Previewing the 2016 GNAC Tournament

For the first time since 2010, someone other than Saint Joe’s comes into this week as defending GNAC champions. After Suffolk wrested the championship away from the Monks last season, the two teams contested this year’s regular-season title through the final weekend, and both look primed for a deep playoff run. And of course, four other teams will be itching to break up their duopoly on the league’s autobid. They’ll play games in Waltham, Standish, East Boston, and Providence this week before deciding a champion come Sunday. More ahead on the history, the playoff race, and each of the six teams involved.

The History

First off, sorry for using duopoly.

Secondly, let’s talk a bit about the tournament’s history. Going back to their first year in the league in 2008, Saint Joseph’s has been the GNAC’s most successful team, winning six of eight titles, including five straight from 2010 to 2014. On all six occasions, the Monks beat Suffolk to win it all. None of those title games were decided by more than two runs. To win their most recent one in 2014, the Monks went 3-0 in the tournament, beating Lasell (9-2), Suffolk (9-2), and Suffolk again (2-0). Joe Gruntkosky (6.0 IP, 4 H, 7 K) and Corey McNamara (3.0 IP, H, K) combined for a shutout in that rare pitcher’s duel of a D3 title game.

Suffolk has taken home the other two titles in that stretch, winning it all in 2009 and 2015. In ’09, they took down SJC, winning a slugfest of a winner’s bracket game 22-21, dropping the first game of the title round, but coming back to win a decisive game seven. In a 15-6 win, Bobby Barrett and Keith Carter both drove in three, and Alex Torres threw a complete game. Last year, the Rams had to beat Albertus in a play-in game just to make the weekend, but got off to another 2-0 start once there. They again dropped the first game of the title round, but again came back to win game seven, 4-3 over Johnson & Wales. In that extra-inning affair, Suffolk got a Herculean relief effort from Cal Carroll, who shut the Wildcats down for the final seven innings before Drew Carter scored the winning run on an error in the 13th.

Of the other teams, only Albertus Magnus and Johnson & Wales own titles. GNAC Player of the Year Ryan Antonino led Albertus to its first title in 1999, and the program made its first NCAA trip after winning it again in 2003. JWU, meanwhile, won its lone championship in 1998 behind tourney MVP Tom Borgia. Lasell and Rivier enter this week in search of their first titles.

The Race

This season saw the title race come down to the wire. After the Saint Joseph’s and Suffolk split their conference-opening doubleheader on April 9, the Monks were just a hair better, taking advantage of Suffolk’s final-day loss to Albertus Magnus to win the league at 12-2. The Rams still got in the clubhouse at 13-3, more than good enough for second place and a home game this Thursday.

After that, Lasell took advantage of Johnson & Wales‘s midseason road woes to beat out the Wildcats for third, with their 8-6 mark one better than JWU’s 7-7. Albertus Magnus was just 3-5 entering a tough stretch run, but big results against Rivier (sweep) and Suffolk (split) saw them into the field at 6-8. And finally, Rivier‘s splits with Suffolk, JWU, and, on the final day, Lasell, were enough to overcome losses to Norwich and Anna Maria. They were tied with the AMCATs at 5-9 in the final standings, but (if I’m right on the tiebreakers), their win over Suffolk saw them in.

The Format

In the GNAC, the top six finishers of the league’s eight teams qualify, with the #1 and #2 seeds receiving first-round byes. On Tuesday, we’ll have one-off #3-#6 and #4-#5 games at the home fields of the higher seeds. From there, the winners advance to a four-team double-elimination played over the weekend. Games one and two will be hosted by the top two seeds on Thursday before the tournament wraps up at Johnson & Wales on Saturday and Sunday.

The Teams

Top-seeded Saint Joseph’s (22-11, 12-2 GNAC) laid claim to the #1 seed for the second straight year. The Monks own excellent non-conference wins over WPI (x2) and Endicott and rattled off 12 league wins for the second season in a row. They started 6-2 in sets with four other playoff teams, then finished 6-0 in an easier stretch run to take home the regular-season crown. Offensively, the Monks have six multi-homer guys, a group that includes Jameson Collins (.326, 4 HR, 30 RBI) and Nic Lops (.360, 11 XBH, 31 RBI). Will Sanborn’s team is also very deep on the mound– Grayson Jennings, Josh Partridge, Nick Malatesta, and Travis Godbout are a combined 16-5 on the year, and all have sub-4.00 ERAs. Junior closer Corey McNamara (1.80, 6 saves) has been excellent in 30 innings out of the pen. The Monks, in search of their seventh title in nine years in the conference, open up with a second-round game at home on Thursday.

