Previewing the 2016 D1 Conference Tournaments

With May upon us, we’ve got a few weekends of D1 conference tournament action to look forward to. Up and down the Eastern seaboard, New England teams will be battling to make NCAA Tournament dreams come true. We’ll update this post with previews of all the postseason qualifers as things unfold.

America East Conference

With the AEC expanding the tournament to include all six eligible teams, both Hartford (as the #2) and Maine (as the #6) will head to LeLacheur Park in Lowell this weekend.

Second-seeded Hartford comes in off of the best regular season in program history. Under fifth-year head coach Justin Blood, the Hawks set a program wins record and ends the regular season with the #57 RPI. That’s extremely good for an AEC team. Regular-season champs Binghamton are way down at 132, and Stony Brook, even after its CWS run in 2012, was only a few slots higher at #51. The Hawks swept North Florida, Radford, and Villanova in the non-conference, then reeled off an eight-game winning streak near the end of AEC play that sealed the #2 seed and a first-round bye. The club boasts the league’s best offense and pitching staff. At the dish, the Hawks had nine guys hit multiple home runs, including co-home run leaders Ben Bengston (13 2B, .309, 6 HR, 50 RBI) and Chris DelDebbio (.289, 14 2B, 6 HR, 39 RBI), average leader David MacKinnon (.390, 3 HR, 30 RBI), walks leader Erik Ostberg (.353, 11 2B, 2 HR, 46 RBI, 37 BB), and steals leader Aaron Wilson (.346, 5 3B, 2 HR, 20 SB). David Drouin (3-2, 2.29, .208 OBA), Kyle Gauthier (5-2, 2.82), and Brian Murphy (7-2, 3.78) form a formidable rotation, and Collin Ferguson (2.49, 8 saves) shares the AEC lead in saves. On Thursday, the Hawks will open their third straight conference tournament against the winner of Wednesday’s Stony Brook/Maine game.

Sixth-seeded Maine appears in its seventh-straight AEC Tournament. The Black Bears beat Clemson and New Mexico State (x2) in their non-conference slate, and also swept UMass Lowell in league play. Logan Fullmer (4-2, 2.71, 2 saves, 67 Ks in 66 1/3 IP) anchored the pitching staff, while Tyler Schwanz (.266, 17 2B, 5 HR, 23 RBI), Colin Ridley (.291, 11 2B, 6 HR, 37 RBI), and Danny Casals (.309, 10 2B, 12 SB) led the way offensively. On Wednesday, Steve Trimper’s club will open up against Stony Brook in a rematch of the 2012 conference title game. The loser will have to stave off elimination later that night, while the winner moves on to play Hartford the following day.

American Athletic Conference

Red-hot UConn enters this week’s AAC Tournament as the #3 seed, its highest in the league’s short history. Jim Penders’s Huskies are peaking at the right time, and come into the tournament fresh off of sweeps of UCF and USF. As a team, they led the league in doubles, runs, walks, and strikeouts (the good kind). The offense boasts hitting leader Willy Yahn (.326, 19 2B, 40 RBI), hits machine Bobby Melley (.297, 15 2B, 9 HR, 49 RBI), and premier power threat Joe DeRoche-Duffin (.262, 12 2B, 17 HR, 52 RBI). On the mound, Anthony Kay (7-2, 2.47, 97 K in 98 1/3), William Montgomerie (5-3, 2.86, 78 K in 63 IP), and Tim Cate (3-1, 2.87, 86 K in 69 IP) form arguably the best weekend rotation in the league. By themselves, those three have racked up more strikeouts than the entire staffs of 14 other D1 teams. Closer Patrick Ruotolo (2.01, 9 saves, 41:8 K:BB) has been just as good out of the pen. On Wednesday, the Huskies will open up play against Memphis, whom they took two of three against down in Tennessee in the regular season.

