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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    Mitchell begins NCAA Div. III tourney at home against Tufts

    Mitchell College shortstop Lelo Martinez, left, fires to first base as second baseman Angel Galindez looks on during the NECC title game on May 7 in New London. The Mariners host Tufts on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Division III regional tournament in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    New London — Reality hit Dougie DelaCruz like a fastball to the midsection during graduation last week.

    His college baseball playing career will end soon.

    “I’m just trying to enjoy every second I have out here on the field,” DelaCruz said on Wednesday at practice. “At graduation last week, that’s when it hit — Oh man, I’m not coming back here next week so I might as well try to play as many games as I can in this uniform.”

    His veteran Mitchell College teammates have embraced a similar mindset heading into this weekend’s NCAA Division III regional tournament at Alumni Field.

    A Montville High School graduate, DelaCruz is one of two fifth year seniors — Ryan Solimine is the other — on an experienced roster.

    Lelo Martinez (New London), Kenny Heon (Montville), Kevin Vining, Matt Falk, Eddie Kaftan (Old Lyme), Cam Varney, Derek Dascoulias and Tyler Daly are listed as seniors.

    They’ve all experienced the joy of winning multiple New England Collegiate Conference championships and qualifying for the NCAA Division III tournament, but also suffered heartbreak of being eliminated during May Madness.

    Their goal is to make school history by becoming the first Mitchell program to win a Divison III regional. In another first, the Mariners are serving as the host site for the double-elimination event.

    Two games will be played on Friday, as Wheaton (37-6) meets Husson (24-17) at 10 a.m., with Mitchell (31-8) battling Tufts (31-9) at 1:30 p.m. Action continues Saturday and culminates Sunday with the championship round.

    “We’ve only won two games in the regionals while I was here,” DelaCruz said. “That lit a fire under us a little bit. Last year, we didn’t play our best. We have a chip on our shoulder. The younger guys understand that, too, because we’ve all been talking to them about it.”

    Solimine (7-2, 2.21 earned run average), the ace of the pitching staff, and DelaCruz, the team’s top hitter (.446) and run producer (57 RBI), took the first semester off and returned for a fifth season for one more chance at making a deep postseason run.

    Now they have an opportunity to do just that.

    “We’ve been talking about it all year,“ DelaCruz said. “At the beginning of the year, we knew we had a strong team. Honestly, it surprised me a little bit with our offense. We were like, this could be the team for us.

    “All the seniors talk about that all day, every day.”

    For Solimine, he’s excited about making his first start in the NCAA tournament.

    A shoulder injury limited him to just seven appearances and 30 innings over the past two seasons. He worked a construction job back home in Danbury last fall before coming back for the second semester.

    “I didn’t want to be done and just give up on my dream, so I came back,” Solimine said. I wanted to be with (coach) Travis (Beausoleil) and wanted to be with the team.”

    Since Solimine and DelaCruz arrived at Mitchell in the fall of 2018, the Mariners have won 127 games. The Mariners have had respectable showings in two previous NCAA trips.

    In 2021, they dropped a 7-1 decision to Keystone in their opener, rebounded to beat Merchant Marine 4-2, before being eliminated by Cortland, 3-0.

    Last year, they lost to Rowan, 7-1, beat Lebanon Valley, 10-8, and were sent home by Washington & Jefferson, 13-6.

    “We’ve played really good baseball in the regionals and picked up a bunch of regional wins,” said Beausoleil, who is leaving after the tournament to become athletic director at UConn Avery Point. “This year, we’re just going to pick up a few more. It’s about playing our game and really seizing on some big moments.”

    The Mariners are battle-tested with 15 players on the roster with previous NCAA tournament game experience. They also have one of the top offensive teams in Division III, owning a .330 team batting average and ranking sixth in runs per game at 10.4.

    “I think we can go very far with this group of guys and coaching staff,” Solimine said. “We have a very good chance.”

    They’ve never had the comforts of home and a supportive crowd on their side in a regional like they will this weekend.

    “Over the years, it’s just been an uphill battle with some of the places that we’ve been sent and some of lodging that we’ve had to deal with and some of the issues,” Beausoleil said. “Being at our field and at our place, it doesn’t get better than that.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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