Previewing the NAC Tournament

Since 2008, the NAC trophy has gone back and forth between Castleton and Bangor like clockwork. Castleton State has won it every even year, and Husson has taken it back in every odd year. It’s become one of the best rivalries in New England college baseball, and this year’s regular season was more competitive than ever. Joining those two in Vermont are Thomas and Maine-Farmington, two teams hungry for their first trips to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, a winner-take-all title game went the Spartans’ way, and another talented field this season promises even more excitement.

The History

As you read in the opening, Castleton State and Husson have won every championship since 2008 without either team taking two in a row. Castleton, the defending champions, will look to change that this year.

The rivalry started in earnest in 2008, when the Spartans recovered from an opening-game loss to the Eagles to beat them twice in Glens Falls to take the title and make their first NCAA trip. The tournament returned to East Field in 2009, and Husson returned the favor, beating the Spartans in the 1-0 game and recovering from a Sunday loss to rally from 6-4 down in the 9th to win. Castleton defeated Husson for the NEAC East title in 2010 en route to a NEAC title, as did Husson a year later. In 2012, the Spartans knocked the Eagles out early, but for the past two seasons, these two have met in the title round. Husson took the 2013 title, 4-2, behind seven strong from Pat McEwen. A year ago, they beat the Spartans in the 1-0 game, but Castleton stormed back on their home field, reaching a title game where they made an early 7-1 lead stand up in a 7-5 victory.

The Race

Castleton edged Husson in what was one of Division III’s most exciting title races this season. After Husson’s 12-0 start to league play and Castleton’s season-opening split with Thomas in Florida, the Spartans had ground to make up. A series win in Maine and a near-perfect run to the finish line were likely required. In mid-April, the Spartans made the long trek to Bangor to start doing exactly that. Devin Hayes threw a seven-inning shutout in the finale to take three of four and kick off a 16-1 run that included a 15-0 finish to conference play. They entered the final weekend needing a sweep at UMF and got it, taking the title over Husson with room to spare after the Eagles dropped a game to NEC.

Thomas had pretty much locked up the three seed by the final weekend, but the race for the fourth playoff spot came down to the final day of the season. In an unlikely turn of events, Colby-Sawyer (1-29 entering the final weekend) played spoiler. On Monday, they took UMF’s destiny out of its hands by splitting a doubleheader. That gave Lyndon a chance at a playoff berth if they could sweep a Tuesday doubleheader from the Chargers, but CSC came through with another split, giving UMF the four seed and head coach Jim Broughton his 300th win in the process.

The Format

The NAC uses Division III’s most popular playoff format, four-team double-elimination. The top seed hosts, and we play until all but one team loses twice. Starting 2-0 gives you a big advantage, but not an insurmountable one, as Castleton proved by coming out of the loser’s bracket last season.

The league has made a change to the normal scheduling format, electing to play Game 3 (the 0-1 game) on the first day of the tournament. They’re also starting each day’s action early in the morning (9 AM Friday and Saturday, 10 AM Sunday). I presume these adjustments are meant to help the three Maine teams travel- and hotel-wise. Getting knocked out means a minimum of a five-hour drive home for any of them, so playing early in the day and front-loading the tournament makes sense. If this schedule and the weather hold, I’m hoping to make it to Vermont for Sunday’s title round.

The Teams

Castleton State (28-10, 20-4 NAC) earned another top seed by closing conference play with a 15-game winning streak. By the end of March, the Spartans were in good shape, with a 9-5 mark that included defeats of NESCAC teams Tufts and Colby. Their season was made the next month, though, when they went 19-5 and surpassed Husson to win the league by a game. The Spartans’ offense hits better than .300 as a group, and their pitching staff sports an ERA of well under three. Individuals top the NAC in a mess of statistical categories: Dan Errico in home runs (5) and RBI (40), Tyler Lord in stolen bases (21), Sam Spencer in ERA (1.76), Devin Hayes in strikeouts (48), Steve Jurkiewicz in wins (6), and TJ Fearon in saves (6). With these tools and a home crowd behind them, Castleton has as good a chance as anyone at reaching their fifth NCAA Tournament under Ted Shipley.

For the third straight season, Husson (25-15, 19-5 NAC) checks in as the two seed. As usual, the Eagles kicked off their season with a challenging Florida slate, and they came out of it at 2-7 with losses to power-conference playoff teams WPI, RIC, and Wheaton on their record. Back home, however, taking on those challenges early certainly seemed to pay off for Jason Harvey’s club. The Eagles reeled off 12 straight wins in the eight days from March 27 to April 3. That got them off to a 10-0 start and also put a doubleheader sweep of Saint Joseph’s on their resume. Later in April, a home series loss to Castleton hurt, as did late-season losses to Lyndon and NEC, but 19 conference wins still set a school record. Even after graduating the conference’s 2014 Player and Pitcher of the Year, Husson is talented. A veteran lineup bats nearly .300, with seniors Kyle Bishop (13 XBH) and Jordan Carter (26 RBI) helping to lead the team. Based on the regular-season results, the Eagles will like their opening-game matchup with Thomas, who they shut out three times en route to sweeping the season series.

Third-seeded Thomas (16-20, 14-10 NAC) returns to the postseason after missing out by a half game in 2014. A split with top-seeded Castleton down in Florida headlines their resume. The club also took care of business in sweeps of 6th-place NEC and 7th-place Colby-Sawyer en route to the playoffs. The Terriers are young– no seniors logged more than 50 at-bats or 10 IP– but have gotten key contributions elsewhere. A pair of 2014 NAC first-teamers return in juniors Nik Beeson (.417, 22 RBI) and Anree Benitez (.363, 12 XBH). The Terriers have also gotten a boost from a freshman class that saw five members get 70 at-bats and three log double-digit innings on the hill. Michael de los Santos’s .296 average leads the bunch at the dish, and Matt Rutherford’s 41.1 innings and 2.40 ERA are both team highs.

Maine-Farmington (17-18, 10-14 NAC) checks in as the fourth seed. A 6-0 Florida trip had the Beavers feeling good in the early going, and despite the sub-.500 conference record, UMF was competitive. They went 0-8 against Castleton and Husson, but four of those games were decided by a single run, and only one by more than three. Like Thomas, the Beavers have won with youth, benefiting from only one senior, starter Joe Sullivan (3-3, 3.65). A talented junior class has more than made up for that, giving the team six of its top seven hitters and three of its top five innings-getters. At the plate, juniors Grayson Beressi (.368) and Sean Cabaniss (.359) are both hitting above .350, and Tom Grady leads the team with 24 RBI.

The Matchups

Friday, May 1 (all games at Spartan Field, Castleton, VT)

#1 Castleton State vs. #4 Maine-Farmington — 9:00 AM

#2 Husson vs. #3 Thomas — 12:00 PM

0-1 game — 3:00 PM

Saturday, May 2

1-0 game — 9:00 AM

1-1 game — 12:00 PM

Sunday, May 3

Title round — 10:00 AM

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