The baseball team missed the postseason altogether in 2014, but the squad will have a different end to its season this time around.
With the addition of SUNY Canton’s baseball team to the Empire 8 conference, the Blue and Gold will now play in the inaugural Empire 8 conference tournament from May 8–9 at Utica College to determine a conference champion. The goal is to eventually have an automatic qualifier to guarantee at least one team from the Empire 8 goes to the NCAA Tournament each season.
In Division III baseball, a conference needs seven full-time members to have an automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament. Houghton College’s and Elmira College’s baseball teams became the fifth and sixth full-time members of the conference this season, and with the addition of SUNY Canton, the conference can officially host a postseason tournament.
However, SUNY Canton needs to wait two seasons to become a full-time member of the Empire 8 and earn eligibility into the NCAA Tournament. Therefore, the conference will need to wait for the 2017 season before there is an automatic qualifier for its conference champion.
The Blue and Gold have been considered an independent team with the rest of the conference since the conference began naming a regular-season champion in 2000. In order to make the postseason, the Bombers have to be at the top of Pool B, which consists of other independent teams without automatic qualifiers. With the exception of 2013, the tournament committee has only selected two teams each year from Pool B to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Though the Bombers have won 12 Empire 8 titles in a 15-year span, the squad was once considering joining a conference with a postseason tournament where the winner gets an automatic qualifier.
Despite having seven qualified baseball schools in 2010, baseball head coach George Valesente said the Liberty League, a conference with automatic qualifiers, added Bard College and Rochester Institute of Technology to its conference but did not allow the Bombers to join the conference just for baseball.
“It would have been a good fit,” Valesente said. “As far as other leagues are concerned, unlike football that is able to get these individual, independent teams to come into their league, baseball doesn’t seem to be able to do that for whatever reason. It’s hard to just take one sport and move it from one league to the next.”
Valesente said the disadvantage to being an independent team is that every game the South Hill squad plays is weighed when considering a berth into the NCAA Tournament, whereas teams that play conference tournaments with automatic qualifiers have a secondary way to get into the tournament.
“We can’t even come close to being near .500 and go to any kind of tournament,” he said. “[The automatic qualifier] will be good because getting into the NCAA Tournament as an independent has been much more difficult over the last 3–4 years as it ever has been.”
Last year, the Bombers and St. John Fisher College were both left out of the NCAA Tournament after posting records of 26–10 and 31–11, respectively. Even with a conference championship, the Bombers were edged out by fellow independents Emory University and Case Western Reserve University.
With a depleted pitching staff and 12 postponements this season, the Bombers could certainly use the automatic qualifier. With only 10 regular season games remaining, the Blue and Gold will not play a full league schedule but are still in the top half of the conference standings.
Mother Nature has not been too friendly to the Bombers, but the conference tournament will give the team a competitive postseason atmosphere regardless of how it plays the rest of the season.
As for the automatic qualifier, it’s not better luck next year, it’s better luck in two years.