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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    Mitchell hopes experience helps in NCAA Div. III baseball tournament

    In this May 7, 2023, file photo, Mitchell’s Chris Gibbs throws a pitch during the NECC tournament final in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    In this May 7, 2023, file photo, Mitchell’s Owen Robbins dives to home plate during the NECC tournament final in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mitchell's shortstop Angel Galindez (5) makes a throw to first base during the Great Northeast Athletic Conference Championship against Johnson & Wales Friday, May 10, 2024, at Mitchell College in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London – Music blared from the speakers at Alumni Field on a recent warm spring day as the Mitchell College baseball team took batting practice.

    The Mariners soaked in the sunshine and enjoyed their bonus time together earned by qualifying for a program-record fourth straight NCAA Division III tournament, ninth overall.

    Starting on Friday, they’ll try to extend their joy ride, facing host Babson College (30-11) at 1:30 p.m. at Govoni Field in Babson Park, Mass. The four team double elimination regional will run through Sunday.

    Mitchell will be playing in its 24th regional game since making its Division III postseason debut in 2011.

    “It’s crazy to think about,” senior Owen Robbins said about the program’s tournament resume, “but we’re also blessed for that opportunity. We’ve always held our own and we’re going to try to do that again this year.”

    Robbins, an outfielder from East Lyme, is one of eight players on the roster with previous NCAA tournament experience. Junior Chris Gibbs (9-2, 3.30 earned run average) will be making his third postseason start on Friday. Robbins (10 games), senior Angel Galindez (seven games) and senior Robbie DelaCruz (seven games) have seen the most action while senior pitcher Cam Varney has made three starts.

    Those veteran, battle-tested Mariners know how to deal with the pressure that comes with postseason play.

    As a team, they’ll keep the same mindset that has worked for them all season.

    “The ability to feel free and be able to do whatever we do every day is something we talk about every day at practice,” Varney said. “We don’t look at it like we’re going into a regional. We look at it like we’re just going to go play baseball like we’ve been doing all year.”

    Senior Cole Lalli also was on last year’s team, which came agonizingly close to winning an NCAA regional at home before being eliminated after losing two games in the championship round. But he sat out due to an illness.

    Lalli, who’s in his second season at Mitchell after transferring from Eastern Connecticut State University, watched the Mariners play from behind the fence near the team dugout. He’ll be making his Mitchell postseason debut on Friday.

    “It was a little disappointing but I was glad that I got to see my buddies play,” said Lalli, who leads the team in batting (.393) and RBI (52). “Unfortunately, regionals didn’t go the way we planned last year. … Hopefully, it’s a different story this year.”

    No matter the outcome this weekend, the Mitchell baseball program is in a great place.

    The Mariners are in the midst of their most successful stretch in the program’s history. They’ve won at least 30 games in three straight seasons for the first time and gone 122-43 over the last four seasons.

    They’ve been competitive in their previous eight NCAA trips, going 7-16 overall, including 4-6 in their last three appearances. They’ve won at least one game in each of their last five postseasons.

    They continued their successful run this season despite losing the heart of their lineup and pitching rotation while also undergoing a coaching change, capturing the Great Northeast Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles in their inaugural season in the league. They’re 32-11 overall.

    First-year coach Shawn Gilblair earned GNAC coach of the year honors.

    “As far as our pitching staff, you’re looking at roughly two guys that had meaningful innings last year,” Gilblair said. “But, here we are beyond game 40 and the guys that we’re going with have gotten a ton of experience and we’ve faced a ton of adversity.

    “Getting through the GNAC has helped us grow. … We’ve played some regional caliber teams, and I think that’s important for us.”

    Lalli and junior Jack Hayes earned spots on the All-GNAC first team while Varney, Gibbs, senior Michael Gajda and freshman Chas Terni Jr. of Montville made the second team. Michael Ficocelli was named the conference’s rookie of the year and landed on the third team along with sophomore teammate Adam Vartanian. Terni and Ficocelli received all-rookie team honors.

    The Mariners feel good about their chances this weekend. UMass Dartmouth (24-18-1) and No. 9 Salisbury (28-9) also are in the Babson regional field.

    Mitchell went 3-3 against NCAA tournament qualifying teams during the regular season.

    “We’re feeling ready for the tournament,” Gibbs said. “We’re going into it with a strong team.” … We have a chip on our shoulder. Not a lot of people give Mitchell the respect that we deserve, especially with what we’ve done in past years. So we’re definitely going in with a chip on our shoulders. We want to prove everyone wrong.”


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