Twelve months ago, four wins separated Belmont from an NCAA Regional.
After barely making the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, anything beyond that seemed improbable.
Fast forward to this spring and a different set of circumstances. With an A-Sun regular-season championship already in hand is the program’s second NCAA bid inevitable?
“I would like to think so,” starting pitcher Chase Brookshire said. “All we can control is how well we play each day and then let that take care of itself when the season is over.”
A second straight tournament championship will guarantee the Bruins (35-21, 17-10) a spot in another NCAA Regional. But if an early exit awaits, Belmont hopes it has done enough to earn an at-large berth.
In a role reversal, the top-seeded Bruins open the six-team, double-elimination tournament against No. 6 seed and host Stetson (34-21, 15-12) at 6 p.m. (CDT) Wednesday in DeLand, Fla. Last year, Stetson held the top seed and opened with sixth-seed Belmont, which went undefeated and captured the crown.
The last time a top seed won the tournament was 2009, when Jacksonville did it.
“I think our only goal is to go down and win the tournament, just to lock it up, just to make sure that we’re in,” second baseman Zac Mitchell said.
Stetson failed to sweep both titles last year when it bowed out of the league tournament on the third day. But with a 41-18 record and 23 conference wins, the Hatters still received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the A-Sun had three teams qualify as Jacksonville also was invited.
“I would like to think that as strong as our conference is and the fact that we’re the No. 1 seed in this conference tournament, I think that gives us a lot of credibility toward pursuing an at-large bid,” Belmont coach Dave Jarvis said.
This year the league featured more parity. In 2011, five teams had at least 17 conference wins. This spring only Belmont won that many.
The league’s schedule, however, featured three fewer games due to Campbell's departure for the Big South.
In the most recent RPI rankings released by the NCAA.com on Tuesday, Stetson had the highest (42) of any A-Sun team. Belmont was second at 71 — up 20 spots from the previous week.
The Bruins, who ride a five-game winning streak, played two top 40 RPI teams — Oregon (five) and Vanderbilt (32). Belmont split the regular-season series with Vanderbilt, which ended the Bruins’ season last year in an NCAA Regional.
“We’ve played some pretty good baseball against some pretty good teams,” Mitchell said. “I think right now we deserve a shot to get in from the way we’ve been playing. [But] by the way we’ve been playing late we should just win the thing.”
• Seven Belmont players earned all conference honors Tuesday, led by Brookshire and Mitchell who were named to the first team.
Brookshire, an A-Sun all-freshman selection in 2010, was one of two unanimous first-team choices this time. He was third in the league with both a 2.22 ERA and a .217 opponents batting average.
Mitchell led the league in on-base percentage (.492), runs scored (58) and times hit by a pitch (28).
Drew Turner and Judah Akers earned second-team recognition and Matt Beaty, Scott Moses and Austin Coley all were selected to the all-freshman team.
The seven selections, in voting by league coaches, was the most ever for Belmont and tied Kennesaw State for the most this season.