The St. Thomas Aquinas College baseball team is in search of its fourth straight East Coast Conference Tournament title - the quest begins in a 3:00 pm start Thursday against the University of Bridgeport at Dowling.
Despite playing the first 31 games of the season away from home due to field renovations, the Spartans equalled their best regular-season win total ever with a 35-13 record, and their 16-8 conference mark earned their third top seed in six years (2012, 2013).
STAC's prolific attack has been noted on a national level, as the Spartans are currently ranked #22 in the nation in the most recent National Collegiate Baseball Writers' Association poll. They also remain a solid #3 in the NCAA's East Region, behind nationally-top 10-ranked Franklin Pierce and Southern New Hampshire.
The Match-Up - #1 STAC and #4 Bridgeport (24-20-1, 13-11) split their four game season series, with each team winning a pair at its home stadium. The most recent meeting, this past Monday, saw Bridgeport needing a win to advance to the tournament on the regular-season's final day and emerging with a 7-1 victory over St. Thomas Aquinas, earning the right to Thursday's first round rematch.
Bridgeport was actually involved in a three-way tie for the final two playoff berths, with Molloy and LIU Post finishing with identical conference marks. Via tiebreakers, Molloy took the #3 slot, while Post saw its season come to a close.
The Tournament - The ECC Baseball Tournament is a double-elimination format, with teams requiring two losses to be eliminated. Game 1 is at noon Thursday, featuring #2 Dowling against #3 Molloy in a Long Island battle. STAC-Bridgeport closes action with Game 2 Thursday, and the event resumes at 9:00 Friday with the losing team of the first two contests squaring off in an elimination game.
Friday's noon contest, Game 4, pits Thursday's winners, with the winner of that contest advancing to Saturday's final, and the loser playing again at 3:00 vs. the victor from Game 3.
STAC Facts - No strangers to close contests, the Spartans have posted an amazing 18-3 record in games decided by two runs or less. They are also 23-0 in games they are leading or tied after six innings.
Known for their hitting prowess, the Spartans were just third in conference batting average this season but they took up the slack on the hill, with a sparkling league-leading 2.96 team ERA - nearly one full run better than the closest competitor (Molloy, 3.84). Ace Matt Kostolos (7-0, 1.43 ERA) and George Navadel (12 saves) have held the fort.
What's Next - If STAC wins Thursday, they play at noon Friday against the Dowling-Molloy winner. If the Spartans lose Thursday, they will face elimination against the Dowling-Molloy loser at 9:00 am Friday.
What's At Stake - The Spartans are seeking their fourth straight Tournament Championship and with it, their fourth straight trip to the NCAA National Tournament. This season, seven bids are available in the East Region, with three going to the tourney champs from the ECC, Northeast 10, and Central Atlantic conferences. With the other four offered on an at-large bid, STAC's current #3 ranking puts the team in excellent position for an NCAA berth regardless of their outcome in the ECCs.
In 2014, STAC won its first Regional Championship, advancing to the National Elite Eight in Cary, North Carolina. Last year, they were one game away from a return south before falling in the regional final to Wilmington.
Game 1 - Thursday, May 12 - 12:00 noon - #3 Molloy vs #2 Dowling
Game 2 - Thursday, May 12 - 3:00 pm - #4 Bridgeport vs #1 St. Thomas Aquinas
Game 3 - Friday, May 13 - 9:00 am - Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 (loser eliminated)
Game 4 - Friday, May 13 - 12:00 noon - Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
Game 5 - Friday, May 13 - 3:00 pm - Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4 (loser eliminated)
Game 6 - Saturday, May 14 - 12:00 noon - Winner Game 4 vs Winner Game 5
Game 7 - Saturday, May 14 - 3:00 pm - If Necessary