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.)

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Ankle Injury Sidelines Merrimack’s Petrone, but He’s Still Finding a Way to Give Back Off the Field

As you all know, I spend a disproportionate amount of my free time following New England college baseball, and one of the things that consistently amazes me is how much time the players find to serve their communities. Every time I turn around, they’re shaving their heads for cancer research, drafting a player from Team IMPACT, bringing in millions to a charity that’s near and dear to their hearts, or finding one of a thousand other ways of giving back.

It’s nothing short of incredible, especially when you consider that these guys play the most time-intensive sport in the NCAA. They spend more time on the field than anyone else, miss classes and lose sleep on long road trips, and often stay on campus long after their classmates have gone home for the summer. All while trying to juggle the many responsibilities of life as a college student. And yet, they still find the time, energy, and motivation to do good in their communities.

Meet Merrimack’s Ryan Petrone, a quintessential example of that spirit. His junior season as a .294-hitting regular for one of the top teams in the Northeast-10 was chugging along smoothly until he broke his ankle in mid-March. Instead of dwelling on how a promising season had been cut short (and I know from experience that it’s easy to mope after breaking your ankle), he saw an opportunity to devote more time to the Mini Warrior Baseball Clinics, the off-the-field endeavor he’s been using to give back to his community since he was 18.

Ryan, a Central Mass native, got his start in coaching when he was just 15, working at clinics run by the Worcester Tornadoes’ Nick Salotti, whom he’d met at a local hitting facility. The following year, when illness prevented Salotti from directing a clinic, Ryan ran the camp himself at just 16. After getting a couple more years’ experience under his belt, he started the Mini Warrior Clinics in 2013.

You can find a lot more information at the camps’ website, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight a few things here. For starters, they’re affordable and accessible. In a day and age when quality baseball camps usually mean a long drive and an outlay of several hundred dollars, Ryan’s clinics are a breath of fresh air. Even before discounts for families and multi-week campers, a week-long, full-day camp costs just $195, a good chunk of which gets donated back to the local little league. On top of that, it comes straight to a local field. And campers aren’t just a face in a crowd– the player/coach ratio is 8:1 at minimum. The coaching staff is drawn from the rosters of programs like UMass Lowell, Merrimack, Assumption, Roger Williams, and Springfield, whose success you’ve probably read about in these pages before. Overall, it’s a safe, fun, and affordable chance for young players to get great coaching during the summer.

If you’re from the Worcester area and know a player who’d enjoy the camps, you can learn more on the official website, or on Facebook or Twitter. Mini Warrior already has 2016 dates booked for Leicester, Paxton, Spencer/East Brookfield, Charlton, and Millbury with more to come. If you’re from outside Worcester County, you can still help by spreading the word or by donating at their GoFundMe page. (Donors include Merrimack alum and current Twins hurler Ryan O’Rourke, as well as 2011 World Series Champion Marc Rzepczynski.) Feel free to contact Ryan or myself with any questions, and thanks for reading!

On the Spring Season

In 2015, New England’s three collegiate summer baseball leagues drew a tick over 800,000 fans to the ballpark. It’s an impressive figure, especially when you consider the summer season lasts all of nine weeks. In fact, there’s no other place in the country where so many teams in so small a region brought so many fans to the park, and it wasn’t even close. The success that the Cape League, NECBL, and Futures League have had in selling collegiate baseball to New Englanders is simply remarkable.

And yet, when the NCAA season rolls around each spring, New England college baseball is an after thought. Every year, our 96 programs toil away in obscurity. The region’s not known for college sports fandom in the first place, and baseball gets even less attention than football, basketball, or hockey. There are plenty of reasons why this is the case. The weather is a big one, but even when things warm up in April and May, college baseball’s far from the summit of the New England sports scene. I could go into this more, but right now, I’d rather focus on a solution.

Not an end-all, be-all, turn-our-sport-into-the-Red-Sox-overnight kind of a solution, just a way of convincing those who don’t follow college baseball of something I sincerely believe to be true: you’re missing out on something special each spring. This year, in New England alone, thousands of coaches and players are spending countless hours in the classroom, at the gym, and on the field to bring us a sport that’s insanely fun to watch, and they deserve a heck of a lot more recognition than they get right now. That’s why I started this blog, and that’s why I’m writing this post.

Obviously, there’s only so much a blogger can do, but for some strange reason, a few thousand people follow me on twitter. For some even stranger reason, many of them aren’t college baseball diehards, just casual New England sports fans. I’d like to use the platform I’m blessed with to convince them to be more than that. I don’t know exactly how I’ll do that, but here are three ideas. (#3 is one I could use some help with.)

(1) Get the summer fans involved. If you’re the Chatham Anglers, Newport Gulls, Worcester Bravehearts, or a number of other summer franchises, you’re the proud owner of an amateur baseball brand that any college baseball coach in New England would kill for. Their fans are the first people we should be trying to reach, and to try and do that, I’ll be writing a series of “A {Insert Summer Team} Fan’s Guide to the Spring Season” posts about what their former and future players are doing this spring, and what teams are in their area to go see. Hopefully a few of them will head out to a ballpark to see what it’s all about.

(2) Appeal to every part of New England. The nice thing about having 96 teams in a pretty small region is that there’s college baseball around the corner of just about anywhere. I’ll try to take advantage of that in my weekend preview posts and highlight the biggest series all across the region. Whether you live in the Berkshires or Boston, southern Connecticut or northern Maine, you won’t have to travel far to see high-quality baseball this spring.

(3) Let you guys do the talking. As much as I’ll try to do things here and on twitter, the blogger’s eye view probably isn’t the best way to get people hooked on college baseball. For that, you’d be better off asking the players, coaches, parents, and fans who live and breathe it every day of the year. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. From now till the end of the season, my number one priority is sharing everything you love about this sport. Tweets, pictures, videos, emails, blog comments, whatever. If you want to write a piece that goes up here, I’m game. If you have other ideas about what we can do, I’m listening. It’s an incredible sport, and I’m here to do whatever I can to get the word out.

To sum up: No, it’s not Major League Baseball. But if you could find this, thisthisthis, this, or this in Major League Baseball, I would’t be so worried about telling you what you’re missing. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the season. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.