Image credit: Army LHP Connelly Early (Courtesy of Army West Point)
Army Seeks Fourth Straight Regional Appearance
Army last weekend took care of business against Holy Cross in efficient fashion, winning the Patriot League Tournament semifinal two games to none and by scores of 9-3 and 14-2.
That advanced the top-seeded Black Knights to the best-of-three championship series, where they will take on Bucknell beginning next Tuesday.
“This is why you do it. It’s the most fun part of the year,” said Army coach Jim Foster. “It’s nice to just have some more time (with the players) and be able to enjoy it together.”
This is familiar territory for Army. It’s the fourth straight full season that it has played for the Patriot League’s NCAA Tournament bid, and each of the previous three have ended with Army lifting the trophy.
That’s already a dynasty unlike any other in Patriot League history, as no other team has won three tournament titles in a row. There’s just something about the tournament setting that brings out the best in the Black Knights.
“I think we’re built for the postseason,” Foster said. “The way we train them, with the style we play, I think it plays in the postseason. It’s harder, it’s a lot more work the way we go about it, but I think it’s what wins in the postseason. You’re not just relying on a three-run homer or a guy to throw a great game. You have versatility, you have depth, and you have speed. You’re able to create runs, you’re able to do the little things.”
If history doesn’t suggest to you that Army should be considered the prohibitive favorites going into next week, perhaps the numbers, which show off that versatility, will.
It won the regular-season title by four games over Bucknell, the largest margin since Navy also won by four games in 2017. The Black Knights led the conference in hitting at .299, in ERA at 4.58 and in stolen bases with 96.
The lineup is led by third baseman Sam Ruta (.372/.488/.610), who turned down chances to begin his professional career coming out of high school in 2020, shortstop Kevin Dubrule (.346/.391/.450), whose brother Scotty won a national title at Mississippi State last season, first baseman Ross Friedrick (.333/.388/.479), left fielder Nick Manesis (.314/.406/.459) and center fielder Hunter Meade (.277/.392/.322), who leads the team in stolen bases with 30.
Putting pressure on the opposing defense by putting runners in motion is as much this program’s bread and butter as anything else, but this team also has real depth and some physicality in the lineup.
“This year we’ve got some guys who can swing it,” Foster said. “They’ve grown up and they’re swinging the bat well, so we are pretty deep and it seems like a different part of the lineup is doing it every day, so I look forward to getting everybody going.”
The workhorse on the mound is sophomore lefthander Connelly Early (7-3, 3.21), a shutdown reliever on last year’s team who transitioned well to the rotation this season. He’s been a particularly important piece considering the injuries to righthanders Patrick Melampy and Anthony LoRicco, two other key arms who have missed significant time this season. LoRicco has since returned, but Melampy is done for the year.
“Without Early, I don’t know where we’d be,” Foster said. “We had Melampy go down and LoRicco, a senior and a junior. For a sophomore to do what he’s done this year has been really incredible.”
Army certainly won’t overlook Bucknell. The Bison, at 3-2, are the only Patriot League team to have a winning record against the Black Knights this season. They’re hitting .283/.377/.394 and feature a really solid one-two punch in the rotation of righthanders Will Greer (5-3, 4.21) and Austin Odell (7-2, 4.15), plus a workhorse reliever in righthander Tyler O’Neill (3.53 ERA, 51 IP).
“They’re a balanced team,” Foster said. “They have some older guys. The big thing is going to be beating their arms. They’ve got Greer, he’s a very competitive righty. (They’ve) got the kid Odell who threw the ball well this year and then O’Neill in relief. I think getting in the bullpen is going to be the key, and then continuing to do what we do, which is run the bases, put the ball in play, do all the little things and hopefully get some two-out knocks. That’s what we kind of preach. It’s going to be a good series.”
Ivy League Set to Crown First Champion Since 2019
On May 19, 2019, Harvard secured the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. This weekend, three years and three days later, the conference will have its first champion since that day.
And as far as matchups go, the Ivy League couldn’t ask for more for its first championship series since before the pandemic.
Pennsylvania and Columbia have been far and away the two best teams in the conference this season, and they finished tied atop the standings in the regular season with 17-4 records.
