Previewing the 2016 NESCAC Tournament

After winning titles in 2014 and 2015, Wesleyan enters this weekend’s NESCAC Tournament looking for Division III’s third three-peat of the season, something that’s never been done. The league’s three historical powers– Amherst, Trinity, and Tufts– will all be itching to wrest the trophy back for themselves. For the second straight year, they’ll head to Nashua’s Holman Stadium to punch New England’s final ticket to the D3 Tournament. Though it may be tough to follow up 2015, when not a single game was decided by more than three runs, it promises to be an exciting weekend.

The History

As I mentioned in the intro, Wesleyan has had the best of this tournament in recent years. After hosting and reaching the title game (both program firsts) in 2013, the Cardinals won their first two titles in 2014 and 2015. The first time around, they won three close games on their way to the championship. Will O’Sullivan’s bases-loaded squeeze walked off Bates in the opener, and they went on to beat Tufts twice to win it all. The following year saw them take another white-knuckle ride to the championship. A pair of 4-2 wins put them in the title round, where they recovered from a loss to Amherst to beat the then-Lord Jeffs 4-3 in the title game, thanks to Guy Davidson’s 12th-inning solo shot.

Amherst‘s team includes the only other former title winners in the field. After winning twice in a row under Bill Thurston in 2004 and 2005, they won a third title in 2013. Jonathan Ramirez won the winner’s bracket game against Wesleyan with a 13th-inning walkoff squeeze, and Fred Shepard shut the Cardinals out in the title game.

The past three years of West Division dominance followed five straight titles for the East’s two representatives in this year’s field. Trinity won a record 4th championship in 2012 after taking home back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009. That year, also Bill Decker’s last in Hartford, Peter Burrows twirled a four-hit shutout to beat Bowdoin 6-0 in the title game. Tufts, finally, won back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2011.

The Race

The two division races could not have been more different this season: in one, both playoff spots were decided with a week to spare, and in the other, the top four teams finished only a game apart.

In the East, it was a throwback to the 2000s, when Tufts and Trinity combined to claim 15 of 18 playoff berths. The Jumbos’ 8-0 start to conference play clinched the division title with a third of the schedule to spare. Andrew David’s nine-strikeout complete game against Colby finished off a series sweep that wrapped up the top seed. That same weekend, the Bantams swept Bates to get in the clubhouse at 7-5, good enough to seal the other playoff berth. Ian Steckel and Scott Cullinane both homered and drove in a pair in the final win of the weekend.

In the West, meanwhile, things were as tight as could be. Entering the final weekend, four teams still had a shot at making the tournament. In the end, the WesleyanAmherst series shook out just right for both to make the playoffs at 7-5. The Cardinals took the first two games, and with them the series and the top seed, but Amherst came back to win game three and clinch the other playoff spot.

The Format

Very straightforward here, with a four-team double elimination matching up one division’s champion against the other’s runner-up on the first day. For the second year in a row, it’ll be contested at a neutral site, Nashua’s Holman Stadium.

The Teams

East Division champions Tufts (29-6, 11-1 NESCAC East) enter the postseason with the best record in New England. John Casey’s Jumbos haven’t lost back-to-back games since mid-March, and a win this weekend would clinch their second 30-win season in the last three years. First and foremost, their success stems from their league-best pitching staff, whose 3.36 collective ERA is nearly a run better than nearest competition. That group has been led by the veteran rotation trio of Speros Verinos (6-1, 1.86), Andrew David (4-1, 2.54), and Tim Superko (4-0, 3.74), who’re all striking out more than a batter an inning. Offensively, junior Harry Brown leads the club with a .396 average and 13 steals, and sophomore Tommy O’Hara (.331, 4 HR, 41 RBI), the only freshman to make the league’s 1st-team a year ago, has had another strong campaign. A championship this weekend would be the program’s first since 2011.

West Division champions Wesleyan (22-10, 7-5 NESCAC West) appear in a program-record fourth straight tournament. The league’s top offense and a final-weekend series win over rivals Amherst locked up the top divisional seed for Mark Woodworth’s team. The hitters have been led a trio of seniors: NESCAC batting champion Marco Baratta (.444, 3 HR, 39 RBI), two-time all-conference honoree Guy Davidson (.400, 16 2B, 3 HR, 35 RBI), and club home runs and steals leader Jordan Farber (.342, 5 HR, 29 RBI, 10 SB). Nick Miceli (6-1, 2.92, 5 saves) has led the pitching staff, impressively notching league highs in both wins and saves. The Cardinals are in search of their third straight title in Nashua this weekend.

East Division runners-up Trinity (15-19, 7-5 NESCAC East) return to the field for the first time in the tenure of third-year head coach Bryan Adamski. A six-game April winning streak included a sweep of Bates that clinched the Bantams’ tournament berth. Nick DiBenedetto’s .365 average, Daniel Pidgeon’s 27 RBI, and Nick Pezzella’s 16 steals led the club’s offense, and Jed Robinson (2-1, 4.63) and Anthony Egeln, Jr. (4-2, 4.47) both logged more than 50 innings on the mound. With their last title having come in 2012, this Trinity group is looking for its first NESCAC title. (If you go back and read the intro to this post closely, you might think a school named Trinity would have the inside track on winning it all.)

And finally, West Division runners-up Amherst (24-11, 7-5 NESCAC West) come into the weekend at #6 in the regional rankings, the best of any NESCAC team. After an 8-1 spring trip, the Purple & White picked up non-conference wins over Endicott, Eastern Connecticut, and WPI back north. Their NESCAC slate included series wins over Williams and Middlebury that saw them into the tournament for a sixth-straight season. Brian Hamm’s club owns a .317 club average and 4.06 ERA, both second-best among playoff teams. Having seven hitters over .300 helped to make up for the loss of Mike Odenwaelder to the draft. That group included multi-homer guys Anthony Spina (.346, 6 HR, 22 RBI), Dave Cunningham (.371, 4 HR, 24 RBI), and Yanni Thanopoulos (.327, 3 HR, 31 RBI), as well as team steals leader Max Steinhorn (.324, 15 SB) and co-NESCAC doubles leader Connor Gunn (.341, 16 2B). On the mound, Jackson Volle (6-1, 1.76) has anchored the rotation, and George Long (4-1, 2.20 in 28 2/3) and Andrew Ferrero (2.16, 3 saves) have been strong out of the pen. A championship this weekend would make the Amherst seniors the first group in its history to appear in four NCAA Tournaments.

The Matchups

(All games will be played at Holman Stadium in Nashua, NH.)

Friday, May 13

#1E Tufts v. #2W Amherst — 3 PM

#1W Wesleyan v. #2E Trinity — 7 PM

Saturday, May 14

0-1 game — 10 AM

1-0 game — 2 PM

1-1 game — 40 minutes after 1-0 game

Sunday, May 15

Title round — 10 AM

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