It’s already April, and in Division I, that means the halfway point of the season. Teams are as close to conference tournaments as to opening weekend, and even the early conference games have a big impact. For some teams, they mean more than others. The Ivies, for example, are scrapping for the Rolfe Division’s lone berth in the Championship Series, while UConn’s guaranteed a playoff spot in the AAC. For everyone, though, these 20-something conference games are their path to the postseason, where one good weekend can end with you going to the Big Dance. Here’s what’s on top as we head into April.
In the Midweek
A matchup of two of New England’s hottest teams highlighted the midweek action, and it didn’t disappoint. Connecticut and Boston College met up in Northborough, and it was the Huskies who came from behind to grab an 8-7 win. BC led 6-1 after 4.5, but UConn battled back. Joe DeRoche-Duffin’s fifth homer pegged back one run in Nick Poore’s last inning of work, and UConn touched the BC bullpen for four the next inning. The Eagles pulled back ahead 7-6 in the top half of the 7th, but a Blake Davey singled retied the game in the 7th, and Vinny Siena’s two-out RBI gave UConn and 8-7 lead after 8. Nico Darras was able to close things out in the 9th to give head coach Jim Penders his 400th win.
Battle for First in Worcester
Holy Cross wasn’t the only team to pull off a sweep in the opening weekend of Patriot League play. Facing preseason favorites Bucknell at home, Navy took all four, including two extra-inning contests on Sunday. The squad led by former Providence and Maine boss Paul Kostacopoulos (spelled it right the first time!) has already reached the 20-win mark, though that comes against a pitifully weak schedule (299th out of 301, even before they played at home against RPI #301 Coppin State in the midweek). That said, the Midshipmen have put up some good numbers. JC transfer Sean Trent is hitting .407, and junior ace Luke Gillingham has struck out 78 in just 50.2. On the other side, Holy Cross comes in on a pretty good run of its own. They’ve won six of eight, including a 6-0 blanking of St. John’s back on March 15. After a tough 2014, it seems like they’re on the verge of returning to their 2012 and 2013 form. A good weekend against the Midshipmen would go a long way towards solidifying that momentum. Either way things go, a team that’s able to take three here will end the weekend in first, and with the Crusaders at home, you’ve gotta like the New England team’s chances.
Huskies’ Home Opener
This season’s New England standard-bearers finally open up at home this weekend, with Connecticut playing a three-game set that, like many series, is bumped up a day to give players the day off on Easter Sunday. The Huskies host AAC mate South Florida. For their home opener on Thursday, they’ll trot out ace Carson Cross, who’s been a huge part of the Huskies’ success this year. Apart from opening night, when he left trailing 3-0 in a game that then got away from the Huskies, UConn has won every one of the New Hampshire native’s starts. All those series-opening wins are a big reason they’ve had six straight winning weekends, and they’ll look to continue that against USF. Like Navy, the Bulls enter the weekend already at the 20-win mark, but that’s also against a relatively week schedule. Against common opponents Seton Hall (whom UConn took 2 of 3 from), first-year head coach Mark Kingston’s team swept a weekend set. In the Friday night game, Cross’s likely opponent Jimmy Herget went eight scoreless, fanning 12 and giving up just two hits. On the year, Herget’s 5-1 with an ERA just north of 2.00. The Huskies and Bulls are both battling to be considered first in line behind the AAC’s top tier clubs in Houston and Orlando, and this weekend will go some way towards deciding that.
Key Conference Series
A trio of other teams will face stiff conference tests this weekend. UMass, who enters the weekend in third place in the A-10 with a 4-2 mark, hosts second-place George Washington for their home opener at Earl Lorden Field. Neither team was pegged to do big things in the A-10, but both find themselves near the top of the standings, UMass by virtue of a road sweep of Dayton, GW after last week’s home sweep of St. Bonaventure’s. Despite head coach Gregg Ritchie’s background (he was the Pirates’ hitting coach in 2011 and 2012), the Colonials have pitched (3.60) much better than they’ve hit (.264). They’ve only got three team home runs (all off the bat of Kevin Mahala) despite playing in a bandbox. For the Minutemen, who host St. Bona next weekend, a series win here could keep their momentum going ahead of a key series at Saint Louis in two weeks’ time. Maine wraps up a five-game homestand with America East powers Stony Brook this weekend. The Black Bears, who’ve had their conference schedule hampered by weather so far, are coming off a split with Albany. In the opener, a three-run 7th and Charlie Butler’s fourth save helped them edge the Great Danes, 4-3. In game two, they couldn’t capitalize on 16 walks and lost 9-5 in extras. Maine will look for freshman Christian Garabedian to continue his hot-hitting in conference play (.556 through three games) against the Seawolves. Quinnipiac, off to a strong 4-2 start in MAAC play, will look to take their third straight series when they visit old NEC rivals Monmouth. The Bobcats’ four conference wins have come by an average scoreline of 4-1, and they’ll look to continue pitching well against the Hawks. In the series-clincher last weekend against Siena, Justin Thomas worked seven strong, giving up just two earned runs on three hits and striking out 11. Monmouth comes in hitting an anemic .210 as a team, so the Bobcats should come away with something if they press their advantage on the mound.