2016 D1 Tournament Preview

Five teams. Five! It’s a record-breaking NCAA Tournament for New England, who’s never put more than four in the postseason. And we’ve only done that once since the early 70s. No matter what happens this weekend, it’s been a very special season, but in my opinion, more than one of our teams has what it takes to play into the second weekend. After the jump, we’ll take a look at all five: the road they took to get here, the players that led the way, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience they have to look forward to this weekend.

(Also, for more on our second annual Bracket Challenge, check out this week’s other blog post.)

Bryant — #2 Seed, Charlottesville Regional

Bryant receives the region’s highest seed, #2 in the Charlottesville Regional of defending national champions Virginia. For any New England team, that’s quite the feat– no one’s done it since UConn’s Super Regional team in 2011. For a team from a small conference like the NEC, it’s historic. After the Bulldogs’ remarkable season, it’s very well-deserved.

Their year started off with an 18-game, 9,000+ mile road trip on which they went a cool 14-4, beating San Diego State, Kentucky, and Maryland in the process. Back home, they blitzed through the NEC to win the league going away, maintaining their reputation as road warriors: as I tweeted, they won more road games (24, tops in D1) than 39 other tournament teams played all season.

Although the experts agreed they’d locked up an at-large bid entering last weekend’s NEC Tournament, the Bulldogs sailed to their third title in four years. In the opener, an 8-1 win over Central Connecticut, staff ace James Karinchak set a program single-season wins record (12) with seven shutout innings, striking out seven and allowing just three hits. Buck McCarthy (3-5, HR, 3 RBI) and Nick Angelini (3-5, 3B, 3 R) led the way offensively. Game two went much the same way, with Brandon Bingel hurling 7 1/3 strong and McCarthy driving in another two runs in a 5-1 win over Sacred Heart. Saturday’s title game was decided early by tournament MVP Cole Fabio’s three-run homer, which put Bryant up 6-0 after four. Coming out of the pen, Justin Snyder earned save #10, throwing three strong relief innings to close out the title.

Before we get to the individual accolades, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Steve Owens, the Bulldogs’ head coach. The man is a winning machine. He got his first head coaching job in 1992, taking over a Cortland State team that’d been to only one tournament in its history. Over the next eight years, he took them to seven, posting six 30-win seasons and reaching four College World Series. He spent the next decade at then-Division I Le Moyne, another northern New York school that’d only been to a single tournament. He took the Dolphins to three in short order. When LMC decided to drop down to D2 after the 2010 season, Bryant leaped at the chance, and the rest– three 40-win seasons and NCAA trips to match– is history. This season, he was a shoo-in for his fourth NEC Coach of the Year Award.

Owens’s players have claimed plenty of individual accolades this year as well. In the NEC, they placed a record nine players on the all-conference first team. They swept the major awards, thanks to Pitcher of the Year James Karinchak (12-2, 2.04, 104 Ks in 88 1/3), Rookie of the Year Nick Angelini (.356, 9 2B, 26 RBI, .467 OBP), and Player of the Year Robby Rinn (.378/.442/.591, 25 2B, 4 3B, 5 HR, 61 RBI). Rinn was also named the New England Player of the Year, with Karinchak, Brandon Bingel (.295, 10 2B, 8 HR, 40 RBI; 9-3, 3.52), Matt Albanese (.366/.471/.639, 13 2B, 11 HR, 52 RBI, 15 SB), and Buck McCarthy (.284, 16 2B, 8 HR, 55 RBI) joining him on NEIBA’s first team. Teammates Zach Wood, Dan Cellucci, Steve Theetge, Justin Snyder, and AJ Zarozny earned individual honors as well.

For all those accolades, these guys aren’t done. Third-seeded East Carolina– an at-large from UConn’s American Athletic Conference– is first up on Friday evening at UVa’s Davenport Field. The quiet, no-dogpile celebration after the Bulldogs’ NEC title tells you everything you need to know about this team’s goals for this weekend– they won’t be happy with anything less than a regional title.

Boston College — #3 Seed, Oxford Regional

It took some long, nervous minutes for Boston College to come off the board, but come off the board they did, and good luck finding a team that was more excited to hear their name called. This bunch hadn’t even been to an ACC Tournament prior to this year, never mind the NCAAs. For the seniors, especially, who suffered through a 12-40 season as freshmen, that moment couldn’t have felt sweeter.

