Previewing the D1 Conference Tournaments

After a rough weekend in D2 and D3, we’ve thankfully got something else to turn our attention to– six Division I conference tournaments will see teams from New England battle for NCAA Tournament bids this weekend. Three of them– the AEC, NEC, and MAAC– are being held right in our back yard. Below, I’ll take a look at each tournament, previewing the formats, history, and key players as eight different teams look to punch bids to the field of 64.

American Athletic Conference

For the second year in a row, the American’s conference tournament will be held in sunny Clearwater, Florida at Bright House Field. The venue’s primary tenants are the Phillies during Spring Training and their high-A team, the Clearwater Threshers. In using Bright House, the AAC picks up where the Big East left off. That league first came to Clearwater in 2006 and returned each season from 2008 to 2013. Connecticut pulled off a surprise win in the final edition of the old Big East’s tournament there. The Huskies will look to recapture that magic this week.

A season-ending road sweep of the hands of powerhouse Houston saw the Huskies finish 11-13, good for 6th in the conference. Don’t let that mark fool you, this team has the talent and pitching depth to win the whole thing.  UConn placed seven on the all-conference rolls and was the only club to put two pitchers on the first team, the dynamic duo of senior righty Carson Cross (10-2, 2.18) and sophomore lefty Anthony Kay (7-6, 2.16).  Those two headline a staff with a combined ERA south of 3.  Sunday starter Jordan Tabakman (3-5, 3.52) gives the Huskies a solid option for later in the weekend, and Nico Darras and Patrick Ruotolo have both put up good numbers out of the pen this year. On the other side of the ball, the AAC’s second-best offense is led by second baseman Vinny Siena, who’s rebounded from a sophomore slump to the tune of a .358, 50-RBI campaign. If Joe DeRoche-Duffin, sitting on nine homers, hits one out this weekend, he’ll join Blake Davey as the only Husky to reach double digits since now-MLBer George Springer hit 12 in his final season in Storrs.

The tournament was played as a two-pool round-robin with a title game in 2014, but the American’s tweaked things a bit this season after that format produced too many dead-rubber games (like UConn’s season finale against Temple). The league is still splitting its eight teams into two pools (the #6 Huskies’ consists of #2 East Carolina, #3 Tulane, and #7 UCF), but they’ll play a double-elimination format leading up to a championship game with the winner of the other pool. More games, potentially, but at least they’ll all matter. UConn’s side of the bracket is talented, no doubt, but they took a road series from first-round opponents Tulane, as well as potential opponents UCF. They dropped four of six against East Carolina in the regular season, but two of those came by one run, and they’ll at least have seen the Pirates’ pitching a couple times around. If Cross and Kay pitching to expectations and the lineup comes through in the clutch, New England’s most talented team could well find itself back in the NCAA Tournament.

Colonial Athletic Association

For the third straight season, Northeastern earned a berth in the CAA Tournament, and they used an excellent run-in to earn the three-seed, their highest postseason seed since competing as winning the regular season in their last AEC season in 2005. The Huskies had all but clinched a berth with two weeks to spare, but they won a road series at fellow qualifiers William & Mary before notching a marquee win over #15 College of Charleston in Brookline last week. NU is in search of its first NCAA Tournament bid since winning the AEC in 2003.

As I’ve discussed before, the Husky bullpen has been a huge part of the club’s success. Despite having a worse batting average and ERA than opponents in both non-conference and CAA play, the relief trio of Mike Fitzgerald, Aaron Civale, and Isaac Lippert has helped them to a 24-28 mark (14-10 CAA). Those three have saved 14 of the Huskies’ 24 victories and earned wins in 8 of the other 10. Since the top 2 seeds in the CAA’s brand of double-elimination get byes, a successful weekend will also be a long one for NU, so those top-notch bullpen arms will come in handy. At the dish, joint CAA home run leader Rob Fonseca (whose 14 ties him with Elon’s resident Rhode Islander, Chris King) will look to put a charge into an offense that hit just .238 in league play this year.

