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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

DWC baseball team thinking NCAA bid

NASHUA – Maybe they can be saved by the bell.

The Daniel Webster College baseball team had just lost a New England Collegiate Conference game that head coach J.P. Pyne felt it had no business losing. The Eagles had not been playing up to their status of NECC preseason favorite, and as Pyne said, “When things aren’t going well, you overdo it and think you have to rip everything apart and start over.”

Then his phone rang, and it was Eagles men’s soccer coach Bill Lawler. Like the baseball team, the men’s soccer program was the prohibitive favorite in the fall after winning the conference title last season on its way to an ECAC bid. The Eagles struggled, but eventually won the NECC title on the road and made it to their first-ever NCAA tournament.

“He said ‘Hey, we put ourselves in a situation where we had to go on the road to win the tournament, and we figured it out. I have not doubt you guys can do the same thing’,” Pyne said. “That meant a lot to me.”

Now it’s the baseball team’s turn to seek its first-ever NCAA bid. It’s not as if the Eagles nine has had an awful regular season. It went 19-13 overall, but just 10-8 in the NECC and will be the third seed in the conference four-team title tourney that begins Friday in New London, Conn., at the home of top seeded Mitchell College.

As Pyne put it, “We’re sitting here talking about how we’ve had a tough season, but we’re going into our second straight conference tournament (only four teams make it) and the goal we had in front of us is still in our grasp. That’s because of the expectations.”

And because of how far the program has come. Last year the Eagles used their jackrabbit approach to steal over 150 bases and go 21-17 overall; this year they stole only 116. They had an ace, Goffstown’s Kory Kiro, go 5-1 with a 3.28 earned run average, a closer in Rich Lizotte (West Warwick, R.I.) who had six saves and fanned 21 in 16 innings, while adding to the young mix of a year ago was Keene State transfer and former Alvirne standout Korey LeLievre. All LeLievre did was drive in a program history best 48 RBIs in 32 games.

Their top four hitters in the lineup were .300 or better, including Bruce Brown’s (Lowell, Mass.) .420 average with 19 steals in 20 attempts.

Then why was a tournament berth in doubt, secured only when Hudson’s Zach Hurley tossed eight shutout innings against Newbury College late last week?

A few reasons. One, perhaps a little bit of overconfidence set in.

“We started to maybe believe we were just that good,” Pyne said. “And add to that when you’re the defending champions, everybody gets up for us. … For the first time in the history of the program, we had to deal with high expectations. I don’t think we handled it that well at times, and that comes down on me as the head coach.

“We’re a talented team, a deep team. But sometimes we weren’t as mentally ready to play as we should have been and again, that’s on me as the head coach.”

And that lack of sharpness, Pyne said, affected the Eagles defensively more than anywhere else. Daniel Webster committed 62 errors in 32 games, an average of nearly two miscues a game, lost one game in the ninth on an error after blowing a two-run lead and committed five errors in another. LeLievre, who had an unimpressive 1-6 mark on the mound, gave up 26 runs in 39 innings but only 16 were earned.

Defense, Pyne felt, was a matter of focus.

“It was frustrating, because we showed we could compete with anybody,” he said. ‘But we’re past the point of moral victories.”

The tourney will be a straight four-team, double elimination event, starting with Mitchell facing Southern Vermont at 11 and then the Eagles facing Beck College at 3 on Friday. Play resumes Saturday with the finals at 11 on Sunday.

“I’ve talked about it with the team,” Pyne said. “The regular season is over, it wasn’t the smoothly paved road we all expected to find. Let’s go out now and use it to prepare for this tournament and not as an excuse. I almost think this team is better prepared to win a tournament rather than if we had coasted to a 17-1 or 16-2 conference record.”

That’s why the Eagles will be thinking soccer on the baseball diamond.