FROM CBD NEWS SOURCE
Somerset, NJ – Central Connecticut was the last Northeast Conference baseball team to do it seven seasons ago and Charlie Hickey’s club will attempt to achieve the feat again in 2011. The defending NEC champion Blue Devils finished atop the league’s preseason coaches’ poll and are expected to capture their fifth conference crown.
Not since 2004 has the NEC preseason favorite lived up to its billing by going on to win both the NEC regular season and tournament titles later that spring.
Central Connecticut, which garnered two first-place votes, accumulated more overall points than any other team in what was the epitome of a split decision. Monmouth received four top nods and took second in the poll ahead of Bryant, which pulled in the remaining three No. 1 votes, in third. Wagner finished fourth in the annual survey of the conference nine head coaches. Sacred Heart was fifth followed by Mount St. Mary’s in sixth and Quinnipiac in seventh. Long Island (8th) and Fairleigh Dickinson (9th) rounded out the preseason selections, which were released two days before Bryant becomes the first NEC team to open its 2011 schedule.
The reigning NEC regular season champion Bulldogs, who are not eligible for postseason play until they complete the NCAA reclassification process in 2013, will play a three-game set at Oklahoma State from February 18-20. Five more NEC members – FDU, LIU, Monmouth, Sacred Heart, and Wagner – will lift the lid the following Friday, February 25. Meanwhile, Central Connecticut, Mount St. Mary’s, and Quinnipiac will all wait until the calendar turns to March.
Central Connecticut (33-23, 18-14 NEC) lost the No. 1, No. 3, and No. 5 hitters from last year’s championship lineup, but returns the NEC’s biggest bat in the form of power-hitting outfield Pat Epps (Waterford, CT/Waterford). The all-NEC first team selection led the NEC in home runs (18) and ranked second in batting average (.418). Epps, CCSU’s all-time Home Run King, delivered the tie-breaking two-run homer that lifted Central over Sacred Heart in the NEC Tournament championship round. With Epps leading the way, Central’s high-powered offense, which averaged 8.43 runs per game last season, should be able to absorb the loss of two-time all-NEC centerfielder Richie Tri, all-league first baseman Tommy Meade, and shortstop Sean Allaire, the 2010 NEC Player of the Year.
In addition to Epps, the Blue Devils welcome back an all-NEC first team selection at third base. JuniorMitch Wells (East Haddam, CT/Xavier) hit .369 and scored 55 runs while manning the hot corner last season. Sean Miller-Jones (Centerville, MA/Barnstable), who played second and batted second, hit .313 and drove in 34 runs as a junior.
Junior Danny Hickey (Cronwell, CT/Xavier) will catch an experienced pitching staff. Southpaws Dave Krasnowiecki (Cranston, RI/CCRI) and Jason Foster (Shelton, CT/Shelton) both threw complete-game victories during the 2010 NEC Tournament. The former will be the team’s top starter heading into the season after posting a team-best 7-3 record last year. Normand Gosselin (L’Acienne-Lorette, Quebec/Monroe College) and Jack Greenhouse (Orange, CT/Amity) give head coach Charlie Hickey two more veteran lefties to call upon.
Skipper Dean Ehehalt always has Monmouth (22-27, 15-17 NEC) in the NEC title mix. Having lost a lot from its 2009 NEC Championship team, the Hawks finished below the .500 mark in NEC play for the first time in more than a decade last year. Still, Monmouth found a way into the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed. This year, Ehehalt welcomes back a battle-tested nucleus that features all-NEC talent. Senior infielder Ryan Terry (Levittown, PA/Truman), who has played both shortstop and third base, earned first team all-NEC honors at second base last year after finishing fifth amongst league leaders in slugging percentage (.597). The 2008 NEC Rookie of the Year batted .337 and led Monmouth in hits (66), homers (9), and runs (49).
Meanwhile, veteran outfielder Nick Pulsonetti (Old Tappan, NJ/Northern Valley) will look to rebound for what was an uncharacteristic showing for him last season. The power-hitting Pulsonetti totaled 21 home runs and batted over .320 in his first two collegiate seasons, both of which ended with all-NEC honors, but hit .248 during his junior campaign. In fact, Monmouth struggled offensively across the board and accounted for a league-low .274 batting average. The Hawks did rank second amongst league leaders in earned-run average and return a pair of top-of-the-rotation starters. Nick Meyers (East Brunswick, NJ/East Brunswick) comes back for a fifth year after going 6-3 with a 3.93 ERA in 2010. He’ll be joined by pro prospect Pat Light (Colts Neck, NJ/CBA). The sophomore righty, who was drafted out of high school, has spectacular stuff and will look to build upon the 10 starts he made as a rookie.