Penn impressed not just within the confines of the Ivy League schedule but also in non-conference play. It began its season with a series win on the road against Texas A&M, now a top-five team in the country, and 10 days later, it swept a two-game midweek series against eventual CAA champion College of Charleston.
Columbia, meanwhile, went into last weekend’s series against Dartmouth as the hottest team in college baseball, having won 19 games in a row dating back to the end of March. It also went into that series two games up on Penn in the standings.
But Columbia dropped the series against Dartmouth and Penn swept Princeton, so instead of the championship series being played just off the Hudson River in New York City, it’ll be played just off the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia by virtue of Penn having won the series against Columbia in late March.
The series should provide an intriguing contrast of styles. Offensively, Columbia, which tops the conference in hitting, has the edge. It’s hitting .305/.388/.511, which is narrowly better than Penn’s .302/.392/.457 team slash line.
If you filter the stats to include just conference games, though, the Lions have a clear advantage. They’re hitting .343/.423/.588 against Ivy League pitching compared to the Quakers’ .316/.414/.493 line. Columbia also leads the conference in doubles with 103 and home runs with 59, led by outfielder Hayden Schott, who’s hitting .331/.364/.632 with a team-leading 16 doubles and 11 home runs.
Penn has a similar advantage on the mound, though. It leads the Ivy League in ERA at 4.06, more than a run better than Columbia’s 5.22 mark. In Ivy League play, the Quakers’ ERA drops to 3.51 and the gap widens between them and the Lions, whose ERA is 4.91 in conference play.
The Penn pitching staff is led by a Swiss Army knife of a reliever in lefthander Owen Coady (2.91 ERA, 52.2 IP), who holds opponents to a .197 batting average, and the starting pitching duo of lefthander Joe Miller (6-3, 3.50) and Kevin Eaise (7-1, 3.88), who both have fastballs in the low 90s that have reached as high as 94 mph this season. Miller, Eaise and Coady are first, third and fourth, respectively, in the Ivy League in strikeouts this season.
No matter which team emerges victorious, we know it will be a team capable of making some noise in a regional. As of Wednesday morning, both have RPIs inside the top 60, which puts them in position to perhaps be three seeds in regionals instead of a four seed, and both have proven tough even against major conference foes.
It’s been a long time since the Ivy League has been able to celebrate a champion in baseball, but it has a high-quality championship series on its hands that will help make up for lost time.
MEAC Automatic Bid Up For Grabs
The MEAC Tournament gets started Thursday at the end of a most unique season for the conference, and one that it hopes not to repeat.
Due to the defections of Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman to the SWAC, North Carolina A&T leaving for the Big South and North Carolina Central cutting its baseball program, the MEAC competed with just four members this season—Delaware State, Coppin State, Maryland Eastern Shore and Norfolk State. That’s down from eight members last season, although Bethune-Cookman and Maryland Eastern Shore opted not to play baseball in 2021.
NCAA rules stipulate that a conference only has access to an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament if it has at least six members, but the MEAC received a waiver to keep its auto bid for the 2022 season.
On paper, the favorites have to be Delaware State and Coppin State. With a 19-14 conference record, Delaware State won the MEAC regular-season title, and at 22-21 overall, it was the only team in the league to finish the regular season over .500. It also has the MEAC player of the year in Trey Paige, who hit .412/.513/.791 with 15 doubles, 13 home runs and 43 RBIs.
Coppin State finished second in the league with a 17-13 record and put a staggering nine players on the 12-player all-MEAC first team, including league pitcher of the year Jordan Hamberg (5-2, 3.67), who is also the team’s leading hitter with a .364 average and leading home run hitter with eight.
Norfolk State finished last in the league with a 12-18 record, but it will have two built-in advantages. One is that it won the automatic bid last season. This is a different team, of course, but there are returning players with regional experience. The other advantage is that the tournament will be held at the Spartans’ home park.
Maryland Eastern Shore is probably the biggest longshot of the group, but it went 15-18 in MEAC play this season, which was more competitive than one might have anticipated given that it didn’t play any games in 2021.
What’s guaranteed in this conference tournament is that it will either have a repeat winner in Norfolk State or a champion that hasn’t lifted the trophy in a while, if ever. Coppin State hasn’t won it since 1995, Delaware State hasn’t won it since 1989 and UMES has never won the title.