Hawks gearing up for run at NEC tourney

first_img BY DOUG McKENZIE Staff Writer BY DOUG McKENZIEStaff Writer Above, Monmouth University’s Nick Meyers slides safely around the tag at home plate during the first game of a recent doubleheader against Central Connecticut State in West Long Branch. Below, freshman pitcher Ryan Buch, one of the pleasant surprises on this year’s Hawks’ staff, stares in at the plate as he takes the sign from his catcher. With just a couple of weeks left in the regular season, the Monmouth University men’s baseball team finds itself in position to qualify for the Northeast Conference Tournament. Despite losing three of four games over the weekend to Quinnipiac, the Hawks remain in fourth place in the conference with a 11-8 mark in NEC play. That puts them just a half game ahead of Central Connecticut State, and one game back of defending NEC champion Sacred Heart (12-7). With just eight conference games left in the regular season, the Hawks need to finish strong to assure themselves of a spot in the four-team NEC Tournament. “It gets a little dicey, but we control our own destiny,” said head coach Dean Ehehalt. “We don’t need to worry about other teams knocking each other off. We just need to take care of business.” PHOTOS BY ERIC SUCAR staff The Hawks will take on fourth-place Sacred Heart this week (May 10-12) and Wagner (May 17-20) at home to end the regular season. With the NEC Tournament set to begin May 24 in New Britain, Conn., head coach Dean Ehehalt’s squad is concentrating on the games ahead rather than worrying about the tournament. “We need to get there first,” he said. “We’ve set some high standards for ourselves in the past, and I think in 2006 we kind of put the cart before the horse. We had a very talented team and just didn’t play well down the stretch. “This year we’re very focused on playing good baseball, and getting team contributions. I’m very pleased with the make-up of this team.” Over the weekend, the Hawks struggled a bit against Quinnipiac, losing the opener, 9-8, on Friday, before splitting a doubleheader on Saturday, taking game one, 6-3, before losing in the nightcap, 9-2. The Bobcats then won the series on Sunday with a 6-0 win. Prior to the weekend’s games, Ehehalt said he was pleased with the way his team is competing, as the Hawks have been able to strike the balance between a strong offense and quality pitching of late. “We’re playing well. I think we’re feeling good about the way we’re getting contributions from throughout the line-up,” the coach said. Most of Monmouth’s success this year has been led by its offense, as the Hawks are the top hitting team in the conference, with a team batting average of .312. “We came out of the blocks hitting well down south, and I think it’s just carried over for us,” Ehehalt said. “All of the stats are a little skewed, because we’ve been getting hits from everyone. It’s not like it’s been one guy who’s been red hot throughout.” The attack is led by junior first baseman Andy Meyers (of Stafford), who is hitting .40 (66-for-165) with seven home runs and 50 RBIs, to go along with 27 walks. “Andy is just having a phenomenal year,” Ehehalt said. Meyers is second in the conference in hitting, while teammate Kyle Messineo (of Cedar Grove) and Kyle Higgins (Green Brook) are also in the top 10. Messineo, a senior outfielder, is hitting ..353 (53-for-150)), while Higgins is batting at a ..362 clip (67-for-185). In fact, the Hawks’ three offensive leaders are among the league leaders in several offensive categories, with Higgins having the most hits (67, followed by Meyers at 66), Messineo scoring the most runs (54, followed by Higgins’ 48), and Meyers trailing only Mount St. Mary’s Eric Smith in RBIs, 52 to 50. Meyers is also the league leader in total bases with 99 and on-base percentage (.490), while Messineo is the NEC’s top base stealer, going 33-for-36 thus far, the league leader in walks with 30 and is second in on-base percentage (.482) and in the top 10 in slugging percentage (.573). “Messineo has surprised a little bit with his power numbers,” Ehehalt said. “He’s really more of a speed guy, but he changed his swing around a little bit and now he has seven home runs. Monmouth has also gotten solid offensive production out of sophomore Rick Niederhaus, of Hunterdon Central, who is hitting .321 (51-for-159) with three home runs and 29 RBIs, junior Shawn Teters, of Springdale, Ark., who is hitting .316 (42-for-133) and sophomore Chris Collazo, of Wall, who is hitting .307 (51-for-166). Ehehalt also credits junior catcher John Dennis (of Union) for anchoring the bottom of the line-up. “John hits down near the bottom of the line-up, and is a good indicator of the balance of the line-up. He’s had several big hits for us this year. He’s a clutch player.” The Hawks’ pitching is led by Brad Brach, of Freehold, who was named the Akadema/Northeast Conference Pitcher of the Week, for a second time in three weeks, last Monday. Brach, who has thrown four straight complete-game victories, including a nine-inning no-hitter, fell to 6-2 after taking the loss on Friday. That loss came after the junior right-hander tossed a two-hit shutout in a 2-0 win over Central Connecticut State in a game in which Brach struck out seven and walked just one, while helping the Hawks win three-of-four from the Blue Devils. Brach, who now ranks third in all-time victories at Monmouth with 18, ranks second in the conference in victories, fifth in strikeouts (57) and near the top in ERA (3.59). He also ranks third in MU history with 177 career strikeouts. “He’s right where we thought he’d be,” Ehehalt said of Brach. “We’re pretty pleased to see that he’s getting better and better as the year goes on. He loves a challenge, and refuses to lose. “The thing is, if you come watch him, he’s not one of those guys who wows you. He doesn’t throw overly hard, he just works meticulously to get batters out. He gets guys to hit his pitches.” Also throwing well for Monmouth is freshman Ryan Buch, from Yardley, Pa., who is 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 55 innings of work. Freshman Brett Brach has looked good at times for the Hawks, while junior Justin Esposito, a Middletown North graduate, has looked sharp, pitching to a 3-1 mark, with a 2.60 ERA in 17.1 innings of work. “The freshmen are really throwing well,” Ehehalt said, also crediting the work of freshmen Matt Frazier and Kyle Breese. “We had some injuries to some of our front-line guys early on, and these guys really stepped up for us.” As a team, the Hawks are pitching to a 4.90 ERA, which ranks fourth in the conference. If Monmouth is to make a run at the NEC championship, they will need some strong relief work down the stretch from a number of hurlers, including Frazier (of Whippany), Breese (of South Brunswick), senior Matt Coulson (of Freehold Boro and Brookdale) and freshman Nick Vallilo (of Old Tappan), among others. “Coulson has been solid,” Ehehalt said. “He really gives us some strong options because he’s so stable.” With a potent offensive attack and what Ehehalt believes to be a deep, capable pitching staff, Monmouth is poised to put to bed the memories of last year’s late-season collapse. Following a game later today against Rutgers University, the Hawks have eight regular season games left to prove they belong in the NEC Tournament. Once again, Monmouth is as talented as any team in the NEC. This year, however, they hope that talent leads them to a conference championship. Hawks holding on to final spot by half a game last_img

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