Somerset, NJ - Monmouth has found itself ranked either first or second in each of the past four Northeast Conference Baseball Preseason Coaches’ Polls, and 2012 will be no different.
The Hawks, who were runners-up at the 2011 NEC Tournament, garnered four first-place votes and finished atop the conference in the preseason survey of the league’s nine head coaches. Defending NEC Tournament champion Sacred Heart, which also pulled in four top nods, finished a close second in the voting.
Central Connecticut, which has been a fixture in the postseason in recent years, claimed the lone remaining first-place vote to finish third ahead of Bryant in fourth. Coming off a banner year that saw the program end its postseason drought, LIU Brooklyn took fifth in the coaches’ poll followed by Mount St. Mary’s in sixth. Wagner and new head coach Jim Carone came in seventh ahead of Quinnipiac (8th) and Fairleigh Dickinson (9th).
The nine NEC members will each play a scheduled 32 conference games, the outcomes of which will determine the 2012 NEC Tournament Field. The top four finishers in the league’s regular season standings will earn the privilege to compete at the 19th annual Northeast Conference Baseball Championship, which will unfold from May 17-20 at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, CT.
Preseason Coaches’ Poll
1. Monmouth (4)
2. Sacred Heart (4)
3. Central Connecticut (1)
5. LIU Brooklyn
6. Mount St. Mary’s
9. Fairleigh Dickinson
First place votes in parentheses ().
Monmouth has missed out on the postseason NEC Tournament only once since the turn of the century and the league’s coaches expect Dean Ehehalt’s Hawks back again. The Hawks return six starting position players from a 2011 team that won 36 games overall as well as the conference’s regular season crown. The absence of reigning NEC Player of the Year Ryan Terry and NEC Pitcher of the Year Nick Meyers, both of whom have exhausted their eligibility, will show at some points, but the Hawks are well-equipped to absorb such losses. Monmouth has continuity up the middle where its double-play combination of second baseman Jake Gronsky (Danville, PA/Danville) and shortstop Jon Guida (Martinsville, NJ/Bridgewater-Raritan) look to build off solid rookie campaigns during which they batted .290 and .302, respectively. Righty Pat Light (Colts Neck, NJ/CBA), who pitched to a 4.04 ERA and logged four wins last year, is on scouts’ radar everywhere. Lefty closer Andrew McGee (Toms River, NJ/TR South) gave Monmouth an all-NEC first team relief pitcher as a rookie. The Jersey Shore product pitched to a 2.51 ERA while making 25 appearances out of the bullpen in 2011.
Sacred Heart’s preseason poll position reflects where it has finished in the NEC regular season standings each of the past three years. The Pioneers, who have accumulated 94 overall wins to go with a trio of runner-up regular season finishes since 2009, used prime pitching to claim NEC supremacy at the 2011 tournament. The good news for Nick Giaquinto’s club is the three winning pitchers from last May’s postseason run will be back on the hill in Fairfield this spring. Righty Troy Scribner (Washington Depot, CT/Shepaug Valley) and lefty Nick Leiningen (Millwood, NY/Horace Greely) comprised the all-NEC second team starting staff last year. The two combined for a 16-7 record and 11 complete game performances in 2011. Both men along with righty Kody Kerski (Waterbury, CT/Crosby) notched complete-game victories in the NEC Tournament where they allowed a combined four earned runs over 27.0 innings of work. The top of the batting order that helped the Pioneers accumulate a league-leading .308 average last season has graduated, but all-NEC first baseman Rob Griffith (Lake Ronkonkoma, NY/Sachem North) returns to the middle of the lineup. The 6-foot-2 Griffith hit .325 with 41 runs as a junior and delivered one of the biggest blasts of the season – a game-winning grand slam against UConn in March. The Pioneers also welcome back all-NEC second baseman Hunter Phillips (Monroe, CT/Masuk). One of the better situational hitters in the league, the 5-foot-6 sparkplug recorded 20 two-out RBI last year.
Central Connecticut was unable to successfully defend its 2010 title last year, but Charlie Hickey’s Blue Devils continued its run of six consecutive NEC Tournament appearances. With three of the team’s four all-NEC honorees from 2011 returning, CCSU should again be in the title mix. Central lost all-time Home Run King Pat Epps to graduation, but third baseman Mitch Wells (East Haddam, CT/Xavier), outfielder Jake Matuszak (Berlin, CT/Avery Point), and utility man JP Sportman (Schenectady, NY/LaSalle Institute) are all back in Blue. Wells (.360) was the NEC’s sixth-leading hitter, while Matuszak batted .328 in his first season with the team. Sportman hit .289 and drove in 34 runs during his maiden voyage. Starting pitchers Harry Glynne (Hamden, CT/Vermont) and Todd Savatsky (Stamford, CT/Stamford) both had sub-3.00 ERAs last year. The former’s 2.57 mark was tied for first amongst league leaders, while Glynne pitched to a 2.65 ERA that ranked fourth in the NEC. Both men surrendered fewer than one hit per inning.
