After finishing the last two years without advancing to the NCAA tournament, Mount St. Mary’s finally has an opportunity to play in the coveted postseason.
For the first time in its three-year existence, the Northeast Conference (NEC) has an automatic qualifier that goes to the champion of the league tournament. And as the Mountaineers (4-6) prepare to dive into conference play with a home contest against Sacred Heart (0-8) this Saturday, the carrot of an automatic qualifier has added a little spice to the team’s next five games.
“Conference play has to bring a different beast, a different mentality,” coach Tom Gravante said Thursday. “You’ve got to play above your opponent because no one is just going to roll over for you and quit. It’s going to be a grind because there’s the automatic qualifier this year. That certainly heightens the pressure.”
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Mount St. Mary’s won the NEC tournament in 2011, the program’s first year in the league. The team advanced to the final of last season’s tournament final before falling, 12-6, to Bryant on May 6.
The Mountaineers had barely qualified for the tournament as the No. 4 seed. Gravante said he would like to see the team avoid another nail-biting scenario and aim for the top seed and home-field advantage for the tournament.
“I love that opportunity to be able to host the tournament if you win the regular-season title,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but at least it gives you home-field advantage. … I love that opportunity, but it certainly increases the pressure, and we’ve got to make sure that our guys handle it. I think there is a definite advantage to playing at home in terms of the travel and rest and so forth. It worked for us in 2011, and we’re going to shoot to get that angle again this year.”
Mount St. Mary’s figures to have the easiest conference opener as Wagner (1-6) visits Robert Morris (4-4) and Quinnipiac (3-4) travels to Bryant (1-8). But Gravante emphasized that the players can’t be swayed by Sacred Heart’s winless mark as a sign that the Pioneers will not play hard Saturday.
“My staff and I are making sure that our guys are not looking at records and passing judgment on people,” he said. “… We’re making sure that we’re taking all the steps to keep our guys on top, to make they understand not to read into anything. You’ve got to play the game regardless of what someone’s record says.”