WINCHESTER – The NCAA Division III baseball playoffs will look a little different this month.
Gone are the days of old, when regionals were the only rounds standing between teams and a trip to the College World Series. In that old format, six or eight teams clashed at one of eight predetermined sites for the right to contend for Division III’s national championship.
Division III has gone the way of the Division I format this season, introducing super regionals to the postseason mix for the first time. In the new format, 16 regionals – 13 four-team, double-elimination tournaments and three two-team, best-of-5 series – take place at campus sites across the nation this weekend, with the winners advancing to next weekend’s super regionals, a set of eight best-of-three series that will send the winners on to the Division III College World Series in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the end of the month.
Shenandoah, which opens postseason play in the Kean Regional in Union, New Jersey, this weekend, hopes the new format means an upper hand.
SU, the third seed in a field at Kean University that includes No. 1 Ithaca and No. 4 Westfield State, is familiar with the dynamics of a four-team tournament. The Hornets, who open regional play against Kean on Friday, survived one when they emerged atop the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament on Saturday.
The teams are different this weekend, obviously, but the idea is the same.
“We’ve been in a four-team tournament before; we know how big that first game can be,” Hornets junior outfielder Grant Thompson said on Tuesday. “Winning that first game, not having to play four more games to get back to (win the championship game) is big. We understand how it’s done. It kind of helps us.”
Shenandoah and Ithaca, a member of the Empire 8, are the only teams in the Kean Regional coming off four-team conference tournaments (the ODAC tournament, which officially features eight teams, spans two weekends, with the second round including the four winners from the first weekend).
The New Jersey Athletic Conference, of which Kean is a member, and the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference, which includes Westfield State, each uses six-team formats for their conference tournaments, though the MASCAC tournament is essentially a four-team, double-elimination tournament for the top two seeds, which received byes in the single-elimination first round.
How teams manage the new smaller regions will change, particularly in regard to pitching. Anderson said the Hornets will approach the NCAA regional round like they did the ODAC tournament’s second weekend, by designating four starting pitchers and digging deeper into their pitching staff if they need to play a fifth game.
Shenandoah – which started senior left-hander Robert Klinchock, freshman right-hander Carson Kulina, junior righty Reeves Lowry (the Hornets’ No. 2 starter, who was pitching on four days’ rest) and freshman right-hander Calvin Pastel, in that order – didn’t need a fifth starter in last weekend’s conference tournament. To follow that same formula, the Hornets will need to win their first two games of the regional on Friday and Saturday to avoid a potential fifth game.
“To say the least, those first two games are very, very important,” said Anderson, whose team will face either Ithaca or Westfield State on Saturday depending on Friday’s outcomes. “But the thing with that, all four teams know that. You’re gonna be throwing your best at one and two to try to get to that championship round. I’m a firm believer that’s probably a contributing factor for us to be able to win that last game in the (ODAC) championship. It was our fourth game and it was Randolph-Macon’s fifth game. That’s huge.”
Familiarity with the regional format is just the start for the Hornets. Shenandoah is making its sixth straight NCAA playoff appearance, meaning many members of the team are competing in a regional round for the third or fourth time in their college careers.
“I think it’s something that can help out,” senior second baseman Tristan Baker said of the Hornets’ extensive playoff experience. “We have a lot of young guys who are big contributors on our team, so making sure that they’re not scared of the moment. Even the other seniors keeping us in check. Just trying to get the most out of people when we can. But yeah, it’s definitely an advantage for us that we’ve been there. Luckily for us, we’ve been there all four years. A lot of guys on other teams just want to experience it once but we’ve been fortunate enough to be there four times.”
The smaller regional fields this season also mean fewer games needed to get beyond the NCAA regional round, something the Hornets haven’t done since making back-to-back World Series appearances in 2009 and 2010. Shenandoah picked up at least three wins in the regional round in 2016 and 2017 (SU won five in 2017 and fell in the regional championship game) and replicating that feat this weekend would mean moving on to a super regional.
“I think it actually benefits us,” senior first baseman Luke Nussman said of the new playoff format. “... We’re used to it. We know that format. We know what we need to do to win a tournament that way, so I think we’re very comfortable in that format.”