Bryant enters its third season as a NEC member after reaching the 30-win mark during its first two. The Bulldogs, who finished atop the league standings in 2010, are eligible for the regular season crown, but will not gain postseason eligibility until their NCAA reclassification process is complete in 2013. Head coach Steve Owens returns three of the four weekend starters from his first year at the helm. Junior righties Peter Kelich (Jackson, NJ/Jackson Memorial) and Sal Lisanti (Bronx, NY/Fordham Prep) combined for 132.0 innings in 2011. The former won a team-high six games and owns a 15-4 career record on the mound, while Lisanti posted the lowest ERA (3.12) in the rotation. Junior outfielder Kevin Brown (Northborough, MA/Algonquin Regional), the 2010 NEC Rookie of the Year, provides both pop and speed. After a slow start to his sophomore campaign, he raised his average to .294 and garnered second team all-NEC honors. Starting shortstop David Soltis (Plainville, CT/Plainville) returns for his senior season after leading the team in hits (62) and RBI (33) as a junior.
LIU Brooklyn hopes to follow up its banner 2011 campaign with more of the same. The Blackbirds return eight starters from last year’s lineup including the 2011 NEC batting champion. All-NEC catcher Tyler Jones (Stewartsville, NJ/Phillipsburg) hit .425 on the way to earning a spot on the ABCA All-Region First Team. Jones will receive a pitching staff that returns two top starters from last year’s 28-win team. Junior righty Chris Franzese (Howard Beach, NY/Molloy) went 6-1 in NEC regular season starts, pitching to a 1.67 ERA over that span. Junior southpaw Matt McCormick (Massapequa, NY/Massapequa) threw 71.2 innings, going 6-2 overall with a 3.52 ERA. Don Maines, the reigning NEC Coach of the Year, also has a member of the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List in his bullpen. Closer Evan Zerff (Regina, Saskatchewan) recorded 13 saves while striking out 27 over 27.2 innings of work last year.
Mount St. Mary’s looks to return to the NEC Tournament for the first time since winning it all in 2008. Scott Thomson’s Mountaineers bring back experience up the middle. Junior catcher Mark Quaranta (Virginia Beach, VA/Loyola Blakefield) is the squad’s top returning hitter after batting .301 with 47 hits and 23 RBI one year ago. The Mount also kept its double-play combination intact. Senior second baseman Michael Foster (Easton, MD/Easton) logged 34 hits and 23 RBI in 41 games last year. Sophomore shortstop Brandon Scott is also back after making 37 starts and recording 31 hits as a rookie. The Mount’s pitching staff will look to receive a jolt from the return of lefty Brady Feigl (Severn, MD/Old Mill) who missed the entire 2011 campaign due to injury.
Wagner welcomes back a familiar face with the hiring of Jim Carone as its head coach. The 2003 Monmouth graduate was Wagner’s pitching coach in 2006 before assistant coaching stints at Rider and Villanova. Senior third baseman Tommy Higgins (Port Monmouth, NJ/RBC) hit .329 a year ago, including posting a team-best .346 averaging during NEC play, with 13 extra-base hits, 24 RBI and 10 stolen bases. The Seahawks top returnee on the mound is also a senior. Ryan Van Spronsen (Brantford, Ontario) tossed 62.0 innings last season and struck out 34 batters.
Quinnipiac looks to end its postseason drought, and returns its top hitter to help in the effort. Catcher Kyle Nisson (Wallingford, CT/Lyman Hall) batted .336 with 51 hits in 46 games for Dan Gooley’s team last year. Starting pitchers Derek Lamacchia (Whitestone, NY/Holy Cross) and Anthony Cinelli (Wall, NJ/Wall Twp.) are back after combining for nearly half of the Bobcats’ wins last season. The former went 4-5 with the eighth-lowest ERA (3.41) in the NEC.
Fairleigh Dickinson will continue to rebuild under head coach Gary Puccio. The former two-time MAAC Coach of the Year has brought in 18 newcomers, including 16 freshmen, for his second season in Hackensack. In terms of returnees, Puccio welcomes back his top two hitters from the 2011 squad. Shortstop Ryan Kresky (Freehold, NJ/Freehold Boro) and third baseman/pitcher Mike Eliasen (Swedesboro, NJ/Gloucester Catholic) each started all 50 games last year while batting .344 and .301, respectively.