In the opening round, the Huskies face a #6 William & Mary led by Merrimack alum and former Wheaton, Bryant, Brown, and Cape League assistant Brian Murphy. #2 UNC Wilmington (who swept the Huskies in their CAA-opening road series) awaits the winner. It’s a talented field, featuring potential regional hosts CofC at #1 and potential at-large UNCW at #2, but the Huskies are playing good baseball at the right time, and a title run is a distinct possibility.

America East Conference

For the third straight year, the AEC Tournament returns to LaLacheur Park in Lowell, Massachusetts.  For the second straight year, both Maine and Hartford have qualified, and they’ll look to take the conference crown home to New England for the first time since the Black Bears won it in 2011. Two-time defending champions Binghamton didn’t qualify, so there’ll be a new top dog in the AEC.

Maine checks in as the three seed after a respectable 10-10 showing in conference play. This marks their sixth straight appearance in the conference tournament. After a 2-6 start to league play, the Black Bears’ tourney streak looked to be in jeopardy, but they won three of their last four series to earn the spot in Lowell. That run included a season-ending series win at Albany that saw the pitching staff give up just two runs in a 4-1/3-1 Saturday doubleheader sweep. Justin Courtney threw six innings without giving up an earned run in the front end, and Logan Fullmer struck out five in four innings to earn saves in both games. Courtney and Fullmer helped to lead a pitching staff that get a team batting just .249 against AEC opponents into the conference tournament. The freshman starter has gone 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA against league opponents, while Fullmer has notched four saves and struck out nearly a batter per inning. On Thursday evening, Maine opens up against #2 UMBC, who’ve made the tournament for the first time since 2008. The Retrievers took two of three in a closely contested regular-season series down in Maryland earlier this year.

Hartford, meanwhile, returns to the tournament for the second year in a row. This is the first time the Hawks have pulled off that feat since 1993-1994, when the then-North Atlantic Conference let all eight teams into the tournament. (BU and UNH still had teams to compete in it back then, to give you some sense of how long ago that is.) The Hawks may not bring stud lefty Sean Newcomb to Lowell this year (the 2014 Angels first-rounder just got promoted to high-A), but they boast the league’s third-best pitching staff. Junior Kyle Gauthier (3-3, 3.25 in AEC play) has shouldered much of the burden, and classmate and ace reliever Jeremy Charles has picked up another three of the team’s wins in league play. Offensively, first baseman David MacKinnon has hit .355 and gotten on base at a .441 clip out of the three-hole, and cleanup man Ryan Lukach has driven in 42 (good for second in the league). Hartford gets a tough opening draw against top-seeded Stony Brook, but the Hawks will be able to feel more confident than most. Earlier this month, they became the only AEC team in 2015 to take a series from SBU (on the road, no less), and they’ll be eager to avenge a 10-6 loss in the tournament a year ago.

Atlantic 10 Conference

The A-10 Tournament heads to the nation’s capital this season, and Rhode Island has used an excellent regular season to claim the two seed at GW’s Turner Field in Arlington, Virginia. Beginning in 2003, the Rams reeled off a streak of 11 straight A-10 Tournament appearances. That was snapped during a tough 2014, but URI has recovered in style, challenging for the league title through the last day of the season and taking series off many of their fellow contenders along the way. This week, they’ll look to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since winning the A-10 in 2005.

Rhode Island hit an excellent .304 in league play this season, good for second behind regular-season champs Saint Louis. That number was driven by a youth movement.  The sophomore trio of Martin Taveras (.363), Matt O’Neil (.333), and Mike Corin (.321) has led the team in hitting in conference play. Freshman Chris Hess has been a welcome edition, as well. I saw him homer and triple in an 11-4 season-ending win over La Salle; he’s hit .327 with six triples on the year. Rhody’s been just as good on the mound, ranking second in strikeouts (176) and third in ERA (3.48) in conference play. Freshman Tyler Wilson (6-2, 1.75) has been the bighest reason for that. Since he entered the rotation to salvage a win at Saint Louis in the first conference weekend of the year, he’s notched wins against playoff teams like the Billikens, Richmond, VCU, and Davidson en route to winning the A-10 Pitcher and Rookie of the Year awards. All told, not bad for a team that many projected to finish near the bottom of the league.

