Dayton heads to A-10 baseball tournament with momentum

UD opens double-elimination event against Rhode Island on Thursday

The Dayton Flyers have not played the other three teams that qualified for the Atlantic 10 Conference baseball tournament, but they are not strangers. Technology these days gives teams plenty of opportunities to make themselves familiar with opponents even if they don’t see them in person.

“There are not a lot of unknowns with the scouting,” Dayton coach Jayson King said Tuesday. “We can watch every at-bat. We can watch anything we want.”

In normal seasons, Dayton plays every A-10 team in the regular season. This year, the conference created regional schedules for teams to limit travel during the pandemic, splitting the 13 teams into North and South divisions. The top two teams in each division — Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton, Rhode Island and Saint Joseph’s — will compete for the conference’s NCAA tournament berth this week in a double-elimination tournament at The Diamond in Richmond, Va.

Dayton, the No. 2 seed, plays No. 3 seed Rhode Island in the first round at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. The game will be televised on ESPN+. Hunter Wolfe (4-4, 1.25 ERA) will start for Dayton.

“He’s been our No. 1 guy all year,” King said.

King feels good about his team’s chances. Since a 1-4 start in A-10 play, the Flyers have won 11 conference games in a row. They had to win at least three games in their final regular-season series against George Washington last weekend to earn a spot in the tournament. Instead, they swept four games in Dayton by a combined score of 38-21. That followed a four-game sweep of Richmond on the road May 7-9 and three wins in a four-game series against George Mason in April.

“When you know you have certain things you have to get done,” King said, “and find a way to make them happen, especially toward the end of the year, it bodes well for your team.”

The offensive star last weekend was junior first baseman Marcus Pujols, who was named the A-10 Player of the Week. He hit .714 (10-for-14) with nine RBIs in the four games. He leads the Flyers and ranks third in the conference with a .366 average.

Dayton also has the fourth-best hitter in the conference, senior second baseman Mariano Ricciardi (.359), and the fifth best, junior shortstop Benjamin Blackwell (.358). Another Flyer, senior third baseman Riley Tirotta, ranks tied for second in the A-10 in home runs (14) and third in RBIs (54).

Dayton (23-25 overall) finished 12-4 in the South Division, one game behind VCU (34-14, 13-3). Dayton and VCU did not play, however. Their series earlier this month was cancelled because of a positive COVID-19 test within the VCU program.

Dayton also had a series against Saint Louis postponed in April because of its own COVID-19 issues. The team couldn’t practice for a week at that time but was able to hold some individual workouts.

“It was just about staying focused and trying to control what we can control,” King said. “When things don’t necessarily go our way, don’t panic and just keep doing what you can to keep moving forward. Even though it has been a little of a bumpy road, our guys have been pretty resilient and have fought through some adversity and have come out on the other side a little better.”

VCU, the No. 1 seed, will play No. 4 seed Saint Joseph’s in the first game Thursday at noon. If Dayton wins Thursday, it will play at noon Friday. If it loses Thursday, it will play a second game that day at 7 p.m. against VCU or Saint Joseph’s.

Rhode Island (26-24-1, 13-6) won the North Division, and Saint Joseph’s (21-17, 15-9) finished second.

Dayton last won the tournament in 2012 but reached the championship series in 2019 before losing 4-3 in 12 innings to Fordham.

“I think (that experience) will help,” King said. “I do think what we did the last two weekends is actually going to help us more because it’s more recent. Last weekend had a tournament feel. Anytime you can lean on that experience, that will help.”

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