GORHAM — When the season began, Ed Flaherty looked at his University of Southern Maine baseball roster, with 13 sophomores and nine freshmen, and wasn’t sure what to expect.

Then the team went 7-4 on its annual Florida trip. “I was worried about going 2-9,” said Flaherty. “That’s when I realized we could be pretty good.”

The Huskies went 30-11 and got a bid to the NCAA Division III tournament for the 23rd time since 1987. USM will face Castleton University (34-8) in the first round of the New York Regional in Syracuse at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday.

The Huskies were sent out of the New England Regional for just the second time in school history, Flaherty said. That the New York Regional features just six teams – instead of the eight in the New England Regional – may favor USM’s deep, talented pitching staff, which had a 3.97 ERA, second-best in the Little East Conference.

“With our top eight to nine guys, in a six-team tournament, we don’t have to go beyond that,” said Flaherty.

This looms as a tough tournament, with Oswego State (No. 7), Tufts (No. 13) and The College of New Jersey (No. 17) all ranked in the top 20 in D3baseball.com’s national poll. USM is No. 21.

But Flaherty believes USM has the qualities needed to win.

“When you get to a tournament, you can’t count on your hitting a lot,” he said. “In my experience it comes down to pitching and defense, not making mistakes.”

USM’s defense was exceptional this year, with a .973 fielding percentage, best in the LEC with 41 errors in 41 games.

USM’s top two starters are sophomore Dalton Rice (6-1, 3.49 ERA, 71 strikeouts in 512/3 innings) and senior Tyler Leavitt (4-0, 4.24). Throw in sophomore Henry Curran (3-1, 4.39, 30 strikeouts in 262/3 innings) and senior starter/reliever Tom Fortier (3-1, 4.18, 46 strikeouts in 512/3 innings), and Flaherty is confident he has the staff to go deep into games.

Once there, the Huskies turn the ball over to sophomores Matt Correale (5-4, 2.79, two saves) and Jake Dexter (4-1, 1.91, 11 saves). “If we get into the sixth with the lead, we’re tough to beat,” said Flaherty. “There’s not too many better end games than that anywhere.”

Pitching will be very important in the opener. Castleton’s team ERA is 2.07, which led Division III. While the North Atlantic Conference, which Castleton won for the fourth consecutive year, isn’t considered as strong as the LEC, Flaherty said, “When you throw a team ERA of 2.07, it causes a concern.”

The Huskies are certainly confident.

“We definitely have the pitching staff to go deep into the tournament,” said Rice, who will start Thursday.

“We’ve just got to go in there and play our brand of baseball,” said Leavitt, who missed last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Fortier said having Leavitt back has been a huge plus, his “experience and focus” helping the younger pitchers

For all his uncertainty early in the season, Flaherty said his young players have developed into a well-balanced team.

“I like this team,” he said. “Whether it’s ready yet, we’ll see.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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