It feels like we’re always spoiled by the NEWMAC. Since 2011, only one title race has been decided by more than a game. Wheaton and Babson shared the title in 2011, and the Lyons beat out MIT by a game in the last single-standing season in 2013. The league didn’t break stride with the new divisional format in 2014, with only a game separating Wheaton over MIT in the East and Springfield over WPI in the West. In 2015, it was more of the same. MIT shared the West crown with Wheaton, and WPI finished just a game ahead of Coast Guard and Clark in the East. It’s always a competitive conference, and its tournament games rarely disappoint.
Historically, this has been Wheaton‘s tournament to lose. The Lyons have won 13 of 16 since the tournament was first held in 1999. Eric Podbelski, who arrived in Norton the year prior in 1998, has used that conference success as a springboard to national prominence. The Lyons have been an NCAA Tournament fixture during his tenure, making 12 appearances in four-year runs from 2000-2003, 2005-2008, and 2010-2013. His teams have come inches away from the national title twice, losing to Marietta in the championship round in both 2006 and 2012.
The rest of the league has mounted a serious challenge to Wheaton only a few times in that run, once each in the mid-2000s, late-2000s, and now. The first two times, it was Babson, who twice parlayed regular-season success into a NEWMAC Tournament title. After sharing the regular-season crown with Wheaton in 2003, the Beavers won the tournament in 2004. That year, all-New England catcher Ted Dziuba (still the program leader in home runs, RBI, and a mess of other categories) led Babson to a 4-0 run through the tournament. Five years later, the pattern repeated itself, with Babson winning the regular season outright in 2008 and the tournament in 2009. They also got their first NCAA Tournament win that year, 10-6 over ECSU.
The most recent challenge has been mounted by MIT, who swept Wheaton in the championship round in 2014 for their first NEWMAC title. That success had been brewing for some time. In the regular season, the Engineers finished just a game off the Lyons’ pace in 2011, 2013, and 2014. Last season, NEWMAC Pitcher of the Year David Hesslink won the semifinal clincher against Springfield and went seven in the title-winning game against Wheaton. MIT went on to a strong showing in Harwich, where they beat ECSU, Tufts, and Saint Joseph’s en route to a third-place finish.
West Division champion WPI has never advanced to the tournament title round, while division-mate Coast Guard has finished as the runner-up three times.
Both divisional title races were tight, very tight. MIT and Wheaton both played well throughout the league slate and came into last week’s head-to-head matchup neck-and-neck. The Engineers took the series, giving them the tiebreaker when the two ended up with matching 13-4 records. Babson lost series to both the Engineers and Lyons, but they avoided sweeps and did enough elsewhere to wrap up a play-in berth by the final weekend.
In the West, the race came down to the final week of play. WPI was in good shape to win the division by then, holding tiebreakers over Coast Guard and Clark by virtue of series wins in the preceding weeks. They took two of three from Springfield to seal the deal. The race for the last playoff spot between Clark and Coast Guard came down to the final games of the season. The pitching of Colton Cannon and Luke Vrissis led CGA to a huge series win in the final weekend, which gave them a crucial tiebreaker for the final day of play. They got help from Babson, whose win over Clark left the Cougars at 8-9, then took care of business against Emerson behind Vrissis’s eight-strikeout complete game. That got them to 8-9, and the tiebreaker put them into the tournament.
I’ve gotta say, I love the format the league switched to when Emerson became the 8th team before 2014. Having a good regular season matters, because only 5 of 8 qualify. Finishing above the middle of the pack matters, because the 4 and 5 seeds have to play a play-in game. Winning your division matters, because those teams get home field in the semis. Winning the league matters, because you get the team that’s had to burn pitching in the play-in for your semifinal matchup. And you’ve gotta perform throughout best-of-three series to win the whole thing. In short, the NEWMAC’s as good as any other league at ensuring every game is meaningful.
East Division winner MIT (18-10, 13-4 NEWMAC) appears in its third straight NEWMAC Tournament, holding the top seed for the first time. The Engineers started late, taking a spring trip to California near the end of March. Out there, they got a solid 8-2 win over Chapman but fell to then-#20 Cal Lutheran 11-6. Back east, they got off to a 5-0 start in conference, but faltered a bit in early April, going 3-3 in a stretch that saw losses to playoff teams WPI, Babson, and Coast Guard. Around the middle of the month, however, they regained their footing to the tune of a 5-1 run-in, including an all-important series win over Wheaton. The Engineers’ offense has been led by freshman sensation Austin Filiere, the three-time conference Player of the Week who’s among the national home-run leaders with 11 and hitting just shy of .500 (not a typo). Last year’s frosh phenom, 2014 NEWMAC Pitcher of the Year David Hesslink, has led the starting staff in ERA (3.21) and K/9 (7.22)
Seeded second by virtue of its West Division title, WPI (20-13, 9-8 NEWMAC) returns to the tournament for the second straight year, sporting its highest seed since earning the top seed in 2009. The Engineers were flying high after a 10-4 start, but a five-game losing streak in late March left some uncertainty over how the rest of the year would turn out. To their credit, WPI recovered and showed convincingly that they’re the best team in the West with series wins over Clark, Coast Guard, and Springfield. The Engineers love the long ball, tying for the New England lead with 26 on the season. Juniors Alex Venditti (8) and Sean Greene (7) account for more than half of that total.
A share of the East Division crown propelled third-seeded Wheaton (21-10, 13-4 NEWMAC) to yet another tournament berth. (They’ve yet to miss out since it was first played in 1999.) The Lyons came out of a murderous Florida slate at 6-4 with wins over nationally regarded Concordia (IL) and Webster under their belts. Back north, an April 1 loss to Clark didn’t knock them off their stride. They won 10 of 13 to start the month and had a seven-game winning streak coming into late April’s MIT series, which they lost. Senior first baseman and defending NEWMAC Player of the Year Apolinar de la Cruz has been his usual self, hitting .361 with a team-leading 18 extra-base hits. In the pen, senior Mike Bisceglia has helped to fill the shoes of national saves record-holder Ryan Grant, amassing six saves and an 11.57 K/9 mark in a team-leading 14 appearances.
Like Wheaton, fourth-seeded Babson (15-15, 11-6) has played in every NEWMAC Tournament. The Beavers started the regular season better than they finished it (8-5 in March vs. 7-10 in April), but they enter the tournament on a four-game win streak. Senior Sean MacPhee has started only 18 of the Beavers’ 30 games, but he leads the squad with a .413 average. Classmate and former Virginia Cavalier Barrett O’Neill (5-1, 1.93) gives the Beavers an ace no one in the NEWMAC will want to see in a three-game series.
Fifth-seeded Coast Guard (15-12, 8-9 NEWMAC) returns to the tournament for the first time since 2013. The Bears got off to a 10-2 start that saw a series win over Springfield, but since then, they’ve gone 5-10. It took some final-week heroics for them to make the tournament, but they’re here, and they’ll see an opponent in Babson who they split two one-run contests with this year. Sophomore Tim Duncan gives them a power-threat at the plate (6 HR), while freshman closer Cody Bain ranks second in the league with four saves.
Friday, April 23
#4 Babson vs. #5 Coast Guard — 3:30 PM — Govoni Field, Needham, MA
Saturday and Sunday, April 24-25
#1 MIT vs. Babson/Coast Guard — Briggs Field, Cambridge, MA
#2 WPI vs. #3 Wheaton — Rocheleau Field (Assumption), Worcester, MA
Saturday and Sunday, May 2-3
Semifinal winners — Home field of highest remaining seed