The GNAC Tournament. It’s like the Iowa Caucuses of New England college baseball. Every year, it’s our first glimpse of what the next few weeks of playoff baseball will bring. Coming off a strong 2014 that saw Saint Joseph’s win a pair of games in the NCAAs and Suffolk take the ECAC title, the conference faltered a bit early in the season, but it righted the ship, and an intriguing tournament field promises an exciting week of baseball. All the action will be within a short drive from Boston, Providence, Portland, or Manchester, and playoff college baseball brings an intensity that’s a lot of fun to watch.
Saint Joseph’s has dominated the tournament in recent years, winning six of the last seven times. Head coach Will Sanborn has been at his alma mater since 1993, and he’s built one of the most consistent winners in New England. Since completing a transition from the NAIA in the early 2000s, the Monks have been a 30-win machine. The only time they fell short of this mark was 2008, their first in the GNAC. That “down” year saw them go 28-18 and reach the NCAA Tournament. They’ve won every tournament since 2010, and that year, they made their deepest run in the NCAAs, finishing third in Willimantic.
The one blip on the radar in that stretch was 2009, when Suffolk bested the Monks in one of the best editions of the tournament to date. The Rams won a wild 1-0 game by the ridiculous scoreline of 22-21. Suffolk actually led 22-8 halfway through the game, and Saint Joe’s fell one run shy of erasing the 14-run deficit. The Monks staved off elimination twice to force a decisive Sunday finale, but Alex Torres’ 146-pitch complete game led Suffolk to a 15-6 victory and the program’s first NCAA Tournament.
For the past five seasons, the Monks and Rams have met in the final round five times, and Saint Joe’s has won every won of them. In 2014, the Monks took title with a 2-0 win. Joe Gruntkosky went six scoreless, and Corey McNamara’s three one-hit relief innings punched the Monks’ ticket to Harwich.
The only other past winner in the field is Albertus Magnus, who took the crown in both 1999 and 2003. The other three qualifiers– Johnson & Wales, Lasell, and Rivier— are all on the hunt for their first tournament crowns and trips to the NCAA Tournament.
For 2015, the GNAC is sticking with the format it’s used for several years. The top six finishers of the league’s eight teams qualify. The top two seeds get a first-round bye. In the play-in round, held Tuesday at the higher seeds, #3 hosts #6 and #4 hosts #5. The winners of those games move on to a four-team double elimination. The first game is held on Thursday before everybody moves to a common site for Saturday and Sunday. This year, that site is Rivier’s Holman Stadium in Nashua, which also served as the site in 2013.
As we’ve seen, Saint Joseph’s (22-12, 12-2 GNAC) has had plenty of success in this tournament, and they enter it as the top seed for the first time since 2012. The Monks’ mid-February opener was the earliest in program history. Against quality competition at the Emory Tournament, they suffered three blowout losses. They kept struggling through a doubleheader sweep at the hands of Husson on March 31, at which point they were a mediocre 6-10. Since the calendar turned to April, however, they’ve been a whole different ballclub. Their 16-2 mark includes a 13-game win streak to start the month; they also beat both Endicott and Southern Maine, last year’s regional finalists, towards the end of the regular season. The Monks took two conference losses in splits against Suffolk and Johnson & Wales last week, but still won the regular-season title by two games. Statistically, the Monks’ biggest asset has been their offense, they outhit and outslug opponents by wide margins and have three regulars hitting north of .300. (They’ve also, remarkably, gotten plunked 29 more times than their opponents.) Their main starters’ ERAs sit in the mid 3’s, led by senior Lincoln Sanborn (4-2, 3.41).
Second-seeded Johnson & Wales (17-11, 10-4 GNAC) is the other team to receive a first-round bye, something they last managed as the top seed in 2013. Coming off a stellar 29-14 campaign in 2014, the Wildcats had an average to poor start. A 3-3 southern trip gave way to a three-game losing streak back north, but like Saint Joe’s, JWU turned things around in April. Their four conference losses came in splits with the four other highest finishers, but the Wildcats weren’t swept in conference all season. They enter the tournament on the back of road sweeps of Norwich and Albertus Magnus. Junior Jake Marchesseault (2-2, 2.84) beat Saint Joe’s in the regular season, and freshman Ryan Cabral paces the team with a .365 average.
Third-seeded Suffolk (13-16, 9-5 GNAC) will feature in the play-in round for the first time since 2013. As in 2014, the Rams got off to a tough start in Florida, but this year, there was no 10-game win streak back north to bail them out and propel them to the ECAC Tournament. Since coming back north, Suffolk’s 0-5 outside the league. Their third-place tie in the league came down to beating the teams they were supposed to beat and splitting with the rest of the top four. (Only Rivier managed to sweep the season series from them.) The Rams hit only .241 as a team, but the pitching staff is led by senior lefty and GNAC strikeout leader Josh Desai (4-3, 3.82).
Fourth-seeded Lasell (13-15, 9-5 GNAC) appears in its third straight conference tournament. The Lasers’ record is nearly identical to Suffolk’s, and they reached it in similar fashion. An 11-0 loss to the Rams on April 8 marked the low point of a 5-12 start. In the next week, Lasell reeled off sweeps of Norwich and Rivier and a win over Suffolk to get back on track. In 2015, the Lasers have gotten it done with offense. Freshman Josh Bahnick (3-1, 1.89) has anchored a pitching staff with only two other sub-4.00 ERAs. On the other side of the ball, junior Wes Hurty has given the Lasers the most pop with nine extra-base hits and 22 RBI.
Fifth-seeded Rivier (13-17, 8-6 GNAC) is one of the best stories in New England college baseball this season. Picked dead last in the preseason after a 3-27 campaign in 2014, the Raiders went above .500 in conference and are making their first postseason appearance since 2008, Bill Maniotis’s last year at the helm. Fourth-year head coach Anthony Perry has helped engineer a remarkable turnaround. The Raiders won more leagues games this year than they had in the last three seasons combined. If they win in the play-in round, they’ll be guaranteed a game on home turf in Nashua. Upperclassmen Taylor Black and J.J. Montello are both hitting in the .370s, and outfielder David Cusack leads the conference with 15 steals.
Sixth-seeded Albertus Magnus (10-19, 4-10 GNAC) is making its fifth straight appearance in the tournament. The Falcons beat out Anna Maria and Norwich for the last tournament spot by taking three of four in meetings with those teams. AMC also took a game off Lasell in the last weekend of the regular season. Senior Mike Barillaro (2-1, 2.33) has notched some of the staff’s better numbers on the mound, and two-way player Jordan Kubilus leads the team in innings and hits .286 at the dish.
Tuesday, April 21
#4 Lasell vs. #5 Rivier — 6:00 PM — Victory Field, Watertown, MA
#3 Suffolk vs. #6 Albertus Magnus — 7:30 PM — Adams Field, Quincy, MA
Thursday, April 23
#1 Saint Joseph’s vs. Lasell/Rivier — 4:00 PM — Larry Mahaney Diamond, Standish, ME
#2 Johnson & Wales vs. Suffolk/Albertus Magnus — 6:00 PM — Scotts Miracle-Gro Field
Saturday, April 25
0-1, 1-0, 1-1 games — Holman Stadium, Nashua, NH
Title round — Holman Stadium, Nashua, NH