Previewing the NECC Tournament

Heading into this weekend’s conference tournament, you can make a pretty strong case that this has been the most competitive, entertaining season in NECC history. For the first time since its inaugural year in 2009, all four tournament teams enter the weekend at .500 or better. With their regular season championship, Mitchell’s seniors have won or shared the title every year they’ve been on campus. Elms, Southern Vermont, and Lesley all set or matched program records for wins. Of the six head-to-head series among the tournament teams, only one ended in a sweep, and that only after both teams had already clinched a playoff berth. All indications are it’ll be a very entertaining weekend in New London. More on the history, the pennant race, and the teams after the jump.

The History

Since the NECC’s first baseball tournament in 2009, three different teams have won the title, but in part because of the recent parity in the league, all but one of this year’s four playoff teams come in looking for their first-ever championship.

Becker won the inaugural tournament in 2009. That year, Errick Maddern’s 10-strikeout complete game in the opener earned him MVP honors on the Hawks’ 3-0 run. From there, Becker reached the semis of the ECAC Tournament after beating Castleton 8-2 in the quarters. The following year, Daniel Webster and Mitchell shared the honors in a rain-shortened tournament.

In 2011, the stakes rose dramatically in the league’s first year with an NCAA autobid. Mitchell won its first outright title and became the first team to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. In the title game, the Mariners got 8th-inning RBI from Anthony Santiago and Felix Colarte to win 3-2, avenging an earlier loss to 4th-seeded Southern Vermont. John Apostolo won MVP honors with a 3.60 ERA and 18 strikeouts in four tournament appearances.

From there, Daniel Webster took over center stage with back-to-back league titles in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, J.P. Pyne’s Eagles won the regular-season title with a 13-5 mark behind conference pitcher of the year Kory Kiro, who went 5-1 with a 2.68 in league play. In the tournament opener, Josh Chasse’s 8th-inning RBI single made the difference in an 8-7 win over Elms, and a pair of more comfortable wins over Newbury sent DWC to its first outright title. In 2013, the Eagles shared the regular-season crown with Mitchell, and had to make a run out of the loser’s bracket after dropping the 1-0 game to the Mariners. They succeeded in beating Mitchell twice on the final day, using an eight-run 6th to win the decisive game 9-7. In that year’s national tournament, they earned the program’s first NCAA win, 10-4 over MIT.

Since then, Mitchell has emerged as top dog. In 2014, they shared the regular-season title with Becker, hosting by virtue of their series win. Despite losing the 1-0 game to the Hawks, they came back to win the title behind an offense that powered its way to 13-3 and 27-11 wins on the final day– home runs from Kenneth Olszewski, Neftali Arroyo, and Will Charkowsky helped make the difference in a memorable 48-hit slugfest of a title game. The Mariners went on to win their NCAA Tournament opener, upsetting top-seeded Eastern Connecticut 4-3 in 11 innings. Last year, Mitchell hosted again after a 16-2 league campaign, and again made a run out of the loser’s bracket to win the title, this time beating Elms twice behind Bryton Ferris’s game one shutout and Kenneth Olszewski’s three-double day.

This year, the tournament will be held in New London for a third straight year, with Mitchell hosting three teams searching for their first championship. Elms has reached the title round three times, in 2009, 2014, and 2015. They’ll be looking to avenge two 2015 title round losses to the Mariners this weekend. Southern Vermont‘s best run came in 2011, when, as the #4 seed, they beat co-defending champions Mitchell and DWC before falling twice in the title round. (Current head coach Dave Gage was a senior captain on that 2011 club, also the last SVC team to make the postseason.) Lesley, making its third appearance, is still in search of its first tournament win. We’ll find out this weekend whether Mitchell can become the first team to string together three titles, or if one of the Mariners’ rivals will make their first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Race

As I said earlier, we saw a very competitive regular season in the NECC. Mitchell‘s 9-1 start left them in excellent shape at the midway point, and even series losses to Elms and Lesley in the closing weekends couldn’t deny them the regular-season title. Elms overcame a 3-5 run in the middle portion of their league slate to finish second, just a game back of Mitchell. Southern Vermont, though they finished in a tie for third at 10-8, had all but assured a playoff berth with a 10-4 start that included key series wins over Becker and Lesley.

After that, things got interesting. Entering the final week, 7-5 Becker looked to have the upper hand on 7-7 Lesley. The Hawks held the tiebreaker after sweeping the regular-season series, and were set to face last-place Newbury in the final weekend, while the Lynx had to play league-leading Mitchell, whom they were just 2-13 against all-time. Both teams beat DWC in the midweek, before the Hawks suffered a doubleheader sweep against Mitchell that evened things up at 8-7. That still left Lesley needing to outperform the Hawks on the weekend, but that they did. Despite losing game one, they came back to take the series from Mitchell. Nick Iadevaio’s 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief lifted them to a narrow 6-5 win in game two, and in Sunday’s rubber game, a huge day from junior J.P. Agiorgousis (5-6, 2B, HR, 3 R, 3 RBI) led Lesley to a comfortable 11-4 win. Becker, meanwhile, dropped two of three to Newbury and lost out to the Lynx for the fourth and final playoff spot, missing the tournament for the first time ever.

