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Kings of Their Conference Again

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

 LOWELL- Membership has its privileges. The UMass Lowell baseball team has certainly taken advantage of what the Northeast-10 Conference has to offer.

In only its third season as a dues-paying member of the Northeast-10, UMass Lowell already has turned the NE-10 Tournament into the River Hawk Invitational.

The annual format calls for three other NE-10 teams to show up thrilled to play at lyrical LeLacheur Park and for the River Hawks to rudely use them as a tune-up for the NCAA Regional while earning extra-bonus points for the selection committee.

Yesterday at LeLacheur the River Hawks completed their second straight three-game sweep through the NE-10 Tournament by defeating Franklin Pierce College, 4-1.

UMass Lowell has won three tournament titles in its three years in the league while going 10-1 in NE-10 Tournament games.

"We looked good," said senior shortstop Adam McCusker of Chelmsford, "but this is just another step toward our goal."

That goal is to get to the Division 2 World Series for the third straight year and actually win it this time in UMass Lowell coach Jim Stone's 37th and final season.

"I'm just living this to the fullest and not wanting the kids to alter their play on my account," said Stone, who yesterday racked up career victory No. 799 and was named NE-10 co-Coach of the Year. "This is all about them, not me."

The NCAA Division 2 Northeast Regional pairings were to be announced today and UMass Lowell (30-10) was expected to be the No. 1 or 2 seed and also the host for the sixth straight year.

Dowling, New Haven and Franklin Pierce (27-15) seemed most likely to join the River Hawks at LeLacheur beginning on Thursday, when the return of aluminum bats will more severely test each qualifier's true pitching depth.

"Our pitching staff is probably the deepest of any team in the country," said UMass Lowell senior catcher Allen Mottram, who yesterday was named the NE-10 Player of the Year. "We didn't even use two or three guys (during the NE-10 Tournament) who could have started and been effective."

The only run allowed by UMass Lowell pitchers during the three tournament games was unearned, scoring when a two-out fly dropped amid a communication breakdown in shallow center in the fourth inning yesterday. UMass Lowell junior right-hander Billy Lynch allowed only that chintzy run over eight innings while doggedly pitching around 10 hits and improving to 8-1.

"Usually I'm used to being here in this tournament and not winning it," said a smiling Lynch, who transferred to his home-town UMass Lowell in January after going 7-2 out of the Stonehill College bullpen last season. "It's a lot easier to just win three and go on to the Regional."

"Sometimes he gives up a few hits," said Stone about Lynch, who left 10 Ravens stranded over eight innings. "But, boy, does he compete."

Lynch's gritty performance and a ninth-inning close by senior Dave Ouellette for his eighth save followed junior right-hander Steve Palazzolo and freshman left-hander Joseph Malzone combining on a five-hit shutout in a 17-0 victory over Franklin Pierce on Saturday and sophomore lefty Brad Laurin of Dracut pitching a one-hitter to beat St. Rose 1-0 on Friday.

"We knew at the beginning of the year that our pitching would be strong," said McCusker. "But it's like now they've taken it to another level. (Senior right-hander) Patrick Shirley is probably the best big-game pitcher this school has ever seen. And we didn't even get to use him."

Franklin Pierce freshman right-hander Mike Farrell matched Lynch pitch for pitch yesterday as the game entered the eighth inning tied 1-1, a mild surprise after UMass Lowell frolicked past the Ravens 17-0 on Saturday.

L.J. DeMaino then bounced a two-out double down the right field line and Scott LaValley greeted Ravens reliever Greg Basile with a single to center to score DeMaino with the go-ahead run.

In the top of the ninth, freshman first baseman Bob Theriault of Lowell singled home two more insurance runs and the River Hawks soon turned their attention toward a seventh straight NCAA Regional appearance and their 14th appearance overall.

It is probably no coincidence that UMass Lowell has followed up its NE-10 Tournament victories the past two years by winning the Regional and advancing to the World Series. Before that, as a member of the now-extinct New England Collegiate Conference, UMass Lowell was idle the weekend before the NCAAs and never won the Regional in 11 tries.

"I think this (NE-10) tournament has been very beneficial," said Stone.