The Rams’ first-round matchup comes against #7 Fordham, who sneaked in as the last team into the tournament for the second year in a row under fourth-year head coach Kevin Leighton (the man who replaced Steve Trimper at Manhattan when he left for Maine). The two teams last met in Kingston in 2014, when Lou Distasio threw a ten-strikeout Sunday shutout to clinch a series win for Rhody. With how deep this league is at the top, it’s a favorable first-round matchup, and they have the pitching to make Raphael Cerrato’s first year at the helm even more special than it’s already been.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Before the season, lots of people expected a New England team to finish near the top of the MAAC standings, they just didn’t expect it to be Quinnipiac. Fairfield got pegged to contend for a title, but ended up finishing three games outside the playoffs. It was the Bobcats, instead, who built on a playoff berth in Dan Gooley’s final season to challenge for this year’s conference title. Under first-year head coach John Delaney, they ended up finishing third, just a game and a half back of champions Rider. With a win this weekend, they’ll guarantee the program an above-.500 finish for the first time since 2007.

Quinnipiac placed a league-high five players on the all-MAAC first team: first baseman Vinny Guglietti, second baseman Scott Donaghue, shortstop Matt Batten, outfielder Mike Palladino, and pitcher Thomas Jankins. All four of the hitters finished the season above .300, with Palladino sharing the stolen base crown (24) and Guglietti hitting the third-most home runs (9). Jankins (5-5, 3.23) put up a excellent 2.41 ERA in conference play to lead the staff to a 3.73 mark in MAAC games. That talented squad will take the field at Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, NY, about a half hour from Danbury, Connecticut.

Quinnipiac dropped a regular-season series with first-round opponents Marist, a team they were facing for the first time in MAAC play. A win over the Red Foxes would mean a second-round matchup with #2 Canisius, a team QU missed in league play this year. With a tournament win this weekend, the Bobcats would return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 and become the first New England team ever to win the MAAC.

Northeast Conference

Besides the AEC Tourney in Lowell, the NEC Tournament is the only other being held in New England this year (at Norwich’s Dodd Stadium). It’s also the only other tournament to feature multiple New England teams, Bryant and Sacred Heart. The Bulldogs used a final-weekend split with Wagner to wrap up their fourth straight regular-season title, while the Pioneers won a series with Central Connecticut to clinch their playoff bid. Both teams have featured in the conference tournament every year since Bryant became eligible in 2013.

Unlike in their past two tournament-winning seasons, Bryant‘s offense has powered this year’s success. In NEC play, their .342 average, 199 runs, 68 doubles, 16 triples, and 20 home runs were all league-highs. Individually, they’ve been led by sophomore Cole Fabio’s .350 average and senior Jordan Mountford’s 38 extra-base hits, but the lineup’s deep from top to bottom. Six qualifiers have hit at least .298, and 12 different Bulldogs have hit home runs. The staff isn’t quite as good as it’s been the past two years, but still features Cape Leaguer Kyle Wilcox (7-1, 2.77) and freshman James Karinchak (7-5, 3.39). The first-year is striking out more than a batter an inning and leads the league with 73 total. All in all, this is impressive stuff from a team that lost five players to the professional ranks after 2014.

Sacred Heart, meanwhile, qualified for its seventh consecutive tournament, by far the longest streak in the NEC. The Pioneers are led by shortstop Zack Short, an all-NEC second-teamer a year ago who hit a team-leading .366 with five homers and 21 RBI in league play. The junior tandem of Jayson Sullivan and Jesus Medina both chipped in with double-digit RBI totals and mid-.300 averages against NEC opponents. Senior reliever Dan Wertz notched a pair of NEC wins and saves while posting a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings of conference relief.

The top-seeded Bulldogs open up with fourth-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, who sneaked into the tournament with a victory on the final day. Bryant put up 39 runs in a four-game sweep of FDU two weeks ago. Sacred Heart, meanwhile, holds the three seed and will face a Wagner team they split with in that same weekend. With any luck, Bryant-SHU will be the winner’s bracket matchup, and a New England team will go on to represent the NEC in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season.

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