Previewing the NEWMAC Tournament

A full 370 days after last year’s preview, history has repeated itself in the NEWMAC. The same teams earned the same seeds as in 2015, and with any luck, the history of this massively entertaining tournament will keep on repeating itself. Since the switch to the five-team, three-game-series format in 2014, four of the six series have gone three games, and three of those have been decided in one-run contests. Suffice to say, 2016’s first conference tournament also tends to be one of the best. Click on for more about the tournament’s history, this year’s pennant race, and the teams contesting this year’s NEWMAC Title.

The History

Historically, Wheaton has been the team to beat in this tournament. Since the tournament was first held in 1999, the Lyons have taken home 13 of 17 titles. Eric Podbelski, who took the helm in 1998, has used his team’s success here to put the program on the map nationally. The Lyons have been an NCAA Tournament fixture during his tenure, making 12 appearances in a 14-year span from 2000-2013. The Lyons have twice made it as far as the national title series, falling to Marietta in the championship round in both 2006 and 2012.

In that time span, two insurgents have cracked Wheaton’s dominance. In the 2000s, it was Babson, who won a pair of NEWMAC Tournament titles. 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 a host of offensive categories) led Babson to a 4-0 run through the playoffs. Five years later, Babson won the regular season outright in 2008 and the tournament in 2009. Matt Noone’s club also got its first postseason win that year, 10-6 over ECSU.

In more recent years, Andy Barlow’s MIT squad has risen to the top. After sweeping the Lyons to win their first league title in 2014, the Engineers repeated the feat a year ago. And that’s no fluke– they’ve taken the regular-season series from Wheaton in five of the last six seasons. In last season’s title series, they battled back from a game-two loss to take home the title with a 5-4 win. MIT led 4-1 after five, and veteran relievers K.J. Parent and Michael Wymer combined to hold on for the one-run win. A three-hit performance from then-senior (and now assistant coach) Parker Tew helped him earn Tournament MVP honors. In the NCAAs, the club overcame a game-one loss to Salem State to advance all the way to the regional finals, the best showing in program history.

This year’s 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.

The Race

We couldn’t have asked for a better finish to the regular season in the NEWMAC, where both the league title and last playoff spot were decided in the the final innings of the season.

First, in the East Division, MIT and Wheaton entered their season-ending three-game series dead even at 12-2. In the opener in Cambridge, Tyler Walsh’s two-RBI single helped Wheaton jump out to a 5-0 lead in the first, and Joshua LaJoie’s 6th-inning RBI ended up making the difference in a 6-5 win. With the Lyons heading back to Norton to finish the series with two home games, it was advantage Wheaton, but MIT stormed back to sweep the doubleheader and win the division. In game one, Nick Locascio gave up just one run in eight, and Max Lancaster’s two-RBI double put the Engineers over the top in a 3-1 win. Then, in the decisive series finale, MIT won 7-4 after breaking an 8th-inning deadlock. Alec Echevarria drove in three, and Michael Wymer threw a 1-2-3 9th for his second save of the day. Despite the series loss, Wheaton had safely clinched a playoff spot with a 13-4 league record.

In the West, WPI won its second-straight division title in more comfortable fashion, finishing with a 12-5 record that put them four games clear at the top. The Engineers had wrapped up the title even before their regular-season-ending sweep of Springfield. Babson clinched the first wildcard spot with a final-weekend sweep of their own against Emerson, in which starters Michael Genaro, Daniel Cooney, and Nick Ahearn combined to allow just a run on nine hits in 20 innings.

That left just one more playoff spot, a prize to be given to the second-place team in the West. Entering the final weekend, that was going to be one of Clark and Coast Guard, who entered their season-ending series tied at 6-8 in the standings. The opener in Worcester hung in the balance until the 7th, when Michael Eglow’s two-run triple and Adam Chochrek’s two-run homer put away an 8-4 win for the Cougars. That left CGA needing a sweep in Saturday’s doubleheader to qualify, but a sweep they got in dramatic fashion. In the opener, the Bears battled back from 5-1, 7-5, and 10-7 deficits to force extras, where senior first baseman Cory Sonnega picked quite the moment for his first career home run, a walkoff shot in the 10th. Credit Clark for bouncing back to lead 7-2 at the halfway point of game two, but there was just no denying the Bears. Kyle Wood’s two-run double helped them tie the game at 9 in the 7th, and Luke Thompson’s 8th-inning sac fly put them ahead 10-9. That proved to be decisive, as Dustin Reeder locked things down in the 9th to send CGA to its second straight tournament.

The Format

As I’ve said before, I love the NEWMAC’s tournament format. I’ll leave you with what I wrote about it last year:

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.

