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  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^DWC Eagle catcher, Chris McKenzie blocks home plate as he's about to tag out Mitchell College base runner, Justin Szela for the out in a recent game in Nashua.
  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^Daniel Webster College shortstop Rich Lizotte puts the tag on Mitchell College base runner John McGarry at second base for the out in a recent game at the Eagles home field.
  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^DWC hurler, Zack Hurley of Hudson fires a pitch to a Mitchell College batter in a recent game at the Nashua college.
  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^RIvier's Taylor Cournoyer gets the throw to tag out Stephanie Valerio of Saint Joseph College of Connecticut in a recent game in Nashua.
Friday, May 7, 2010

Tourney time for Riv softball, DWC baseball

Tom King

Ah, it’s May, and graduation is in the air at most colleges.

Locally, so is something else – the postseason for two local collegiate teams, one of which, the Rivier College softball team, already has a conference crown and is awaiting its pairing in the NCAA Division III tournament that starts next week.

It’s too bad the thieving Daniel Webster College team, which owns one of the nation’s best stolen base percentages, can’t get to the NCAAs. But it can win its conference tourney, as the top-seeded Eagles host the New England Collegiate Conference tourney beginning this morning at 11. The NECC, only in its second year, doesn’t have an automatic berth.

But that’s OK. It took a couple of years, but head coach J.P. Pyne, doing it his way, has turned around what was a struggling program, setting a school mark in wins. Success stories normally with Riv and DWC have focused on sports like men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, and maybe a little soccer sprinkled in. The spring has often been an afterthought.

But not now. Riv will head to the East Regional at Wellesley (Mass.) University next Thursday, taking its 32-2 record and national ranking of 23rd with it, its second NCAA appearance in three years. Meanwhile, if the Eagles, with an 18-15 record, go on to win their conference crown, they could grab an ECAC tourney berth. They already won the regular season conference crown and face Southern Vermont today as the top seed.

In the big picture, what does this all mean? These programs had never hit this level before, that’s for sure.

“It says you can win,” Pyne said the other day. “You can do it, if you don’t dwell on the obstacles you face that our level gives you. If you do, you won’t get anywhere, you’ll skip a step. You can’t skip any steps.

“But if you focus on moving your program forward in the direction you want it to go, you can do it. You’ll have to take your lumps – but you’ll get there.”

That’s exactly what Pyne did, winning only a handful of games over two years before his Eagles played this year like jackrabbits, stealing an amazing 136 out of 168 attempts.

Across town, all Riv did was go through a hellacious gauntlet in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference tourney it hosted, winning one-run game after one-run game. The Raiders boast one of the best female athletes in their history, pitcher Monica White, arguably one of New England’s best.

But NCAA tourneys? National rankings? Things like that only belonged on a regular basis to Raiders coach Craig Kolek and his men’s/women’s volleyball teams. Yet the softball team has one of the best coaches around in Kelly O’Connell, where “can’t” is not a word in her vocabulary.

“I think it’s great,” O’Connell said. “We have so much support on campus. Anytime you can get recognition for the college, it’s a good thing. Professors are pointing out our players in class. They’re even excited.”

All has been quiet in RaiderLand lately, simply because they won the GNAC a couple of weeks ago and have had a long break that’s come at a perfect time when final exams are ongoing.

Riv played Tufts in a doubleheader last week and O’Connell has given them this week completely off. No organized practices unless they want to work out on their own.

It’s a freshman dominated team, so how do they regain their edge after such a long layoff?

“I think the seniors take care of that,” O’Connell said. “The players love the seniors. They follow their leadership. … It’s no problem. Because our season is so compact, it’s good for us to get a break.”

Riv survived that top-seeded pressure in its conference tourney. Pyne, who also has to contend with Mitchell College and Becker College, prepared his Eagles for what’s ahead.

“I think it’s big for our program,” he said. “I told the team the other day the conference regular season championship highlights the team that’s performed the best. But people only remember the conference tournament champion. It’s important we come out and play well no matter how it goes … if we get beat, we’ve got nothing to hang our head about. But if we win it, we can force that momentum into next year.”

That’s how programs are built, upon that first little nugget of success. Heck, Pyne never imagined being the top seed and tourney host, and thus never made a move to book what is now a filled Holman Stadium, so the three-day, double eliminaton event will be at the school’s more-than suitable Harvey Woods Field.

Keene’s Darrik Marstaller has been the key with a .371 average, two homers and tied for a team high 29 RBIs. Other locals are here, such as Hollis’ Tyler Calkin, Milford’s Elliot Kilgore and Hudson’s Zach Hurley. Pyne went heavy with New Hampshire players, 13 being on the roster.

“There’s enough talent in Southern New Hampshire,” he said. “If you can keep ’em home, you can help your program. But you also have to be able to work outside your region, your comfort zone.”

Riv has a couple of locals – Hudson’s Ashley Metivier and Nashua’s Brenna Campbell. The focus on the week, really, will be on White closing out a brilliant career. She certainly saved her best for last – 26-3, 0.87 ERA, 292 strikeouts in 1841⁄3 innings. O’Connell feels if the team can put together an offense to match her arm, it has a chance of making some noise.

It’s been a great year for the two local colleges. The Eagles had two conference tourney championships in the fall (women’s volleyball and men’s soccer) and two regular season titles (women’s hoop, men’s volleyball) in the winter.

The Raiders won a men’s volleyball crown in the early spring. New sports have been added at both, and now their programs are bigger than ever. And now it comes to a fun conclusion in the next 10 days.

“As a player or a coach, I’ve been involved in two NCAA tournaments and four NAIA tourneys,” Pyne said. “I know what it’s like, it’s never easy.”

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” O’Connell said. “That’s how we’ll treat it.”

And the life of a Nashua college athlete these days is pretty darn good.

Tom King can be reached at 594-6468 or