Atlantic Coast Conference

For a number of reasons, it’s been a really special year for Boston College. Between pro prospects, Pete Frates, and some really big wins, it was pretty incredible to think that they still had work to do to make their conference tournament. But that’s the way of the world in the ultra-competitive ACC. Down the stretch, though, Mike Gambino’s club got crucial wins weekend after weekend, winning their last four league series to make the field for the first time since 2010. This Saturday, a doubleheader sweep down at Georgia Tech completed the run. In the opener, Michael Strem’s four-hit day and Nick Sciortino’s two RBI keyed an 8-3 win. In the series rubber game, three RBI apiece from Jake Palomaki and Joe Cronin were just enough to squeak by with a 7-6 win.

The series wins hands the Eagles the #8 seed heading down to Durham, where’ll they’ll meet the Yellow Jackets again in Tuesday’s play-in game. With a #35 RPI and marquee series wins over the #2, #3, and #5 seeds in the tournament (Louisville, Virginia, and NC State), you’d think BC would be set for a tournament bid regardless of the result. But with 10 conference mates ahead of them in the RPI, they’ll want to build as strong a resume as possible should the committee gets antsy about handing out so many bids to one league. Two or three wins this weekend would go a long way towards doing just that.

This season, Gambino’s club has ridden the league’s fourth-best pitching staff (3.59 staff ERA). The weekend rotation of Justin Dunn (3-1, 1.35), Jacob Stevens (3-3, 2.04), and Mike King (7-4, 3.18) has been stellar, and opposing hitters have hit just .199 off of closer Jesse Adams (4.20, 5 saves). Michael Strem (.313, 12 2B, 31 RBI) and Joe Cronin (.279, 13 2B, 4 HR, 34 RBI) have led the way in the lineup.

Atlantic 10 Conference

I’ve been talking up Rhode Island for nearly a year now, and the Rams were kind enough to make it look like I actually know what I’m talking about. After taking their knocks against a brutal non-conference slate, the Rams lost just one A-10 series all year en route to their first outright league title since 2006. Raphael Cerrato’s team won the title by two games over second-place VCU, and took series from both those Rams and third-place Saint Joseph’s during the regular season. They did it on the strength of the dynamic rotation duo of Tyler Wilson and Steve Moyers, going 14-2 in their A-10 starts. Wilson, the defending A-10 Pitcher and Rookie of the Year (that was a first), has put up obscene numbers in league play: 8-0, 0.58, 10.31 K/9, 71:13 K/BB. Cerrato’s gotten top-notch work out of the rest of the staff in league play as well, including guys like Moyers (4-2, 2.25, 41:13 K/BB), Ben Wessel (4-2, 2.62, 34:9 K/BB), Tyler Barss (9 saves, 2.76), and Nick Johnson (0.00 ERA in 7 2/3). Offensively, average and steals leader Jordan Powell (.349, 12 2B, 25 RBI, 12 SB) has combined with power threats Martin Figueroa (.323, 20 2B, 5 HR, 38 RBI) and Chris Hess (.280, 10 2B, 10 3B, 6 HR, 35 RBI) to lead the team. In the A-10, that regular-season title I mentioned earlier isn’t just for show– it also entitles the bearer to a first-round bye in the seven-team tournament. With their top-of-the-line pitching staff and that leg up on the rest of the field, Rhody’s got a real shot of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.

Colonial Athletic Association

For the first time in more than a decade, Northeastern is playing in its fourth-straight conference tournament. After a 29-25 regular season, a win this weekend would seal the Huskies’ first 30-win season under third-year head coach Mike Glavine. NU split with Oklahoma to open up 2016, and a final-weekend series win over Towson saw them into the conference tournament. Their strength is a league-best pitching staff, which leads the CAA in ERA, shutouts, strikeouts, and opponents’ average. Aaron Civale (8-3, 1.84, 111 Ks in 107 1/3) and Dustin Hunt (6-3, 2.85, 86 K in 79 IP) have been excellent in the rotation, as have Mike Fitzgerald (3.34, 11 saves), Tyler Robinson (2.38, .178 OBA), and Andrew Misiaszek (5-3, 3.06, 46 K in 47 IP) out of the pen. Cam Walsh (.323) and Pat Madigan (.262, 6 HR, 30 RBI) have led the offense. The Huskies will open up with James Madison, whom they dropped two of three against way back in March. They did, however, beat the Dukes in the 2014 tournament behind a 10-strikeout complete game from Nick Berger.