Second-seeded Suffolk (30-10, 11-3 GNAC) roared through the regular season in their first 30-win campaign since 2009’s tournament team went 30-11. They managed that against a tough non-conference schedule, and beat the likes of Endicott (x2), Eastern Connecticut, and Wheaton. In the league, sweeps of Lasell and JWU helped them to a comfortable second-place finish. As far as stats go, the league leaders page bears a striking resemblance to Suffolk’s roster, with Rams topping the GNAC in average and slugging (Kevin Belskie, .451 and .620), walks (Seth Coiley, 30), OBP (Drew Carter, .510), triples and runs (Brady Chant, 9 and 40), homers and RBI (Jake Frasca, 7 and 38), wins and ERA (Kevin Sinatra, 7 and 1.23), strikeouts (Kyle Turner, 53), and saves (Cal Carroll, 7). Yikes. A tournament title here would make this the first Rams team ever to win back-to-back league titles.

Third-seeded Lasell (19-15, 8-6 GNAC) is making its fourth straight appearance in the tournament, serving as the #3 seed for the second time in that stretch. The club had a solid March, going 8-8 and picking up nice wins over Little East squads UMass Boston and Plymouth State. They punched their playoff ticket with a 7-1 run that stretched from April 11-24 and included splits with Saint Joe’s and JWU, as well as freshman Daniel Petr’s no-hitter of Anna Maria. On the year, Skylar Beckerman (.407, 12 XBH, 25 RBI) and Wes Hurty (.365, 12 XBH, 29 RBI) have paced the club offensively, with shortstop/closer Hector Coscione (.311, 12 XBH, 22 RBI, 3 saves, 1.64 ERA) contributing as well. Petr (2-1, 2.32) has led the way in the rotation. At 19-17 entering the week, the Lasers have a shot at the program win record of 21, set in Greg Harjula’s first year at the helm in 2011. On Tuesday night, they’ll face sixth-seeded Rivier in a rematch of last year’s 4/5 game, which Lasell won 1-0 behind seven two-hit innings from Greg Sherman.

Fourth-seeded Johnson & Wales (23-14, 7-7 GNAC) has reached the GNAC Tournament in every season of John LaRose’s tenure, which began in 2000. Their 23-win campaign was highlighted by a 12-1 run from mid-March to mid-April. That stretch began with four wins over playoff teams from other conferences, and also included four league wins that set them on their way to a playoff berth. Carlos Sanabria (.342, 22 RBI) and Ryan Cabral (.341, 22 RBI) sport near-identical offensive lines, and freshman Dave Matthews has hit .380 with seven doubles in slightly more limited time. On the bump, Keith Grant (6-1, 3.43) is second in the league in wins, and Brandon Rainville (2-1, 2.42) has fanned better than 10 per nine. Their Tuesday night meeting with Albertus Magnus rematches a play-in game from 2014, which JWU won 4-0 on the strength of Rob West’s three-hit shutout.

Fifth-seeded Albertus Magnus (13-20, 6-8 GNAC) makes a sixth straight playoff trip under Brian Leighton. The biggest day of the Falcons’ season came on March 23, when a pair of extra-inning wins over Rivier put them a long way towards their playoff berth. Game one (a scheduled seven) went ten innings thanks to Christopher Rivera, who gave up just a run in nine, allowing Tyriq Harris’s sac fly to win it in the 10th. In game two, the Raiders led in the 7th thanks to a five-run 5th, but freshman Robert Perazella’s two-RBI double forced extras, and he scored the walk-off winner on a passed ball in the 9th. On the year, senior Justin Poirier (.333, 11 2B, 3 HR, 24 RBI) has paced the offense, and freshman pitcher Malachi Emond (2-4, 4.54) is 5th in the league with 41 strikeouts. A win at JWU on Tuesday night would be the program’s first in the playoffs since 2009.

Sixth-seeded Rivier (11-27, 5-9 GNAC) makes back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in eight years. The Raiders used splits with fellow playoff teams Suffolk, JWU, and Lasell to make the field. Taylor Black (2-4, 2B, 2 RBI, 2 R) helped to power a critical win over the Lasers on the final day of the regular season. On the year, the senior (.317, 13 2B, 33 RBI) is third in the league in RBI, and sophomore Tyler Ferdinand (..396, 7 XBH, 31 steals) is tops in the circuit in steals. On the mound, seniors Edward Soucie (2-0, 0.66 in conference) and Nicholas Pica (2-4, 2.96) lead the way. Anthony Perry’s club will travel down to Waltham on Tuesday to rematch that regular-season ender with Lasell.

The Matchups

Tuesday, May 3

#4 Johnson & Wales vs. #5 Albertus Magnus — 6 PM — Scotts Miracle-Gro Athletic Complex, Providence, RI

#3 Lasell vs. #6 Rivier — 7 PM — Stein Diamond (Brandeis), Waltham, MA

Thursday, May 5

#1 Saint Joseph’s vs. JWU/Albertus — Larry Mahaney Diamond, Standish, ME

#2 Suffolk vs. Lasell/Riv — East Boston Memorial Park, Boston, MA

Saturday and Sunday, May 7-8

Final rounds — Scotts Miracle-Gro Athletic Complex, Providence, RI

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