2021 Northeastern Conference Preview
Bryant has dominated the regular-season landscape of the Northeastern Conference in recent memory, finishing with at least a tie for first place in nine of its 10 completed seasons since joining the NEC after the 2009 season. The Bulldogs have been thwarted in the conference tournament, however, with just three NCAA Tournament appearances in that time.
Central Connecticut State has been one of its main challengers at the top of the conference, grabbing the conference championship and an NCAA Tournament bid in 2010, 2017 and 2019, but neither team got off to a strong start to begin the 2020 season, with Bryant sitting at 4-11 and CCSU at 4-8 overall.
Those two teams should hit the ground running this season, but there could be plenty of competition at the top of the conference, with Wagner and Long Island looming large and Sacred Heart looking to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in 11 years.
The NEC instituted a 30-game conference schedule that will consist of 10 three-game series for the 2021 season. The conference tournament will include four teams, with a double-elimination format.
Is Bryant the team to beat in the NEC?
The Bulldogs got off to a slow start in Ryan Klosterman’s first season at the helm, dropping 11 of their first 13 games, including two losses at UNC Wilmington, three at Virginia Tech and three at Maryland, followed by back-to-back wins at Western Carolina before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the season.
While Bryant has some departures in its lineup in catcher Gaby Cruz (.170/.241/.358, 3 HR), who transferred to Southeastern Louisiana, and infielder Nick Viscariello (.234/.308/.255), the Bulldogs bring back the core of their lineup.
Fifth-year senior outfielder and team leader James Ciliento returns after driving in 14 runs in the first 14 games of the season and stealing 10 bases to go with a .281/.379/.474 slash line. He forms an impressive outfield trio with second-year freshman Derek Smith (.304/.304/.435) and fourth-year junior Shane Kelly (.328/.369/.552, 2 HR). Graduate transfer Liam McGill takes over behind the plate after a stellar career at Columbia where he hit .316/.411/.462 in 136 games. First baseman Michael Stellato, a transfer from Northern Essex (Mass.) JC, second baseman Jake Gustin (.321/.433/.571), third baseman Matt Woods (.091/.375/.091) and shortstop Logan Allen, who transferred from Bridgeport (Conn.) JC, round out the infield.
The rotation will once again be led by Tyler Mattison, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound righthander who was considered the top college pitcher in the Northeast in the 2020 draft class. Mattison struggled to throw strikes in three starts (10 walks in 19 innings) while his fastball velocity dropped to 87-90 mph, a far cry from his excellent freshmen and sophomore seasons. Fifth-year junior Vito Morgese is expected to take over the Saturday starter job after missing the 2020 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Second-year freshman righthander Liam LeVangie did not pitch in 2020, but he does a good job of commanding his arsenal and will be the team’s Sunday starter. Closer Jack Ipsen (0-0, 2.84, 9 K) also returns, giving Bryant plenty of depth and experience as the team looks toward capturing its 10th regular-season title in the last 11 full seasons.
Can Wagner challenge Bryant at the top of the conference?
Wagner returns much of the same team that got off to a 6-8 start to the 2020 season, which included a win over Penn State on Feb. 22. Back to hit first is second-year freshman center fielder Henry Martinez, who led the team in hitting (.292) and provides strong defense in the oufield. Fifth-year senior Griffin Schneider, the team’s leading home run hitter (3) last season, returns after an impressive fall campaign to hit in the middle of the lineup. Fellow fifth-year senior Tyler Sanfilippo (.109/.300/.130) struggled in 2020, but there’s hope he can regain the form that saw him hit .295 with 36 RBIs in 2019. Second-year freshman third baseman Cody Bey (.291/.400/.345) helps fill out a strong infield that also includes fourth-year junior second baseman AJ Medrano (.250/.344/.250) and second-year freshman shortstop Ethan Valdez, an excellent defender who also provides plenty of speed. Second-year freshman catcher David Melfi packs a big bat behind the plate, although he didn’t get much of a chance to show off his power in 2020. Filling out the outfield next to Martinez and Schneider is left fielder Caleb Ward, a transfer from Norfolk State who earned second-team all-MEAC honors in 2019, giving head coach Jim Carone a dangerous lineup that he feels has more speed than any team he’s coached at Wagner.
The Seahawks’ biggest loss comes on the mound. Righthander McCae Allen, the team’s Sunday starter, did not return after leading the team in strikeouts (28) through four starts. His spot in the rotation will be taken by third-year freshman righthander Josh Casado, who has yet to pitch at the collegiate level but flashes a low-90s fastball and a solid 12-to-6 curveball with a changeup that is still developing. He will be stationed behind fifth-year senior righthander Ryan Lauk (2-0, 4.71, 24 K) and righthander Pat Gallagher (0-2, 5.68). Fourth-year junior righthander Kevin Wiseman (0-0, 6.35, 2 SV) returns to close games. With a blend of experience and talent, Wagner has the weapons to challenge Bryant and give the NEC an exciting race down the stretch.
