NEWTOWNBREDA, Northern Ireland – This weekend marks the official opening of Northern Ireland’s first purpose-built facility in suburban Belfast, with the Ulster Invitational Tournament serving to christen the grounds. Durham University is one of 10 teams to participate in the tourney.
The two-field grounds will be host to the Ulster Buccaneers, Belfast North Stars, and Belfast Angels softball. The main field features a permanent backstop with two-storey fencing, covered by netting. The diamond is multi-purpose, with a softball field incorporated, while the second field features a mound an infield with temporary backstop.
The tournament boasts teams from the north and south of Ireland, Scotland, and England. Durham University (7-1) is one of three English teams, joining the Liverpool Trojans (BBF North) and Tonbridge Baseball (BBF A South). Liverpool have joined Durham’s local side, the County Durham Spartans, in the new Northern Conference.
Two teams hail from Scotland: Glasgow Baseball Association, a team combined from the city’s two clubs; and Edinburgh’s three teams are represented as ‘Baseball Scotland’. The five teams in Scotland’s two largest cities are the only current teams, as other clubs in Dundee and Aberdeen have folded in recent years.
The North Stars and Buccaneers are representatives from Northern Ireland, while three sides represent the Baseball Ireland, the country’s top circuit: Dublin Hurricanes, Dublin Spartans, and Cavan Comets. Both Dublin clubs feature members of their first and second teams, with the Hurricanes (8-0) in first and the Spartans (4-3) also with a winning record in the top league. Cavan is 3-7 on the season in the B League North.
The Black-and-Purple are the only university team in the field, and the club is a mixture of the club’s first and second team. DU Baseball has been on a run since the first day of spring nationals and currently boasts a six-game winning streak. These will be the club’s first-ever games against non-university sides.
Durham is without Club Captain and Great Britain Baseball player Will Zucker, as well as workhorse catcher Amané Sobue. Four other regulars, Andrew Poole, Brad Bentz, Robin Wallich, and Ben Turner, are all missing the trip, as is surprising rookie Cameron Richardson.
The team, however, boasts impressive depth and will still feature mostly first-team members, including Drew Graf, who was 3-for-4 with a double and a walk in his only appearance of the season in the doubleheader at the University of Hull. Of the regular starters, Sam Ross tops the side in hitting, with his .529 average tied with Sobue for the lead in batting average among qualified players. He also boasts seven stolen bases, tied with Zucker for the team lead. Brad Jones (leading the team with two home runs and a .929 slugging percentage), Harry Winter (.500/.615/.800), and Laurence Hodgkins (.500/.615/.700) also bring hot bats into the tournament.
Durham is hitting .413 with an on-base percentage of .517 and a slugging percentage of .592 and is fresh off a power binge against University of Sheffield, with the team drilling three home runs, including the first career roundtrippers for Poole and Gabriel Fidler. No catchers have successful caught a Palatinate baserunner all season.
On the pitching side, the Black-and-Purple boasts its top four hurlers in the tournament, with Jones leading the way. Durham’s star two-way player is 1-0 with two saves and a 0.00 ERA in 7 2/3 innings, striking out 17 in that time. Marcus Helland (1-0, 3.52), Sam Ross (2-0, 3.60), and T.J. Garske (1-1, 8.44) will join Jones in the starting rotation. Fidler and Jack Andrew are likely to also toe the rubber.
The tournament will be held over two days, with Durham drawing Ulster, Glasgow, Dublin Spartans, and Tonbridge in Group A. The Palatinates will take on the Spartans at 10:30 a.m. GMT and follow up with a 19:00 appearance against the host Buccaneers. On Sunday, an early 7:30 start will see the club battle Glasgow before finishing with a contest against Tonbridge.
Follow all the action on Twitter at @durham_baseball, with exclusive coverage from Extra Innings.