The Eagles earned their at-large bid with a 13-15 run through a deathmarch of an ACC campaign. That may not seem like much, but when you consider that the league landed a record-tying 10 teams in the field, it’s very impressive. That run was highlighted by series wins over NC State in Raleigh, defending national champions Virginia, and #2 national seed Louisville. The Birdballers clinched every one of those series with gritty, one-run wins, two of them walk-offs. With those feathers in their cap, even a loss in the ACC Tourney play-in round wasn’t keeping BC out of the field.

It’s a very special occasion for head coach Mike Gambino, a BC alum and former Red Sox farmhand. Since taking over for Mik Aoki in 2011, his teams hadn’t managed better than 10 conference wins and 5th place in the Atlantic Division. Losing slugger Chris Shaw to the first round of the 2015 draft didn’t help matters entering this season, but the stable of elite arms that he’s recruited turned things around and then some. Junior Justin Dunn (3-1, 1.35, 55:15 K/BB, .210 OBA) and freshman Jacob Stevens (3-3, 2.04, .209 OBA) both earned all-ACC honors in their first years in the rotation, and veteran Mike King (7-4, 3.15) posted five crucial conference wins, beating tournament teams NC State, Virginia, and Wake Forest.

The Eagles match up with second-seeded Tulane in the first game of Ole Miss’s Oxford Regional, which Kendall Rogers and Aaron Fitt call this year’s toughest. Those two both see them as a tough #3, and they got even higher praise from Kyle Peterson. Regardless of what happens, a strong 2016 and a new facility mean things are really looking up for BC’s program, but make no mistake, the Eagles have the pitching to make a deep run in this year’s tournament.

UConn — #3 Seed, Gainesville Regional

After qualifying for their fourth NCAA Tournament in the past seven years, UConn has cemented its credential as one of the most consistent winners in the northeast. Only St. John’s has matched that clip of tournament trips, and under Jim Penders, the Huskies have now posted ten 30-win seasons in the last 11 years. Their reward? A trip to the Swamp to face off with the #1 team in the land.

The Huskies were having a solid season heading into May, but they’ve turned on the afterburners in the closing weeks. Since shutting out UMass on May 10, they’ve gone on a 13-1 run capped off by their first AAC Tournament Title. Junior lefty and staff ace Anthony Kay, whose draft stock means he’s likely playing his final season in Storrs, came through with three wins in the final ten days of the season, including six strong against Houston in the tournament title game. (As you may have heard in this post-championship interview with Penders, that hot streak coincides perfectly with the birth of pitching coach Joshua McDonald’s daughter.)

UConn landed six players on NEIBA’s all-New England teams. Joe DeRoche-Duffin (.266, 14 2B, 17 HR, 54 RBI) and Willy Yahn (.319, 19 2B, 43 RBI) led the way on the first team. (This is Yahn, courtesy of Stephen Slade, who might be the best sports photographer ever.) Lineup mates Bobby Melley (.312/.435/.516, 15 2B, 10 HR, 53 RBI) and Jack Sundberg (.270, 8 2B, 5 HR, 27 RBI, 17 SB) earned all-New England honors as well. From the pitching staff, frontline starters Kay (9-2, 2.46, 108 K) and Tim Cate (4-1, 2.71, 95 K in 76 1/3) landed on the second team, and their names give you some idea of the mound corps’ personality: they like to strike people out. Between the three of them, Kay, Cate, and William Montgomerie (6-3, 2.57, 84 K in 70 IP) have struck out more than some entire teams, and closer Patrick Ruotolo (11 saves, 45 K in 36 1/3) has the same M.O.

That group of elite arms sets up an intriguing first-round matchup with offense-heavy Georgia Tech. The consensus is that Tech’s a soft #2, but UConn couldn’t have drawn a tougher host, #1 national seed Florida. The Gators have Marianas Trench-like pitching depth, and they’re battle-tested after a 3rd-place finish at last year’s CWS. That said, the Huskies seem pretty jacked up about taking on #1, and they’ve gone a dominant 7-0 against the state of Florida this season, so let’s all keep a close eye on Gainesville this weekend.

Rhode Island — #4 Seed, Columbia Regional

After a tough 2014 and a coaching change, Rhode Island surprised a lot of people with an excellent 2015, and I thought they were well-positioned for a run at this year’s A-10 title. After taking their knocks against a brutal schedule in the early going, Rhody cashed in on its potential, pitching (and eventually slugging) their way to their first NCAA Tournament since 2005.

