By Justin Zackal
Washington & Jefferson is playing at home so it’s fitting that the Presidents feel like they are playing with house money when they host the NCAA Division III Baseball Mideast Regional May 13-17. When hosting conference tournaments, which W&J has done eight of the last 11 years at Ross Memorial Park, the host is typically the top-seeded team and feels pressure to win it all.
Not for the regional.
W&J was picked to host its first-ever regional before the season, regardless if it qualified. By winning the Presidents’ Athletic Conference (PAC) tournament last weekend at Thomas More as the fourth-seeded team, the Presidents enter the Mideast Regional as the last of six-seeded teams.
“We want to enjoy it,” said 13th-year W&J head coach Jeff Mountain, who in addition to his five PAC titles has led the Presidents to their fifth NCAA regional appearance. “This is not a situation where it’s unfamiliar. Experience helps, but last year’s team was expected to do things. This year it’s like you’re playing with house money and you can just let it fly.”
Last year’s team failed to live up to the expectations of the 2013 team that went 33-13 and finished third in the Mideast Regional, the team’s highest finish. W&J didn’t qualify for regionals last year after losing in the PAC finals as the top-seeded tournament host.
“Rarely are we the hunter; usually we are the hunted,” Mountain said. “We’ll approach it as if we’re the underdog and use some of that free-and-easy (mentality) where, ‘Hey, the pressure’s on the top teams.’”
The winner of the double-elimination, six-team Mideast Regional will advance to the eight-team national championship May 22-27 in Appleton, Wisc. Here’s a glance at each of the Mideast Regional teams:
#1 FROSTBURG STATE (37-6). The Capital Athletic Conference champions are ranked No. 2 in the NCBWA/d3baseball.com poll with the most wins in school history. The Bobcats are the top-ranked team in the South Region, but because of NCAA travel restrictions, Frostburg State gets to leave its region for a closer regional tournament site. The Bobcats will open against W&J on Wednesday at noon. This will be a rematch of an April 28 game that Frostburg State won 5-0. However, Frostburg State had already won its conference title and W&J was saving pitchers in the midst of its league play. Good luck if you can stack pitchers against Frostburg though. W&J already saw Bobcat pitcher Greg Schneider (1.84 ERA, 7-1), who struck out 10 with 1 walk and 5 hits in 8 innings, but Frostburg also has Clayton Freimuth (1.66, 8-2) and Bennett Schlitz (1.38, 9-0). Schneider and Freimuth have combined to strike out more than 1.2 batters per inning.
#2 ADRIAN (33-10). The Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association champions are making their eighth straight regional appearance. The Bulldogs have won eight of their last nine games. Sophomore shortstop Ryan Dorow is batting .404 with 10 homers this season.
#3 HEIDELBERG (31-12). The ninth-ranked team in the d3baseball.com poll didn’t win its conference title, losing to Marietta in the Ohio Athletic Conference tournament. The Student Princes instead received the at-large bid and are led by an offense that scores 8.7 runs per game, good for ninth in the nation, behind junior OF Derek Hug and his batting average/on-base/slugging slash line of .387/.467/.714.
#4 LA ROCHE (30-11). The back-to-back champions out of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference have a team slash line of .333/.418/.499 that each ranks in the top 18 in the nation. The Redhawks are 3-1 against teams in the Mideast field, having swept Frostburg State, 2-1 and 8-4 on May 2, and split with W&J, losing 4-1 and winning 7-5 on April 26.
#5 SHENANDOAH (27-8-1). The Hornets are ranked 10th in d3baseball.com poll, but are unranked in their region, which usually points to a weaker schedule. Nonetheless, Shenandoah won its first-ever Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship thanks to tournament MVP Darrell Thompson tossing a complete game in the finals, but three other Hornet starters have lower ERAs than Thompson’s 2.38. In fact, Shenandoah’s 2.66 team ERA is sixth in the nation, while Frostburg (2.73) and Adrian (2.78) are seventh and eighth.
#6 WASHINGTON & JEFFERSON (28-15). Sophomore pitcher Riley Groves (9-1, 1.59 ERA) will get the ball for the Presidents in the first game against Frostburg State, but it was senior Jared Baird (6-3, 2.71 ERA) who got W&J through the PAC tournament. Baird won two games in two days with a combined line of 16 innings, 17 hits, 6 runs (2 earned), 1 walk and 9 strikeouts. Mountain acknowledged that it’s not ideal to ask so much from a pitcher, but Baird is a guy who demanded the ball.
“He has a big heart and a lot of toughness,” Mountain said. “What he did was something I’ve never seen in playoff baseball.”
Sophomore OF Nick Vento (.381) is W&J’s top hitter, but freshman OF Gannon Rooney is a .298 hitter who is coming off a 5-for-6 game with a homer in the PAC finals, a 17-5 win over Thomas More.