Vandy making waves in heady SEC
Also: Perfect lacrosse seasons on line; golf team's inspiration
The Vanderbilt baseball team has shown its dominance weekend after weekend playing in one of the toughest conferences in the nation. But this weekend, the Commodores will face a tough test as they head to No. 9 South Carolina for a three-game Southeastern Conference series that most definitely will have implications on national seeding in the NCAA tournament.
The Commodores (39-6), who jumped to No. 1 in two national polls this week and have won 20 of their past 22 games, are on pace to be the most successful SEC team in years. Vanderbilt’s 19-2 conference record is the best 21-game mark in league history, and gives them a nice six-game cushion in the SEC East standings, plus an iron-clad case to be named one of eight national seeds. And, Vanderbilt has won 11 consecutive series.
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If the Commodores keep on their winning track, they could match or better the mark for the best league record since the SEC expanded to a 30-game schedule in 1993. It just so happens South Carolina’s 2000 team owns the record (25-5). Vanderbilt also has a chance to become the first team in SEC history to win all 10 league series in a season. Even South Carolina's 2000 squad did not accomplish that feat.
The Commodores are solid in practically every aspect of the game. They rank 12th nationally in batting average (.314), scoring (7.4) and ERA (2.58), are 15th with 8.3 strikeouts per game and boast a .978 fielding percentage which is good for 16th in the nation. Junior second baseman Tony Kemp leads the ‘Dores with a .399 batting average, and is one shy of matching the SEC career triple record. Sophomore right-hander Tyler Beede, Vanderbilt's Saturday starter, tops the nation with 11 wins in 11 starts and owns a 1.63 ERA.
While it may be difficult to catch the Commodores for first place in the SEC East standings during the last three weeks of the regular season, South Carolina (33-12) is coming off a very successful series at then-No. 2 LSU, the SEC West leader. South Carolina snapped LSU’s 20-game home winning streak this past weekend and posted a 2.08 ERA against the Tigers, allowing just seven runs in three games. Offensively, South Carolina paces the SEC with 40 home runs, including 12 by senior first baseman LB Dantzler.
South Carolina is 23-4 at home this season with three of those losses coming to Arkansas in mid-March. The Gamecocks have not lost at home since the sweep. History also is on the Gamecocks’ side. South Carolina has won the past four series, including a sweep in 2009, and defeated the Commodores in two of three games in 2011 when Vanderbilt also held a No. 1 ranking.
If the Gamecocks can keep the momentum going from the LSU weekend and claim a series victory against the Commodores, their stock is sure to rise in the national picture and give them a shot a national seed in the postseason. All three games will be televised: 7 p.m. ET Friday and noon ET Saturday will be broadcast on SportSouth; 1 p.m. ET Sunday will be carried on CSS. Saturday and Sunday’s games also can be seen on ESPN3.com.
• After completing its second perfect regular season in three years, the No. 1 Trinity (Conn.) women’s lacrosse team will host the remaining rounds of the New England Small College Athletic Conference Women’s Lacrosse Championship for the fourth consecutive year. The defending NCAA champions are 15-0 on the season, and have won 23 consecutive games dating to last season. Trinity will face Hamilton in the NESCAC semifinals at noon ET Saturday. Third-ranked Middlebury will meet Colby in the second semifinal, and if both the Bantams and the Panthers advance, the two squads will meet in a rematch of Middlebury’s lone loss of the season. Trinity defeated the Panthers 10-9 on April 13.
• The top-ranked Mercyhurst men’s lacrosse squad completed its second consecutive undefeated regular season with a 12-9 victory against No. 6 Seton Hill, and will now host the inaugural Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament beginning Friday. The Lakers play host to Wheeling Jesuit on Friday, while Seton Hill and Lake Erie square off in the other semifinal. Mercyhurst is holding foes to just 7.07 goals per game, which ranks fifth nationally in Division II, and is fresh off holding DII’s top-scoring team -- Seton Hill -- to nine goals last weekend.
• The Loyola-Chicago men’s volleyball team will be competing in its first NCAA championship after claiming the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association title last weekend. The Ramblers will face UC Irvine in national semifinals at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion at 9 p.m. ET Thursday. BYU and Penn State will follow in the second semifinal, and both matches will be streamed live on NCAA.com. Loyola is paced by 2013 MIVA Player of the Year Joe Smalzer, who enters the weekend as the national leader in service aces. Smalzer also ranks sixth with 3.81 kills per set, and third with 4.80 points per set.
"UC Irvine has established itself as one of the best programs in the country and have had another great season this year," Loyola head coach Shane Davis said. "Our team has really come together over the last two months and is playing at a high level right now and is looking forward to the challenge."
• A 17-day layoff due to multiple April snowstorms has not slowed the No. 2 St. Thomas (Minn.) baseball team one bit. The Tommies finally resumed play April 25, and have been flawless in eight games played since the hiatus and are riding a 16-game winning streak into the weekend. St. Thomas is, however, desperately trying to make up for lost time. The Tommies are in the midst of a seven-day stretch where they will play 10 games -- all against Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foes. St. Thomas is on an offensive tear, batting .334 as a team, and producing 0.67 home runs per game -- ninth-best in Division III baseball. The Tommies begin the weekend with a doubleheader at Carleton on Friday.
