, that whole three word paragraph makes it seem like it dramatically didn’t happen. Sure, they didn’t win 40 games, but they were still pretty darn good. At 36-23, they had the fourth-best overall record in the AAC and their 23-8 home mark tied with Tulane for the best in the league. In addition, they went 10-10 against ranked teams, which isn’t overwhelmingly dominant but shows they could hang with the nation’s best. However, an 8-10 mark away from home railroaded them, that was until they blew past UC and topped Tulane twice before falling 7-2 to UConn in the final American Athletic Conference Tournament.
For its efforts, Houston got four players on the All-AAC first-team, including AAC Rookie Position Player of the Year Joe Davis.
Players to Watch
Joe Davis, 1B
The 6’0”, 230-pound sophomore from Austin, Texas crushed it in his freshman season. He blasted 14 home runs, tied for second-most in the AAC, and drove in a league-leading 58 runs. He didn’t just hit for power though, slashing his way to .331/.383/.577 while tallying 17 doubles and playing a solid first base (.984 fielding percentage).
Corey Julks, LF
The only batter to outperform Davis in terms of batting average, Julks batted .332, which ranked second in the league. He also ranked fourth in on-base percentage (.409) while slugging .439 on the back of 14 extra-base hits. He was one of the better base stealers on the roster as well, snagging 10 bags in 12 tries. His defense wasn’t airtight (three errors) but he was far from a detriment.
Connor Wong, UTIL
On the roster, Wong is listed as a catcher/infielder, but he can also play the outfield. The Cougars’ version of the Swiss army knife is more than just a plug-in at several positions, as he is a master at getting on base. His .415 on-base percentage ranked third in the AAC. He also batted a robust .304 and knocked five home runs into orbit as part of 20 total extra base hits. With nine steals and a .988 fielding percentage, his work reached beyond just sending baseballs into open spaces.
Seth Romero, SP
Like Davis, Romero was named a third-team preseason All-American by by D1Baseball.com and for good reason. The southpaw fired 94 1⁄3 innings as a sophomore and accumulated a 2.29 ERA and a .186 opponent batting average. His repertoire was nasty enough to consistently get swings and misses, as he struck out 113 batters, which led the entire AAC. Led by Romero, the Cougars led the AAC in ERA (2.50). He will be leaned on even more as Houston no longer has the service of Andrew Lantrip (6-6, 2.60 ERA).
Mitch Ullom, SP
Ullom will step into the role of No. 2 starter now and that’s not a bad thing for the Cougars. Ullom twirled 78 innings last season and, for the old school fans out there, led the Cougars in wins (seven). He had a 2.88 ERA, but doesn’t avoid bats like Romero, with only 39 strikeouts.
A step back in 2016 should be used as fuel by Houston in 2017. There is talent bursting through the lineup, as Davis, Wong, Julks, Romero and Ullom form a core that would make any team jealous. Houston seemed to figure things out in the AAC tourney last spring, and that could be a springboard of momentum. Even if the staff lost Lantrip, and top reliever Nick Hernandez is also gone, the Cougars have plenty of players who can step up. John King (6-4, 3.51 ERA) and Tre Cumbie (1.29 ERA) are just a pair of pitchers who will take on larger roles. In all, Houston has all the fixings for a 40-win season that ends in the NCAA Tournament.