2021 Patriot League Preview
The Patriot League may not be a college baseball power, but it has consistently been a part of the national college baseball conversation over the last few years. Its tournament champion has won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four events. Army and Navy’s rivalry has been taken to bigger stages and former Navy ace Noah Song was a finalist for the 2019 Golden Spikes Award.
The league again figures to punch above its weight in 2021. Army and Navy continue to operate at a high level as programs and Lehigh ace Mason Black enters the season as a top-50 draft prospect.
To the tune of the drum and fife, the Patriot League marches on.
Are the service academies again the conference favorites?
Army and Navy have been the class of the Patriot League for several years now. Army defeated Navy in each of the last two Patriot League Tournament championship series and Navy has won the regular season title every year since 2015.
Army and Navy again figure to be the league’s powers in 2021. The Black Knights welcome back a solid core of veteran hitters, including third baseman Anthony Giachin (.308/.361/.338), second baseman Tim Simoes (.306/.424/.408) and center fielder Andre Walden (.333/.387/.439). That trio of seniors was the team’s leading hitters a year ago and, along with sophomore shortstop Kevin Dubrule (.282/.417/.333) and senior catcher Brendan Siriani (.150/.261/.250), they keep Army strong up the middle.
Army will need to figure some things out on the mound, however. It had a 5.15 team ERA in 2020 and now must replace ace Logan Smith. Junior righthander Anthony LoRicco (1-1, 2.70) will move to the front of the rotation and Army will look to sophomore righthanders Robbie Buecker (1-1, 9.90) and Patrick Melampy (0-1, 7.50) to step into bigger roles. If they can do so, Army could make it three straight regional appearances.
Navy was off to the best start in the league in 2020 at 14-1, finishing the season on a 14-game winning streak. It faces the inverse of Army’s dilemma, as it lost its top hitters to graduation and instead returns its best pitchers. The Midshipmen’s top returners on the mound include starters Charlie Connolly (1-0, 1.04), Reece Early (2-0, 0.82) and Tommy Goodridge (2-0, 2.25), as well as closer Trey Braithwaite (1-0, 0.71, 4 SV).
With a few freshmen expected to be in the mix in the lineup, Navy will be counting on junior first baseman Zach Stevens (.419/.526/.935, 3 HR) and sophomore catcher Alex Smith (.368/.457/.526). With a strong pitching staff to rely on, the Midshipmen hitters will have time to grow into their new roles.
If any other team is to contend with the service academies, Lehigh and Holy Cross are the teams to watch.
How far can Lehigh’s high-end pitching staff carry it?
The Mountain Hawks have the most talented pitching staff in the league. Now, they have to show they can turn that talent into wins on the diamond.
Third-year sophomore Mason Black (1-2, 3.68) leads the rotation and is the No. 44 prospect in the draft class. He’s coming off a standout summer in the South Florida Collegiate League and has a fastball that gets into the upper 90s. Following him in the rotation are third-year sophomore lefthander Luke Rettig (0-2, 3.52) and fourth-year junior Matt Svanson (2-1, 7.77), who also impressed in the South Florida Collegiate League. Second-year freshman righthander Carlos Torres (0-1, 6.00) and true freshman righthander Lucas Rich both have powerful arms as well, capable of throwing their fastballs in the mid 90s.
That staff should push Lehigh into the top half of the conference and see it advance to the Patriot League Tournament for the first time since 2016, a level it likely would have attained in 2020. To take the next step, however, the Mountain Hawks will need some of their younger hitters to take a step forward. Second-year freshman catcher Adam Retzbach (.296/.367/.481, 2 HR) and third-year sophomore third baseman Gerard Sweeney (.292/.343/.369) are keys for the offense.
Can Mason Black become the league’s highest-drafted player in history?
Black isn’t just the best prospect in the Patriot League this year, he may well be the best prospect in league history. Listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he has a strong, physical frame and the fastball to match. His fastball gets up to 99 mph and he pairs it with a good slider.