• The Gulf South Conference baseball tournament gets under way on Thursday in Chattanooga, Tenn., and with three nationally ranked squads in the field -- No. 1 Delta State, No. 14 West Florida and No. 21 Alabama-Huntsville -- the weekend is sure to be ultra-competitive. But UWF’s pitching staff might be the key to the Argonauts taking home their first trophy since 2007. The Argos led the GSC and rank 10th nationally with a 2.74 ERA, and boast a trio of pitchers on the All-GSC team, including pitcher of the year Jake Stephens. The right-hander has not given up a run in his past four starts and owns a consecutive scoreless-innings streak of 26 entering the tournament. Stephens ranks 10th in Division II with a 1.38 ERA, and has compiled a 6-1 record in eight starts this year. Third-seeded UWF faces sixth-seeded West Alabama on Thursday.
• On the merits of the program’s first Lone Star Conference regular-season title, the Texas Woman’s University softball team jumped up to No. 6 in the latest Division II poll -- the Pioneers’ highest ranking of the season. TWU will put the ranking on the line at the LSC championship tournament in Canyon, Texas, beginning Friday as the No. 1 seed as the Pioneers seek their first LSC tournament title. The Pioneers will face Cameron in their opening contest. TWU garnered several LSC postseason awards for a successful season, including player of the year honors for junior Katie Hines. Hines leads the nation in home runs (23) and is fourth nationally in RBI with 74 -- both school records.
• The Western Kentucky softball team is looking to secure its first Sun Belt Conference regular-season title this weekend when the Lady Toppers play host to Middle Tennessee for a doubleheader on Saturday. If Western Kentucky wins both games, the Lady Toppers will become just the third program in league history to earn the title. Louisiana-Lafayette has won every Sun Belt championship since 2001 with the exception of '07 when Florida Atlantic earned the crown. South Alabama is a half-game behind WKU in the standings, and has a chance to tie the Lady Toppers if one of WKU’s games is cancelled due to inclement weather. Last week, WKU shut out No. 11 Missouri and swept Florida International, garnering votes in the NFCA Division I Top 25 for the first time since 2008. The Lady Toppers have won 11 consecutive Sun Belt contests.
• The UMass-Lowell men’s golf team suffered a huge loss during the summer when Riverhawks head coach Gary Mucica passed away on July 2 after a short three-week battle with cancer. Mucica’s passing has certainly motivated the group this year as the Riverhawks are having arguably their best since season the program was restored to varsity status in 2004.
This season, former assistant coach Jim Mahoney took the reins with Mucina’s brother, Bill Mucina, as an assistant. The team placed second in the Northeast-10 Conference championship and won the co-championship of the New England Intercollegiate Golf Association tournament last fall, and this week, the team earned their second consecutive berth to the NCAA Division II East Regional. UMass-Lowell has finished in the top five in four of its five spring tournaments, and is looking for a top-three finish in order to advance to nationals.
“The goal is still to qualify for the national tournament,” Mahoney said. “Things are clicking on all cylinders. This team is very capable of making the national tournament. We have a very good team and they have played well. We could've played better this spring, but we had some key injuries. But I think making fifth in the East is pretty commendable.”
The NCAA Division II Golf Tournament East Regional will be played Monday through Wednesday at the Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, W.V.
• LIU Post -- the nation’s No. 1 Division II women’s lacrosse team -- is hoping to complete a perfect regular season when the Pioneers play host to Bridgeport on Thursday for an East Coast Conference contest. The last time LIU Post went unbeaten in the regular season, the Pioneers went on to claim the program’s second NCAA championship in 2007. The Pioneers are led by the Division II leading point-scorer Jackie Sileo, who has contributed 45 goals and 104 assists for 149 points this season. Sileo, a senior from Wantagh, N.Y., already set the NCAA Division II all-time points mark with 391 last week, and will be looking to add to her total on Thursday.
•Having a single No. 1 team is a big accomplishment for an athletic program, but Barry has doubled the achievement with two entering the NCAA Division II Tennis Championships on Wednesday. The Barry men’s tennis claimed the No. 1 ranking this week after completing the regular season with an unbeaten record and then blanking Alabama-Huntsville and No. 15 Saint Leo in regional action last week. The Buccaneer men (25-0) advanced to the NCAA finals for the 17th time, but for the first time as an undefeated team. They will face Northwood (17-4) in the Round of 16 at the Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex in Surprise, Ariz., on Wednesday as the Bucs vie for their first national title since 2010.
Barry’s No. 1 women’s tennis squad improved to 26-0 after edging No. 8 Lynn in the regional final, advancing to the NCAA finals for the fourth consecutive season. Last year, the Bucs also entered the Round of 16 unbeaten before falling to eventual national champion Armstrong Atlantic in the semifinals. The Bucs women’s team claimed their only NCAA title in 2011. Akemi Maehama is the only remaining member of the championship squad, but she did not play in the title match. She is 38-1 in singles with her only setback coming to Division I North Florida. The women will also travel to Surprise, Ariz., to face No. 27 Midwestern State in the Round of 16 on Wednesday.
Follow Amy Farnum on Twitter: @NCAA_Amy