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The winter storm that hit the Northeast this week didn’t deliver quite as much snow as the early forecasts indicated, but it still managed to throw this weekend’s schedule into disarray. The snow caused several tournaments and series to be moved or cancelled.
All the cancellations also gave rise to an entirely new tournament that didn’t exist until this week. No. 19 St. John’s, Iona, Massachusetts-Lowell and Towson will travel to Norfolk, Va., this weekend to play the Sean McGrath Invitational at Virginia Wesleyan, a Division III school. The tournament was put together on the fly in just a couple days earlier this week by UMass-Lowell coach Ken Harring, who, like all coaches in the Northeast, is used to having to quickly alter plans to work around early-season wintry weather.
Iona, UML and Towson were all scheduled to participate in the Big Five Baseball Bash in Philadelphia this weekend. But as the storm moved into the forecast, the tournament’s hosts gave the participating schools notice that the weather would likely render the tournament unplayable, giving them a chance to look for alternatives.
Harring is good friends with Virginia Wesleyan coach Chris Francis, who had let UML use its field last weekend to play Manhattan when the River Hawks’ series at Fordham was cancelled by poor weather in New York. Virginia Wesleyan is on the road this weekend, so Francis again offered the field to Harring.
"It’s just a connection I have with Coach Francis," Harring said. "He opened the door to use all their facilities. Without him it wouldn’t have happened here."
With a facility secured, Harring moved quickly to add teams. Iona and Towson were easy additions since both were also scheduled for the Big Five Bash. Towson coach Mike Gottlieb said it took only about an hour from the time he first talked with Harring to finalize the Tigers’ place in the tournament.
St. John’s, meanwhile, had been scheduled to play at home for the first time this season, hosting Holy Cross in a three-game series. The Red Storm have turf, but with six to eight inches of snow and sleet covering the field, playing in Queens was going to be impossible. Coach Ed Blankmeyer said they wanted to move the series further south, but were unable to do so. While exploring the options, Blankmeyer heard about the event Harring was putting together and joined to round out the field.
Blankmeyer, in his 22nd season at St. John’s, has been through similar situations many times.
"It happens, you’ve got to deal with it and move on," he said. "I don’t know what else you can do. It just tires you out a little bit. You’re away from school and everyone else is sitting at home and playing."
Harring said one of the keys to being able to put together a tournament so quickly was finding coaches who shared his desire to find a way to play games and administrations who supported that desire.
"To me, our job is to play games," Harring said. "The players work their butts off. I want them to have the full experience. I want to play 56 (games). My boss has been pretty supportive. When you live in the North and play in the North, you’ve got to be creative.
"Pat Carey at Iona and Mike Gottlieb told me, ‘the guys want to play, we work all year for this.’ It takes a bunch of guys who want to play to do this. You need an administration that supports you and guys that have the same vision. We work all year for this. For the seniors, these games don’t come back."
For St. John’s, playing in the tournament adds three more neutral-site games to its schedule as it tries to build a resume that would be worthy of a spot in the NCAA tournament should it not win the Big East Conference’s automatic bid. The Red Storm enter the weekend ranked fourth in RPI, according to WarrenNolan.com, and more neutral site games should be beneficial.
But, more than anything, the tournament gives four Northern schools an opportunity to get three games in on a field that won’t be surrounded by snow piles.
"Baseball is a tight-knit community," Harring said. "Without my relationship with (Francis), we’re not doing this here. We’re on spring break and I don’t want to be sitting in the dorms and going back in the gym and hitting."
News and Notes
Atlantic Coast Conference: North Carolina won a series against Virginia last weekend for the first time since 2012, but Tar Heels coach Mike Fox was still impressed by the Cavaliers. He said Virginia’s offense is the best North Carolina has seen so far this season. "Their first six or seven hitters are all really good," he said. "We did a pretty good job on their first two guys and that’s the key, not getting to (Adam) Haseley and Pavin Smith up there with people on base." No. 15 Virginia, which is averaging 8.89 runs per game, travels to No. 9 Clemson this weekend.
Big 12 Conference: Oklahoma’s recruiting class ranked No. 13 last year and that group is paying dividends this season. The Sooners used a sophomore starting pitcher in their first 17 games this season and went 15-2 in that stretch. Righthander Jake Irvin has excelled as Oklahoma’s Friday starter, going 4-0, 1.08 this season.
Big Ten Conference: Maryland shortstop Kevin Smith, a Preseason All-American, is off to a slow start at the plate, hitting .259/.317/.370 going into this weekend’s series against Princeton. Coach John Szefc said Smith’s barrel is getting out of the zone too soon and he is working to correct that in his approach. "It’s not where he wants to be, but I think he’ll arrive there at some point," Szefc said. "His BP’s better, he just needs to do a better job of taking his BP into the game."
Pacific-12 Conference: UCLA junior righthander Jake Bird has missed the past two weekends and is out again this week against No. 12 Arizona due to shoulder inflammation. Bird (2-0, 0.69) could be ready to return next weekend against California. . . Washington catcher Joey Morgan has thrown out all seven base runners who have attempted a stolen base against him. In 15 games this season, opponents have swiped just one base against the Huskies in 10 attempts.
Southeastern Conference: South Carolina righthander Clarke Schmidt is listed as day-to-day with a minor oblique strain and will not start Friday at Tennessee. Sophomore righthander Adam Hill, typically the Gamecocks’ Sunday starter, will get the ball Friday night. Hill did not get to start last weekend against Michigan State because the series finale was canceled due to poor weather. Redshirt junior righthander Wil Crowe remains in his usual Saturday role. There is a chance Schmidt could start Sunday’s series finale. If not, the No. 10 Gamecocks have several options who could get a spot start. They did not play a midweek game this week, leaving their pitching staff well rested going into the first weekend of SEC play. . . Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum, a Preseason All-American outfielder, made his pitching debut Sunday against South Alabama. He got the final two outs of the game to earn the save. He made his first career start on the mound Tuesday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, throwing three perfect innings. Mangum is hitting .403/.471/.494 with seven stolen bases and won the SEC batting title last season, but the Bulldogs have lost several pitchers to injuries and the sophomore was a standout two-way player in high school. Pitching coach Gary Henderson worked with Mangum in the fall to get him ready to pitch some in relief, and that work paid off this week. Magnum throws his fastball 88-93 mph and mixes in a solid curveball.
Other conferences: No. 21 Florida Gulf Coast has been without freshman outfielder Marc Coffers (.262/.319/.310) since its first game at UNC Wilmington two weeks ago. Coach Dave Tollett said Coffers is dealing with a wrist injury, but should be able to return some time in the next two week. . . No. 19 St. John’s first baseman John Valente has been one of the best hitters in the country this season. The redshirt junior is hitting .533/.575/.600 with six stolen bases and 17 runs in 14 games. Coach Ed Blankmeyer said Valente is locked in at the plate. "He has a great approach, he stays in the middle of the field," Blankmeyer said. "He has a short stroke. He’s being rewarded for it."