To go with his physicality and pure stuff, Black has produced a solid track record in college. While he’s been limited to 55 innings for Lehigh by the pandemic and an injury at the outset of his freshman season, he has more than made up for that in summer ball. In 2019, he started the Cape Cod League all-star game and then was electric in 2020 in the South Florida Collegiate League.
With a strong spring, Black could push his way into the first round. If he does so, he would become the first first-rounder in league history. He already figures to be the highest drafted player in league history. That distinction currently belongs to Lehigh's Matt McBride, who was drafted in the supplemental second round - 75th overall - by the Indians in 2006.. Prior to the Patriot League forming in 1990, the highest drafted player from any school in the league, Army’s Craig Jones, was drafted in the third round, 54th overall by the Mets in 1979—though he didn’t sign until the following year when the Braves picked him in the fourth round, 80th overall.
Black won’t be worried about surpassing McBride or Jones or even former Navy ace Noah Song, who was a finalist for the 2019 Golden Spikes award but fell to the fourth round due to his military commitment—he’ll be trying to get Lehigh into the postseason. But in the process, he could write himself into the league’s history books in a big way.
Can Holy Cross overcome some key losses?
The Crusaders have consistently finished in the top half of the Patriot League over the last decade, advancing to the tournament eight of the last 10 seasons. They should be well positioned to do so again in 2021, though they will have to do so after losing a trio of players as graduate transfers—center fielder Austin Masel and shortstop Chris Rinaldi to Richmond and catcher Riley Livingston to Gonzaga.
While those are key departures, Holy Cross still has experience at key positions. Fourth-year sophomore Cam Meyer (.258/.324/.468, 2 HR) will move from third base to shortstop and fourth-year junior David Kale (.326/.415/.413) will move from right field to center field. Third-year sophomore Angelo D’Acunto will take over behind the plate following a strong summer in the Northwoods League. Kale and Meyer will be expected to shoulder much of the load offensively, along with second-year freshman outfielder Ben Dellacono (.305/.339/.492).
Holy Cross’ strength, however, is likely to be on the mound. Fourth-year junior lefthander Luke Dawson (1-1, 1.11) returns at the front of the rotation, where he starred in 2020. The Crusaders also expect to welcome back fourth-year junior righthander Liam Dvorak early in the season after he completes rehab for Tommy John surgery. Dvorak was a first-team all-Patriot League pitcher in 2019 but made just one start in 2020. If he returns to full strength, Holy Cross will have a formidable 1-2 punch atop its rotation.
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What can be expected from Lafayette in Tim Reilly’s first season as head coach?
Longtime Lafayette coach Joe Kinney announced before the 2020 season that it would be his last as head coach. When the season ended assistant coach Tim Reilly was promoted to head coach.
Reilly played and coached at Rutgers before coming to Lafayette, where the former catcher spent one year as the Leopards’ hitting coach and two years as their pitching coach, in addition to being recruiting coordinator. That gave him a good overview of the program, which will serve him well as head coach.
The Leopards bring back some important offensive pieces, including third-year sophomore catcher Dylan Minghini (.288/.315/.558, 4 HR) and fourth-year junior outfielder Colin Hartey (.321/.387/.375). On the mound, lefthander Jacob Ciccone (0-0, 2.25) and Jordan Yoder (1-1, 3.86) both impressed out of the bullpen as freshmen in 2020. Now, they will be asked to move to bigger roles in the rotation.
Lafayette will need some players to step up around its veteran standouts, but Reilly inherits a program with a solid foundation and the Jaguars should be competitive in 2021.
Season format: The Patriot League will split into North (Army, Holy Cross, Lafayette) and South (Bucknell, Lehigh and Navy) divisions. Teams will play 30-game league schedules, beginning March 13, with 18 games against divisional competition and 12 crossover games. The tournament format remains unchanged, with the top four teams qualifying and playing two rounds of best-of-three series.
Top Five 2021 Draft Prospects
- Mason Black, RHP, Lehigh
- Matt Svanson, RHP, Lehigh
- Luke Dawson, LHP, Holy Cross
- Luke Rettig, LHP, Lehigh
- Anthony Giachin, 3B, Army