Is Tom Ruscitti the frontrunner in the Player of the Year race?
As a freshman in 2019, Ruscitti set the league on fire with 14 home runs, the second-best mark in program history, drove in 35 runs and stole eight bases to go along with a .263/.384/.537 slash line.
He was even better in the truncated 2020 season, hitting .364/.472/.773 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 13 games. Now, he will be tasked with leading a lineup that has three true freshmen—second baseman TJ Werner, third baseman Tommy Verga and shortstop Hunter D’Amato—and lost key contributors from last year’s team, including second baseman Nate Brodsky (.308, 16 hits) and catcher Kyle Huber.
Ruscitti will face a tough challenge for that hardware, with Merrimack infielder Nick Shumski returning to school after leading the league in average (.443) and hits (27) and driving in 12 runs. Long Island infielder Anthony Warneke also returns after hitting .438/.491/.542 with nine stolen bases.
But his toughest challenge could come from Bryant outfielder James Ciliento, whose 10 stolen bases ranked 15th nationally. Ciliento finished the season with two home runs and 14 RBIs to go with a .281/.379/.474 slash line.
Will Merrimack carry over momentum from its promising 2020 start in its second season at the Division I level?
Merrimack’s introduction to Division I baseball could not have gone much better than it did to start the 2020 season. Not only did the Warriors take two of four games at Oral Roberts, but they won three out of four against Michigan State to start the season 5-3. Merrimack dropped six of the next seven games to end the season, but it was still an encouraging debut for Nick Barese’s ballclub. Now, it enters the season with seven regulars in the lineup who have at least two years of college ball already under their belt and a rotation even more experienced. The only two significant losses from the 2020 squad are outfielder Cory Wasylow and DH Billy Keegan, but the Warriors return every player that appeared in 12 or more games, including fifth-year senior shortstop Nick Shumski (.443/.469/.508, 3 SB), who not only led the team in all three slash categories, RBIs (12) and hits (27), but also provides strong defense with above-average arm strength. He’s joined in the infield by fifth-year senior first baseman Thomas Joyce (.145/.304/.255), second-year freshman Alex Haba (.226/.293/.321) and fifth-year senior Joey Porricelli (.270/.356/.317). Third-year sophomore Kurtis Stadnicki (.302/.321/.358) will handle the catching duties and third-year sophomore Michael Golankiewicz (.190/.300/.214) and fourth-year juniors Michael Jamele (.200/.333/.240) and Thomas Crowley (.250/.313/.318) will roam the outfield.
The pitching staff returns fully intact, but will likely need to improve upon its 5.09 team ERA to make a leap this season. Fourth-year junior righthander Vin Zappulla (0-3, 8.14) will take over the Friday night role from fellow fourth-year junior righthander Timmy Kalantzakos (0-0, 3.86), who should be the team’s midweek starter. Sixth-year senior righthander Riley Sorenson (2-1, 5.32) will be the team’s Saturday starter, with sixth-year senior lefthander Daniel Amidon (0.87, 10.1 IP) handling Sunday starting duties. Third-year sophomore righthander LT Pare (1.92, 3 SV) returns as the closer, with second-year freshman righthander Justin Butera (2.03, 13.1 IP) hoping to build upon an impressive first-year campaign, giving Merrimack as much experience as any team in the conference.
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Can Central Connecticut win its first regular-season title since 2006?
Despite having plenty of success and getting to three NCAA Tournaments in the last decade, including two in the last three full seasons, the Blue Devils have not won the NEC title since 2006. During that span Central Connecticut has been a mainstay near the top of the standings, with nine top-four finishes, but has not been able to break through to the top. But with 22 returning players, this could be the year. First baseman/outfielder TT Bowens signed as a nondrafted free agent after the season, but the majority of the lineup returns, including sixth-year senior third baseman Buddy DeWaine (.175/.214/.350), who struggled in the truncated season but has a career .277 average, fourth-year junior catcher Sam Loda (.216/.318/.378), fourth-year junior shortstop Matt Bertochi (.071/.133/.179), right fielder Dave Matthews (.195/.313/.317), who was the team’s top hitter in 2019, and fourth-year junior center fielder Peyton Stephens (.222/.344/.407), who has struggled the last two seasons after an impressive freshman campaign in 2018. The Blue Devils will need to improve upon their .216/.300/.341 team slash line and receive some help from second-year freshman left fielder Hunter Pasqualini and second-year freshman designated hitter Noah Martinez, but the lineup will receive some cushion from its strong pitching staff, which returns its top three starters.
Sixth-year senior righthander Brandon Fox (1-2, 0.43) will be the team’s Friday starter after an impressive start to the 2020 season, with fifth-year senior lefthander Andrew Braun (1-1, 2.55) and second-year freshman lefthander Anthony Mozzicato (1-1, 1.50) filling out a formidable weekend rotation and second-year freshman lefthander Dominic Niman (4.76, 5.2 IP) closing games. If Central Connecticut’s bats can improve and the pitching stays at the same level, the Blue Devils could make a run to the top of the standings.
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