KEENE, N.H. 4/30/12 – It’s Little East tournament time for Keene State softball and men’s and women’s lacrosse teams.
The Keene State softball team gets the ball rolling when it heads down to Mansfield, Conn. for the six-team, double-elimination Little East Conference tournament that begins on Thursday afternoon. The tournament will be held on ECSU’s newly-installed field.
The second-seed in the tournament, the Owls (23-8-1) will face fifth seed Western Conn. State (27-13) in its first-round game at 2 p.m. Keene State swept the Colonials 4-2 and 8-4 in a doubleheader in Keene back on April 14. “It’s going to be a difficult tournament there’s no doubt about it, but that’s what the LEC has been the past few years,” said KSC Coach Charlie Beach.
Other first-round games has top seed and host Eastern Conn. (36-1) taking on six seed UMass-Boston (17-19) at noon, and third seed Rhode Island College (19-16) going up against fourth seed Plymouth State at 4 p.m. The three-day tournament concludes on Saturday with the winner earning the conferences’ automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
Eastern Conn, which advanced to the Division III World Series last season and is currently ranked second in Division III, is the clear-cut favorite to win the title. The Warriors, which became the first team to go undefeated in league play, are led by senior All-America pitcher Molly Rathbun. Rathbun has a 25-1 record to go with a sparkling 0.32 ERA. She has fanned 247 batters in 153 innings and has tossed eight career no-hitters. “I think we have a little more pitching than Eastern,” said Beach. “Hopefully, our pitching depth will balance the offensive power of Eastern.”
Senior Haley Chandler (Wakefield, Mass.) (.351 BA) and freshman Samantha Nitso (Londonderry, N.H.) (.525 BA), the LEC’s player and rookie of the weeks respectively, have caught fire for the Owls, who have won of seven of their last eight games.
Keene State will be looking for its first LEC championship since 2005. The Owls also claimed the LEC crown in 1999, 2000, and 2003. “We hope to do well in the tournament, but if we don’t win I imagine will get an at-large NCAA bid,” said Beach. “The players don’t want to do the ECACs again. “Been-there-done that, let’s go to the big dance.”
Earning a first-round bye with its second-place finish, the Keene State men’s lacrosse team (9-5) will host the winner between third seed Western Conn. (9-6) and sixth seed Plymouth State (9-5) on Thursday at 4 p.m.
KSC, which has won six straight, has handled both potential opponents earlier this season, defeating PSU 17-10 and cruising past the Colonials 18-6 last Saturday.
KSC Coach Mark Theriault is feeling pretty good about his team entering the tournament. “We’re confident going in. We’re scoring a lot of goals, so I think we’re in great shape,” he said.
Fourth seed UMass-Dartmouth will go up against fifth seed Southern Maine is the other opening-round game. The winner will move on to play top seed Eastern Conn. (10-5) in Thursday’s second semifinal contest. The two semifinal winners will play for the championship and automatic NCAA berth in the finals on Saturday (1 p.m.).
Theriault knows he has to guard against his players looking ahead to potential rematch with the Warriors. “We’re at the point of the season if we do anything wrong – we’re done,” he said. “You can’t overlook anyone. You have to focus on just one team.”
The two-time defending champion Owls also won LEC titles in 2005 and 2007.
Like the Keene State men, the Owl women’s lacrosse team also earned a first-round bye and will be the second seed in their LEC tournament. The Owls (13-3) will host the winner between third seed Eastern Conn. (11-6) and sixth seed Rhode Island College (4-10) on Friday (4 p.m.). Earlier this season, KSC defeated Eastern Conn. (11-6) and RIC (20-12).
Expected to have a rebuilding season after losing eight starters from last year’s LEC championship team, the Owls find themselves in the hunt for another title. “We got further than we thought, but the tournament is a whole different experience,” said KSC Coach Katie Arsenault. “”We have good leadership to get to the finals, but we also need to be able to adapt when other teams pick up the intensity.”
Fourth seed Southern Maine (7-10) will face fifth seed Western Conn. (10-7) in the other first-round game. The winner will play top seed Plymouth State (13-1) in the second semifinal game on Friday. The two semifinal winners will play for the championship and automatic NCAA berth on Sunday (1 p.m.) at the highest remaining seed.
Keene State will be shooting for its third LEC championship. The Owls claimed the title in 2009 and 2011.