The Washington & Jefferson baseball team needed the cold of Western Pa. to finally heat up this season.
The Presidents went 1-6 during a March visit to Kissimmee, Fla. Through 11 games, W&J was 4-7 with a .195 team batting average. Then the Presidents rattled off 28 wins in their final 32 games, culminating with an 8-1 victory over Bethany in Saturday’s Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship game.
W&J (32-11) earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament and visits 10th-ranked Salisbury (Md.) (34-8-1) at 1:30 p.m. Friday in a double-elimination regional.
“It hasn’t been all roses,” said 17th-year Presidents coach Jeff Mountain, whose team finished as national runner-up in 2017 but did not qualify for NCAAs last spring. “It did not come easy. The last three-quarters of the season, guys figured it out.
“Much of it is confidence, and if you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re not going to be successful. We’re in a different state mentally now.”
Mountain tweaked his lineup and pitching staff early before finding the right combinations. He moved senior outfielder Dante Dalesandro (Mt. Lebanon) to leadoff, and he responded by hitting .373 with 39 RBIs, 45 runs and 13 stolen bases. Those numbers all rank in the top five in the PAC.
“I’m more aggressive this year,” said Dalesandro, one of six Presidents to earn first-team All-PAC. “As a leadoff hitter, you want to see balls and work the count, but I didn’t really change my philosophy. That’s the biggest thing to winning games: be aggressive.”
Dalesandro said another key to his success was adding 15 to 20 pounds in the offseason, upping his weight to 195.
“Maybe lineouts to the infield become singles, your singles become doubles and your doubles flirt with home runs,” Mountain said.
“Guys have to want to do the work and be willing to put in the work on their own. (Dalesandro) is one of several guys who has done that.”
On the other end of the spectrum is first baseman Josh Crummer, another of W&J’s 15 seniors, the most in Mountain’s tenure. Crummer, who hit .038 in 26 at-bats as a junior, lost 40 pounds in the offseason, dropping to 217. He responded by hitting .364 with 33 RBIs en route to first-team all-conference honors. Crummer spent time hitting cleanup as a freshman before struggling to stay in shape the past two seasons, Mountain said.
“He deserves all the credit in the world,” Mountain said. “If there was a comeback player of the year award at the Division III level, he would be a great candidate for it. He worked his tail off to put himself in position to be successful this season. He’s a completely different player. He’s the guy we thought he could be but he didn’t turn into his sophomore and junior years.”
Others first-team all-conference picks were senior infielder Mullen Socha (.361, team-leading seven homers and 41 RBIs, PAC-leading 47 runs), senior shortstop Spencer Howell (.284, 32 runs) and senior outfielder James Artale (.338, six homers, 39 RBIs).
PAC Pitcher of the Year Ben Marsico (10-1, 3.36 ERA) anchors the staff, which compiled a 3.79 team ERA. That was nearly a half-run better than anyone else in the conference.
The Presidents’ pitching depth could prove to be crucial this weekend depending on how many games W&J must win. No. 11 Rowan (30-11) and Penn State Abington (23-25) play at 10 a.m. Friday in the other first-round game at Salisbury.
“Now more than ever, there’s more parity at this level, especially in our region,” Mountain said. “There’s not much that separates two-and-out in this circumstance or winning a regional.”
• La Roche (30-13) faces No. 13 Denison (38-7) at 1 p.m. Friday in an NCAA Division III Tournament game in Adrian, Mich. Heidelberg (30-13) and No. 9 Adrian play at 5 p.m. The Redhawks are coming off their sixth straight Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference title.