Christopher Newport's baseball record isn't as gaudy as the program is accustomed to, but the Captains enter postseason confident that they can win the Capital Athletic Conference tournament.
"I think we're right where we need to be, going into the tournament," head coach John Harvell said. "Our starting pitching in conference play has been very good all year, and we have a very good offensive team. We've beaten the other top teams, so there won't be any surprises."
CNU (20-13, 11-5 CAC) finished in a three-way tie for second and is the No. 3 seed in the tournament, which begins Wednesday. The Captains host fourth-seeded Frostburg State at 3 p.m. at Captains Field in one of three first-round games at the higher seeds.
CNU must win the tournament to make the NCAA playoffs. The Captains appeared in the NCAA field four of the past six years — seven times total under Harvell, with three World Series appearances. They just missed the field last season, and their 20 wins are the program's fewest since 2006.
But in the final eight days of the regular season, CNU split doubleheaders against the other three top teams: Frostburg State, No. 2 seed Salisbury and York (Pa.).
Shortstop Billy Steel leads CNU in hitting (.421), home runs (10), hits (56) and RBI (37). First baseman Curtis Pittman (.389) has hit well since being inserted into the everyday lineup. Right fielder Tommy Vitaletti (.385) is second on the team in hits (47), runs (32) and total bases (80). Designated hitter Justin Weaver (.352) is third in hits (44) and RBI (24).
CNU's starting pitching has been excellent. Nick Santalucia (6-0, 0.92 ERA) has the best earned-run average in the conference among starters. Bryan Bierlein (5-3, 1.16) threw five complete games in nine starts, but the Captains scored just two runs behind him and four runs total in his three losses. Jacob Vaughan is 3-1 with a 3.29 ERA.
Santalucia and Vaughan, in particular, emerged after an early-season pitching shuffle. The Captains graduated closer Ryan Fleischmann, and then Adam Emerson and 2013 USA South Rookie Pitcher of the Year Brandon Taylor were shelved for the season with injuries. Those two combined for nine wins, 89 innings and 100 strikeouts last season.
CNU assistant coach John Cole groomed and juggled a young pitching staff that gained traction as the season progressed. The Captains' pitching caught up to an offense that has scored at least seven runs in nine of 12 games heading into the tournament.
"There's no clear-cut favorite, by any means," Harvell said. "Everybody has a couple of good arms and several guys who can swing the bat. I think it's going to come down to who can put four good days together."
Meanwhile, CNU's softball team hosts the CAC tournament, which runs Thursday through Saturday at Captains Park. The Captains (32-6, 11-1) tied Salisbury for the regular-season title and won a coin flip that determined which school hosts the event.
The Sea Gulls (30-1) are ranked No. 1 in the nation in the latest Division III poll, and their only loss this season was to CNU in the second game of a doubleheader March 22.
The Captains are 15-1 in April to notch their eighth consecutive 30-win season. They are 14th in the latest Division III poll and are at close to full strength after Sabrina Hill returned to the lineup following a knee injury.
Hill, a two-time USA South Player of the Year, missed six games following a freak knee strain during pregame introductions April 5. The junior returned to the lineup last weekend for a pair of doubleheaders, going 10-for-11 with 13 runs batted in as the designated hitter, rather than playing her usual spot at first base.
Hill is batting .433 with a team-high 12 home runs and 36 RBI. Ten players in the regular rotation are hitting at least .348, and the Captains averaged 10 runs per game this month.
CNU opens tournament play at 2 p.m. Thursday against the Mary Washington-York winner. If form holds, the Captains will face top-ranked Salisbury 10 a.m. Friday. CNU and Salisbury are all but assured NCAA berths regardless of who wins the tournament.
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