Bryant (34-22, 25-7 NEC) finished atop the NEC standings last season, and looks to retain that position this year with a new coach at the helm. Steve Owens came to Smithfield from LeMoyne College where he twice won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year award. Owens, who is 13 wins shy of 600 for his career, inherits an all-NEC first team closer as well as the reigning NEC Rookie of the Year. Senior Mark Andrews (Hillsborough, NJ/Hillsborough) saved 12 games last season while posting a 3-1 record and a 2.73 ERA. The 6-foot southpaw registered 27 strikeouts over 33.0 innings, all coming out of the bullpen. Meanwhile, sophomore Kevin Brown (Northborough, MA/Algonquin)burst onto the scene as one of the NEC’s top-hitting outfielders last year. En-route to being named the league’s top rookie and earning a spot in the all-NEC second team outfield, Brown batted .355 over a league-high 271 at-bats. He led the conference in both doubles (23) and triples (7) while accounting for a .593 slugging percentage. The Bulldogs’ starting pitching rotation will be missing two key pieces to last year’s first-place finish – NEC Pitcher of the Year Brent Almeida and the hard-throwing Eric Polvani both graduated. Neither of those two hurlers led the Bulldogs in wins though. That feat belonged toPeter Kelich (Jackson, NJ/Jackson Memorial) who posted a 9-1 record and 4.23 ERA as a rookie right-hander.
Wagner (26-31, 17-15 NEC) has been right there amongst the NEC’s elite in recent years under head coach Joe Litterio. The Seahawks have won no fewer than 25 games and finished no lower than fourth in the NEC standings during each of the past three seasons. Attempting to continue that trend, Wagner welcomes back a quartet of .300-plus hitters to its lineup. Two of the four men earned all-NEC accolades in 2010. Senior Jon Lucas (Hackettstown, NJ/Hackettstown), who also won four games as a righty pitcher, recorded 49 hits in 48 games on his way to all-NEC first team honors at the designated hitter spot. Senior second baseman Seth Boyd (Perth Amboy, NJ/Perth Amboy), a second team all-NEC honoree, batted .321, drove in 30 runs, and stole 15 bases.
Sacred Heart (31-27, 20-12 NEC) has found itself in the NEC Tournament championship round each of the past two seasons, only to settle for a runner-up showing. This year, Nick Giaquinto’s Pioneers hope to close the deal and have enough offense to reach that end. Sacred Heart welcomes back four of the seven men whose batting averages exceeded .300 last season. Junior first baseman Rob Griffith (Lake Ronkonkoma, NY/Sachem North) and sophomore shortstop John Murphy (Seymour, CT/Seymour) combined for 131 hits over 346 at-bats last season, both ranking amongst the league’s top-10 batting leaders. The right-handed hitting Griffith (.401) owned the NEC’s third-highest average, while Murphy (.358) and his left-handed bat accounted for the eighth-best. The pitching rotation lost three of its four weekend starters, but the lone returnee is coming off a fruitful freshman campaign. Righty Troy Scribner (Washington Depot, CT/Shepaug Valley) pitched well as a backend starter during the regular season and was even better in postseason, earning a spot on the NEC All-Tournament Team. He went 5-4 with a 4.50 ERA and allowed less than 1.0 hit per inning.
Mount St. Mary’s (20-31, 14-18 NEC) looks to return to the NEC Tournament for the first time since winning it all in 2008. The Mountaineers, who have seen their postseason bubble burst on the season’s final day each of the past two years, feature a strong senior class that found out what a title tastes like as freshmen. Senior outfielders Shane Eyler (Taneytown, MD/Francis Scott Key) and Kyle Kane (Boonsboro, MD/Boonsboro) were the team’s top-two hitters in terms of average last season, both exceeding .325. The former, who played through injury in 2010, was the NEC Player of the Year as a sophomore. On the hill, junior Brady Feigl (Severn, MD/Old Mill) will look to regain the form he showed as a freshman. The hard-throwing lefty was just 2-7 last season for Scott Thomson’s club.
Quinnipiac (14-39, 13-19 NEC) brings six of its nine position starters back in 2011, including a great deal of experience around the horn. Junior second baseman Chris Migani (Orange, CT/Amity) and senior shortstop Mickey Amanti (Waterford, CT/Waterford) give the long-time skipper Dan Gooley a battle-tested double-play combination that can also make noise in the batter’s box. Senior Joe Poletsky (Riverside, CT/Greenwich), the Bobcats’ lone all-NEC honoree in 2010, will man the hot corner with junior Gabe Guerino (Milford, CT/West Haven), who has logged 97 hits over his first two collegiate campaigns, returning as the everyday first baseman.
Long Island (14-42, 11-21 NEC) looks to end in 10-year postseason drought in what will be Don Maines’ sixth season at the helm. The battery of sophomore right-hander Justin Topa (Binghamton, NY/Chenango Valley) and junior catcher Tyler Jones (Stewartsville, NJ/Phillipsburg) will likely play a major role in helping the Blackbirds’ add to the 11 league wins they picked up last season. Topa went 6-6 with a 4.67 ERA, the lowest among LIU starters, as a rookie. The 6-foot-4 right tossed five complete games and struck out 66 batters over 71.1 innings. Jones is one of two LIU returnees to have hit over .300 last year (INF Drew Walsh [Staten Island, NY/Curtis] being the other).
Fairleigh Dickinson (16-38, 11-21 NEC) has turned to head coach Gary Puccio to rebuild a program whose last first-place finish came back in 1999. Senior outfielder DJ Robinson (Woodbury, NJ/Gloucester Catholic) and junior second baseman Matt Holsman (Coral Springs, FL/Stoneman Douglas) provide Puccio with a good foundation for his first season at the helm. Robinson, a 2010 all-NEC second team selection, batted .339 over 50 games and lead the team in home runs (8) and RBI (49). Meanwhile, Holsman, started all 54 of FDU’s games and hit .298 one season after being named NEC Rookie of the Year.