The Teams

East Division champions MIT (18-10, 14-3 NEWMAC) are making their fourth straight tournament appearance, claiming the top seed for the second straight year. Four weeks ago, when they sat at 4-8 after struggling in March, they certainly didn’t look like claiming a second straight regular-season title. Since then, however, they’ve reeled off a 15-win April that’s propelled them to the top of the pile. 2015 Division III Rookie of the Year Austin Filiere (.405/.524/.784, 14 2B, 10 HR, 46 RBI, 13 SB) has been a big part of the run, slugging nearly 1.000 off of league pitching. Alongside him, Alec Echevarria (.375, 5 HR, 35 RBI, 16 SB) has had a stellar campaign after logging just 42 at-bats in his first two seasons with the club. The Engineers also boast the league’s best pitching staff (3.34 combined ERA). In the four wins over Babson and Wheaton that keyed their title run, the Engineers allowed just six runs. Nick Locascio beat both the Beavers and the Lyons, allowing just a run and striking out 10 over 15 2/3 innings against the division rivals. On the year, the senior is 4-1 with a 2.34, and he’s joined in the rotation by David Hesslink (5-2, 3.02) and Will Loucks (2-2, 3.47). In the bullpen, Andy Barlow has a formidable back-end tandem in Zach Michaud (1.57 in 23 IP) and Michael Wymer (1.35, 2 saves).

West Division champions WPI (25-11, 12-5 NEWMAC) earn the #2 seed for the second straight season. Like their fellow Engineers, Mike Callahan’s team has parleyed an excellent April into a division title. WPI hasn’t lost consecutive games since Florida and is 23-7 since recovering from a 2-4 start. In that stretch, they’ve earned cross-divisional splits with Wheaton and Babson and gone 8-1 within the West Division. They’ve done it with one of the region’s most formidable offenses, which leads the NEWMAC in homers, RBI, and all three slash stats. One of the region’s most feared hitters, Alex Venditti (.430/.540/.843, 11 2B, 13 HR, 55 RBI), features as the centerpiece of the attack, and the senior-heavy group of Vinny D’Ambrosio, Nick Comei, DJ Ouellette, Steven Gallagher, John Mulready, and Anthony Capuano are all hitting over .300 with at least 10 XBH and 20 RBI. The pitching staff, meanwhile, leads the NEWMAC with 240 strikeouts. Junior starter Aidan Freeburg (5-1, 3.23) has struck out better than a batter an inning, and classmate Mike Vaitkunas (5-2, 1.52) sport’s the league’s lowest ERA.

Wheaton (24-10, 13-4 NEWMAC) will be the #3 seed for the second straight year. Eric Podbelski’s team picked up a pair of top-25 wins in Florida, and a 10-game April win streak featured sweeps of Babson and Emerson that helped them to their 13-win league mark. The Lyons’ pitching staff has led the way in league play, sporting a miniscule 2.29 staff ERA against NEWMAC opponents and issuing just 28 walks in 153 conference innings. Dan Southerland (6-1, 2.85) has led the rotation, and as usual, the Lyons have a stud closer in Eric Dumas, who is 12-12 in save opportunities and hasn’t given up an earned run in 2016. In the lineup, Justin Silvestro (.353, 10 2B, 5 HR, 28 RBI) has followed up back-to-back all-NEWMAC selections with an excellent senior campaign. Alongside him in the lineup, regulars Matt Lavanchy, Zachary Goodwin-Boyd, and Jimmy Smith are all hitting .320 or better, and Smith leads the NEWMAC with 24 steals.

For the third year since the format change, Babson (21-13-1, 10-7 NEWMAC) has earned the #4 seed. Unlike the top three seeds, the Beavers looked best during a 10-4-1 March that featured a nine-game unbeaten streak. Despite April series losses to Wheaton and Babson, a 6-2 cross-divisional record lifted Matt Noone’s team to a 10-7 league campaign. Sophomore Mark Webber (.402, 6 HR, 38 RBI) is top-5 in the NEWMAC in all three triple crown categories, and classmate Adam Ayala is hitting .379 with a team-leading 18 steals. On the mound, Matt Cuneo’s five saves put him second in the league, and Michael Genaro’s 2.60 ERA is third-best in the NEWMAC among qualifiers.

As the #5 seed, Coast Guard (16-20, 8-9 NEWMAC) makes back-to-back tournament appearances for the first time in five years. The Bears’ divisional series wins over Springfield and Clark carried them into the tournament. Junior Colton Cannon (4-1, 3.83) leads the NEWMAC with 48 strikeouts, and freshman reliever Dustin Reeder (3-1, 3.90, 2 saves) earned two big wins in the season-ending series with Clark. Zach Serna (.370, 13 XBH, 23 RBI) has led the offense, and senior Kyle Wood (.304, 5 2B, 22 RBI) has drawn a NEWMAC-leading 31 walks for C.C. Grant’s team.

The Matchups

Thursday, April 28

#4 Babson vs. #5 Coast Guard — 3:30 PM — Govoni Field, Needham, MA

Saturday and Sunday, April 30-May 1

#1 MIT vs. Babson/Coast Guard — Briggs Field, Cambridge, MA

#2 WPI vs. #3 Wheaton — Granger Diamond (Clark), Worcester, MA

Saturday and Sunday, May 7-8

Semifinal winners — Home field of highest remaining seed

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