The Format

From its inception, the NECC has decided its champions with a standard four-team double-elim format. The highest regular-season finisher hosts, and the first round matches up #1 with #4 and #2 with #3. Provided the weather’s good (cross your fingers!), the whole thing runs from Friday to Sunday.

The Teams

Top-seeded Mitchell (24-9, 13-5 NECC) hosts the tournament for the third straight year and fourth time overall. The Mariners’ 2016 campaign has been very impressive, even before you consider that they graduated 12 seniors off last year’s team. On their 8-2 Florida trip, Travis Beausoleil’s club swept a conference set from Newbury, handed 5-0 Otterbein its first loss, and beat preseason #25 Alvernia. Back north, they’ve won two games each against power-conference playoff teams Coast Guard and Trinity in addition to their league title run. The Mariners’ .301 team average is tied for best in the league, and Tyler Pina (.367, 10 2B, 20 RBI), Kyle Hartenstein (.364, 7 2B, 4 3B, 19 RBI), and Chandler Whitney (.361, 22 RBI) all sit north of .360 for the year. On the mound, a 3.67 staff ERA is second-best in the NECC, and sinks to 3.29 in league play. Defending NECC Pitcher of the Year Al Jordan Johnson sports a perfect 6-0 record and 2.10 ERA, a league-low among qualifiers. Axel de Jesus (5-2, 2.62) is also among the league’s ERA leaders, and sophomore Marcus Guadarrama owns an 0.94 in extended relief action.

Second-seeded Elms (30-10, 12-6 NECC) enters the tournament on the back of their best season ever. A perfect 9-0 Florida trip highlighted a roaring start that saw Scott Netkovick’s team equal its rather respectable 2015 win total before the end of March. Despite a mid-season wobble that saw them drop three conference games in a week in early April, they came back to take a series from Mitchell and sweep Southern Vermont to cruise into a second-place finish. With a 3.30 staff ERA, Elms has the league’s best pitching staff. Starters Tom Weldon (10-0, 2.33, 80 K), Andrew Sadowski (6-3, 2.25), and Tom Owens (6-1, 3.00) have posted three of the league’s best five qualifying ERAs, and the bullpen features Brian Langdon’s six saves and Kyle Bartlett’s 1.42. The offense has slugged just .327 and hit just .243 in conference play, but Jordan Zima (.350, 29 RBI) and Tim Gelzinis (.321, 10 2B) have helped to provide ample run support during the program-record-setting 30-win campaign.

Third-seeded Southern Vermont (18-18, 10-8 NECC) appears in its first tournament since 2011, when current head coach Dave Gage co-captained the club to an unexpected run to the finals. Sitting at just 3-11 after suffering a doubleheader sweep at Mitchell on March 19, it looked like SVC would missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year, but John Arancio (4-5, HR, 3 R, 2 RBI) keyed an upset of the Mariners four days later that sparked a six-game winning streak. That marked the beginning of a 15-3 run that defined the Mountaineers’ season. Arancio (.366, 10 XBH), RJ Pingitore (.359, 11 2B, 35 RBI, 15 SB), Rob Spatafore (.343, 11 XBH), and Dan Mason (.343, 20 RBI) have led the NECC’s second-best offense in league play. On the mound, Chris Bradt’s five saves and excellent league campaigns from junior rotation arms Joshua Hay (4-2, 1.89) and Dylan Angelo (4-1, 3.73, 4 CG) have anchored the pitching staff.

Finally, fourth-seeded Lesley (19-17, 10-8 NECC) is making its third straight playoff appearance in just its sixth year as a program. Like SVC, the Lynx’s 3-8 start to the year wasn’t very auspicious, but Billy Cather’s team started to turn things around as soon as they came back north. After sweeping Newbury, they went 2-1 against Elms and got a massive season-ending series win against Mitchell that sent them into the playoffs. (They’re the only team in the league to own season-series wins against the top two teams.) Offensively, Mike Slaby (.390, 18 RBI) and Ryan Pumphret (.372, 21 RBI) are both top-5 in the league in batting average, and sophomores Tom Muratore (5-2, 3.69, 4 CG) and Nick Iadevaio (2-4, 2.39) have turned in excellent seasons in league play.

The Matchups

(All games at Mitchell’s Alumni Field in New London, CT.)

Friday, April 29

#1 Mitchell vs. #4 Lesley — 11 AM

#2 Elms vs. #3 Southern Vermont — 3 PM

Saturday, April 30

0-1 game — 9:30 AM

1-0 game — 12:30 PM

1-1 game — 3:30 PM

Sunday, May 1

Title round — 11:00 AM

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