Ivy League

The last time Yale went to the NCAA Tournament, most of this year’s team hadn’t been born yet. Thanks to some clutch wins in 2016, however, they’re two wins away from getting back there for the first time since 1994. After a tough start brightened only by a chance to meet a very special alumnus, John Stuper’s team has played above .500 since late March. In Ivy League play, Mason Kukowski’s closed out all three victories in a big series win over Dartmouth, which saw Yale tie the Big Green for first at the end of the regular season. In a one-game playoff, the Bulldogs erased three deficits to win 5-4, with Tim DeGraw’s 8th-inning RBI single sending his team to their first Ivy League Championship series since 1995.

There, the club will go on the road for a best-of-three title series with Princeton, themselves looking their first title since 2011. The Tigers won the Gehrig Division on the strength of series wins over Penn and Cornell, and boast an 8-2 record in Ivy League home games. In the regular season, Yale swept the Tigers in New Haven, winning by Connecticut Open scorelines of 6-3/6-1 thanks to strong starts from Scott Politz and Chasen Ford.

Individually, Yale’s offense boasts leading hitter Nate Adams (.331, 9 2B), RBI leader Richard Slenker (.329, 16 2B, 3 HR, 24 RBI), slugging leader Harrison White (.315, 4 HR, .515 SLG), and steals leader Simon Whiteman (.261, 16 RBI, 16 SB). On the pitching side, Scott Politz’s (6-3, 3.62, 5 CG) strong freshman campaign earned him the ball in last weekend’s one-game playoff, Mason Kukowski posted four saves, and junior Chasen Ford (5-4, 4.65) offers a strong veteran presence on an otherwise young staff.

This weekend, the series will kick off with a single game Saturday afternoon at Princeton’s Bill Clarke Field. On Sunday, the two teams will wrap things up with game two at noon and, if necessary, game three after that.

(If you’re looking for more about Yale, check out this excellent piece by the New Haven Register‘s David Borges.)

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

After falling short of high expectations in 2015, the MAAC’s coaches picked Fairfield a lowly eighth ahead of this season. As head coach Bill Currier said before the campaign began, “It’s our jobs to prove most of the coaches wrong.” Looking ahead to this week’s conference tournament, where the Stags will take the field as the #1 seed, it’s safe to say they did.

With three teams snapping at their heels entering the final day, Currier’s team needed a win over Quinnipiac to claim the regular-season title and top seed. After a back-and-forth game, things were all tied at 4 in the bottom of the ninth, when Brendan Tracy strode to the plate. With the bases loaded, he only had to bring in Mac Crispino from third to win, but the senior went the extra mile, launching a walkoff grand slam to win the program’s first regular-season title since 1983. On his Senior Day no less. It doesn’t get much more special than that.

The Stags won the MAAC on the strength of an early 10-game winning streak and big series wins over title rivals Canisius and Monmouth in the closing weekends. They boast the league’s second best offense and pitching staff. Jake Salpietro (.327, 12 2B, 9 HR, 37 RBI) provides the club’s biggest power threat, Michael Conti (.350, 30 RBI) led the way in hitting, and Tracy, Crispino, Troy Scocca, and Kevin Radziewicz all had 30-RBI campaigns of their own. John Signore (2-2, 2.65, 55:6 K/BB) and Kyle Dube (6-3, 3.38, 62:19 K/BB) anchored the rotation, and Aaron Howell (3.90, 5 saves) and Mike Bonaiuto (.268, 3 saves) were strong out of the pen. They’ll open up play at Dutchess Stadium on Wednesday evening.