Apart from a mid-April trip to Fordham, the Rams didn’t lose another series in conference. They did it largely on the back of a pitching staff that posted the A-10’s best ERA in conference play, but that changed come tournament time. Don’t get me wrong, the pitching staff held down its end of the bargain, but the offense went nuclear, outscoring opponents 38-6 over three games. Starter Ben Wessel landed on the all-tournament team thanks to seven shutout against Davidson in the title game, and he was joined by sluggers Martin Figueroa (6-11, 2B, 2 HR, 11 R, 4 RBI), Chris Hess (8-12, 2 2B, 7 R), and Ryan Olmo (6-12, 3 R, 9 RBI). The league championship put the Rams in the NCAA tournament for just the second time ever.

Give plenty of credit to second-year head coach Raphael Cerrato. The Rams went just 13-40 in his final year as an assistant, but he’s had them playing very good baseball since taking the helm prior to the 2015 campaign. Two straight Coach of the Year awards tell you all you need to know about how highly he’s regarded. With any luck, he’ll get some facility upgrades to help that success continue for many years to come.

Between conference play and the league tournament, URI’s starting pitching stood out this year. The Rams didn’t lose a single one of ace Tyler Wilson’s starts, and went 7-2 in Steve Moyers’. Wilson (8-0, 0.58 in A-10 play) was a shoo-in for his second straight league Pitcher of the Year award, and Moyers (4-2, 2.25 in A-10 play) was a rock in the rotation as well. In the lineup, Hess (.301, 12 2B, 10 HR, 6 HR, 35 RBI) and Jordan Powell (.351, 13 2B, 27 RBI, 13 SB) earned second-team all-conference honors, and Powell joined Figueroa (.335, 21 2B, 7 HR, 42 RBI) on the all-New England rolls.

Rhody’s the prototypical scary #4: they’ve got an ace that can beat anyone, a red-hot offense, and a pitching staff with the depth to stick around well into the weekend. They head to a hostile SEC environment in Columbia and a tough matchup with 2010 and 2011 national champions South Carolina, but as Will Geoghegan mentioned on the Rhode Talk podcast, it’s exactly the type of matchup the Rams were relishing on Selection Sunday. This group of players may be playing in its first regional, but they’re a very dangerous team.

Fairfield — #4 Seed, Lubbock Regional

Although sixty-three other teams are making NCAA Tournament trips this year, not one of them will feel more special than Fairfield‘s. Besides being the program’s first berth in nearly 70 years of baseball, it’s also very meaningful for head coach Bill Currier. The fifth-year skipper, whose 34-year college coaching career has taken him across the eastern United States, had the Vermont program he played for cut out from under him in 2009. Thanks to the Stags’ run to the MAAC regular-season and tournament titles, he’ll be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

2015 was supposed to be a big year for Fairfield, but after a disappointing season saw them miss the MAAC Tournament, the MAAC’s coaches picked them to finish a lowly 8th in 2016. It’s safe to say the Stags have proved them wrong– they won a program-record 32 games, their first regular-season title since 1997, and their first postseason title since 1983. After dropping their conference-opening series at home to Rider, they didn’t look back, going 16-6 to sail into the MAAC Tournament as the #1 seed. A strong start from Gavin Wallace helped them avenge a regular-season series loss to Manhattan in the opener, and Jake Salpietro’s 10th homer of the year helped power a win over Canisius that gave the Stags the all-important 2-0 start. From there, they made quick work of Siena in the title game, with Kevin Radziewicz’s monster day (4-5, 5 RBI) and tournament MVP Salpietro’s double and three RBI keying an 18-2 win.

Individually, Salpietro has been the Stags’ most decorated player. Besides those tournament MVP honors, the senior (.349, 16 2B, 10 HR, 42 RBI) was named first-team all-MAAC, first-team all-New England, and a Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week for his efforts in the conference tournament. Four of his teammates earned all-MAAC honors of their own: Radziewicz (.340, 11 2B, 36 RBI), Troy Scocca (.277, 9 2B, 5 HR, 34 RBI), Mac Crispino (.299, 9 2B, 35 RBI), and Kyle Dube (6-3, 3.64). Dube’s rotation-mate John Signore (3-2, 2.64, 57:8 K/BB) deserved all-league honors as well, and those two led a pitching staff that posted the MAAC’s second-best ERA in conference play.

The Stags will take part in a tough Lubbock Regional this weekend along with hosts Texas Tech, Dallas Baptist, and New Mexico. Needless to say, it’s been a historic season for Currier & co. no matter what happens, but they’ll look to pen another chapter with a strong weekend in West Texas.

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