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SIU relief pitcher Ryan Netemeyer delivers a pitch in the sixth inning against Arkansas State during a 2015 game at Itchy Jones Stadium.

ST. LOUIS — Dallas Baptist, which returns several key position players and pitchers and a wealth of depth from last year's NCAA Regional squad, has been tabbed as the Missouri Valley Conference favorite in the annual coaches' preseason poll.

The Patriots received seven of eight first-place votes in the poll, which was released on Tuesday. They tallied 63 points and were named the favorite over second-place pick Missouri State (57 points), as the Bears had the other first-place vote. Indiana State (42 points) finished third, while Southern Illinois finished fourth with 35 points.

Illinois State was fifth with 31 points, followed by Bradley (30 points), Evansville (18 points) and newcomer Valparaiso (12 points).

The Valley returns 19 all-conference players from the 2017 All-MVC teams. Twenty-four MVC athletes were drafted by major league teams. The coaches have voted 15 players representing six teams to the 2018 preseason All-MVC baseball squad.

Southern Illinois returns three position starters and six key pitchers from its 2017 team that finished 27-30.

The Salukis will be led offensively by senior second baseman Connor Kopach.  Kopach earned honorable mention All-MVC accolades last season, hitting .272 with 44 runs scored, 14 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 34 RBIs. Logan Blackfan enters his senior season with the second-most career doubles of all active players in NCAA Division I, boasting 54 two-baggers after his junior season.

The Salukis return two key arms to the mound in 2018, starter Michael Baird and closer Ryan Netemeyer. Baird, a senior right-hander, started 13 games last spring, going 4-4 with a 4.56 ERA in 79.0 innings.  Netemeyer, another senior righty, led the MVC with 15 saves last season and posted a 3.48 ERA in 31.0 innings. In 27 appearances, Netemeyer allowed only 12 earned runs and 20 hits, striking out 32 batters. 

Kopach, Baird and Netemeyer were preseason all-conference picks. The Salukis open the 2018 season Feb. 16 at Jacksonville (Alabama) State.

All eight Missouri Valley Conference baseball teams begin action the third weekend of February with tournament play and non-conference games. MVC play begins March 30.

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On Twitter: @THefferman


Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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