Northeast Conference

For the fourth time in as many years of eligibility, Bryant has earned the #1 seed in the NEC. The 2016 Bulldogs have been Steve Owens’s best team yet. In a 44-10 season, they haven’t once lost consecutive games, have beaten the likes of Kentucky, Maryland, and Boston College, and enter this weekend with an RPI of #32. That puts them above such college baseball powerhouses as Rice, Arizona State, and Cal State Fullerton, and has the experts projecting them as a safe at-large bid. For the NEC to be a potential two-bid league, and for one of its teams to be regarded that highly on the national scene, is, in the truest sense of the word, historic.

The studded lineup’s .324 average ranks top-5 nationally, and the pitching staff’s 3.17 ERA was a full run better than the next best NEC team. Robby Rinn (.380, 24 2B, 5 HR, 57 RBI) and Matt Albanese (.366, 13 2B, 11 HR, 52 RBI, 15 SB) put up the gaudiest offensive numbers, and four other starters– AJ Zarozny, Nick Angelini, Zach Wood, and Dan Celucci– hit north of .325. Staff ace James Karinchak (11-2, 2.21, 10.73 K/9) put up big strikeout numbers, as did Justin Snyder (2.21, 9 saves, 10.62 K/9) and Michael Marshall (2.05, 10.64 K/9) out of the pen. Steve Theetge (8-0, 2.83), James Davitt (7-2, 3.76), and Brandon Bingel (8-3, 3.79) round out one of the best rotations in the northeast.

Defending NEC champions Sacred Heart enter the field as the #2 seed after a strong campaign of their own. Their 18-13 mark left them two games clear in second at season’s end. Victor Sorrento (.307) and Dan Schock (8 HR) have led the offense, while James Taubl (5-2, 1.78) paces the league’s second-best pitching staff. A win in Thursday’s opener against Fairleigh Dickinson would mean their fifth 30-win season under Nick Giaquinto.

Central Connecticut returned to the field for the first time since 2014 in dramatic fashion. Needing a Senior Day win over Wagner to clinch a playoff spot, two seniors put in stellar performances. Casey Brown hurled a twelve-inning complete game (yes, you read that right) to set up fellow senior Matt Martinez’s walkoff home run. A very special way to clinch their second playoff berth in three years.

Patriot League

For the fourth time in the past five seasons, Holy Cross heads to the Patriot League semifinals. I last saw the Crusaders for one of the seven one-run losses on their 3-12 start to 2016, but since then, they’ve gone 21-14 overall and 14-6 in the Patriot League, finishing just a game back of Navy. Despite some very good teams coming through Worcester in Greg DiCenzo’s nine years at the helm, HC is the only team in the Patriot League without a conference title. This year, the Crusaders will take another run at their white whale: making the program’s first NCAA Tournament trip since 1978.

After finishing second in the Patriot League, they’ve got a good shot at doing just that, and their semifinal matchup with Lehigh will give them the chance to exact some revenge in the process. A season ago, the Mountain Hawks won their semifinal with HC en route to their first league title since 2006. This year, the teams’ semifinal matchup will shift to the Crusaders’ Fitton Field, thanks in part to their series win in Pennsylvania earlier this year. Bobby Indeglia’s 13th-inning homer led a big extra-inning win that weekend.

Individually, the team has been led by a trio of all-conference performers: first baseman Anthony Critelli (.276, 14 2B, 9 HR, 34 RBI), outfielder Bill Schlich (.306, 14 2B, 24 RBI), and frontline starter Brendan King (6-2, 3.03). Closer Sean Gustin (2-2, 3.91), recently profiled by the Worcester Telegram, contributed with eight saves.

If they advance past this weekend’s best-of-three semifinal at Fitton Field, Holy Cross will play the winner of the Navy-Bucknell series in the conference finals.

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