Jumbos begin quest for NESCAC three-peat with annual trip to Virginia

Junior infielder Will Shackelford fouls off a pitch during Tufts' game against Roger Williams at Huskins Field on April 11, 2017. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily Archives

After winning the program’s fifth overall NESCAC championship — and second in as many years — and making strides in another NCAA tournament run, the Tufts men’s baseball team will return to the diamond on Friday in Virginia for the debut of its 2018 season. The Jumbos dominated last season, boasting a 30–10–1 overall record and a 9–3 conference mark.

The 2017 campaign ended, however, with a devastating 1–0 loss in the NCAA Div. III New York Regional against SUNY Oswego. After the the Lakers scored their single run in the top of the 8th, the Jumbos were unable to even the score in the final inning. Despite last year’s many successes, the team has not lost sight of its long-term goal of winning a NCAA championship.

“Of course, everyone was happy to win NESCACs, and that’s always a goal for us every year, but I think every single person on our team would also agree that winning a national championship would be a goal every single year,” sophomore catcher/outfielder Ryan Day said. “We won NESCACs, but then we fell short of our ultimate goal of winning a national championship, so while we are focusing on the game ahead, the overarching goal of every season is to win the national championship.”

The Jumbos graduated eight integral seniors, six of whom were on the pitching staff. Speros Varinos (LA ’17) earned multiple awards over the course of his Tufts career. The Middleton, Mass. native was twice named an All-American by D3baseball.com and once by the American Baseball Coaches Association and also took home Academic All-American honors in 2017.

Additionally, Varinos was named NESCAC Pitcher of the Year for the second straight season and was selected for first-team all-conference honors. He ended his final season with an 8–1 record on the mound and was ranked 14th in the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.82). The team also graduated infielder Tom Petry, outfielder/pitcher Oscar Kutch, outfielder Harry Brown and pitchers Tim Superko, Charlie McQuinn, Rory Ziomek and Matt Rothstein.

With a number of arms having graduated, including Varinos and Superko — who played massive roles in the rotation last season — the Jumbos will need other players to step up and fill some very large shoes.

“You lose people every year and that’s why you recruit. We recruit hard around the country,” senior third-baseman and co-captain Tommy O’Hara said. “We had some good guys leave, but we have some players who are ready to step up, so we’re excited to start. It’ll be good for the team to go down south and compete against some good teams.”

Eight first-years will be joining the Jumbos this year, five of whom will join the pitching staff: Owen Copps, Jake Shrader, Jamie Weiss, Andrew Wood and Manny Ray. Brandon Bay will play in the outfield, while Ryan Daues and Will Burgess will help man the infield.

During the offseason, Tufts looked to improve its hitting by using a program called “pitch occlusion.” By watching and analyzing videos of pitchers, the Jumbos aimed to increase the speed at which they recognize pitches so that they can marginally improve reaction time when at the plate. The team spent much of its time in the offseason perfecting this aspect of the mental game in order to see better results in its hitting.

“In baseball, you only have 0.4 seconds to react, so when your mind has to decide whether or not you’re going to swing, the brain physically can’t do that,” O’Hara said. “Your brain picks up patterns, and that’s how people hit is they recognize patterns out of the hand. We were just focusing and dialing in on that to try to improve our mental game.”

As the offseason transitioned into the preseason, the Jumbos began to narrow their focus on game-specific simulations and preparations.

“I think we’ve mostly been fine-tuning the stuff that we need for the games like situational play, making sure pitchers are getting their arms ready and hitters are seeing as many live at-bats as possible,” Day said. “I think it’s just kind of creating that live scenario to get you ready for the games and a lot of scrimmaging.”

The team will face Castletown on Friday in the first of 10 consecutive games on its spring break trip in Virginia and North Carolina. Last season, the Jumbos dominated the annual trip with an 8–1 record, including a 6–4 defeat of the Spartans.

“For the upcoming games, we want to get the rhythm for the rest of the season and set the tone early,” Day said. “We always want to get off to a good start, and we want to play baseball the way we can play it. That’s not always determined in wins or losses — and we feel like we have a good team, and we can win — but it’s important to start playing up to our potential and get better with each game as the season progresses.”