FARNHAM PARK, Bucks. – Fresh off a winning spring season after resurrecting the club in January, Durham University is primed to improve on a fourth place finish at the 2016 Spring National University Baseball Championship. While the club has lost four of its top players, several members of the Second Team have graduated to fill their places and three newcomers have been signed, and the Palatinates still boast three former Great Britain Baseball players.
Durham finished with a respectable seven wins, three draws, and five losses in the spring campaign after a seven-year respite from play. The club recently ended a seven-game winless streak with a 13-12 comeback victory in the first-ever Durham derby against County Durham Spartans. The friendly kicked off the 2016-17 season and the team will next take on seven universities for the right to claim the autumn title.
On Day One at Farnham Park, the National Baseball and Softball Complex, the Palatinates will test the University of East Anglia, Imperial College London, and three-time defending champions Loughborough University.
The contest with UEA will mark the second NUBC that Durham has faced the Blue Sox on day one. In the spring, the first game of the tournament resulted in an 8-6 for the Black-and-Purple thanks to strong relief pitching from Sam Ross and Brad Jones, and the programme’s first-ever home run from Jones. The all-time record between the two clubs is 1-1, with the other matchup in 2007. East Anglia has won a total of six national titles in various competitions.
Imperial is starting its eighth year of competition with its best year its first as the Falcons claimed the 2009 British University Baseball Association (a predecessor of the new National University Baseball League) Fall Shield and winning the 2010 BUBA Fall Cup. Earlier this year, Imperial finished 2-1 and in fifth place in the M1 Spring Tournament at Loughborough University, before settling for sixth at the Spring NUBC. Included in their 1-3 mark was an 18-3 victory of Durham’s second team, but the Palatinate First IX thrashed them 23-3. In the victory, new club captain Amané Sobue was 4-for-5 with three RBI, while fellow returners Sam Ross and Laurence Hodgkins had three hits. Including the 2015 Autumn NUBC, the Falcons logged a 5-6 record for the year.
Loughborough, a relatively recent addition to the British university baseball landscape, have taken the country by force in the past two years. The Thunderbirds have won all three NUBCs in which they have competed, plus two M1 Spring Tournaments, to say nothing of their domination in university softball. In 2015-16, the club’s first team compiled a 21-0 record. Durham did not face the undisputed No. 1 team in Britain.
For the second tourney in a row, seven other teams will compete, and all but one is unchanged. In the second group are the Universities of Nottingham, Southampton, and University College London, while Leeds University will enter the mix. Should Durham find itself in the top two of the group, it will advance to the semifinals, but a finish in the lower half of the table would drop it into a classification round. The Black-and-Purple bested Nottingham and UCL and lost to Southampton at the spring championship.
Durham returns its top six hitters by average from a team that hit .362 with a .966 OPS in the spring 2016 season. While the club has lost its two top extra base threats, Brad Jones (.318 with two doubles and four home runs) and Gabriel Fidler (second on the team with an .813 slugging percentage to Jones’ .955), it still boats numerous offensive threats.
The top returning hitters starts with Sobue, who hit .529 to lead the team. Sobue is the team’s top defensive threat as well, and is renowned as the best university catcher in Britain. He reached base at a .619 clip. Also back is Hodgkins, who was 3-for-4 in the season opener, who batted .429 and led the team in doubles (3). He is joined by impressive rookies Jack Andrew and Cameron Richardson. Andrew hit .478 and led the team in RBI (10), while Richardson tagged the ball at a .444 pace.
On the hill, surprise rookie Wallich, who was a bullpen saviour in a season-ending weekend in Scotland, should see some action, as could Will Zucker, who pitched only an inning in 2016.
After the conclusion of the NUBC, Durham will field two teams in the recently reconfigured National University Baseball League northern division. The 1s and 2s will take on the Universities of Leeds, Leeds Beckett, and Hull for the right to the northern crown.
Stay turned to @Durham_Baseball on Twitter for updates, photos, insights and more. Extra Innings will feature exclusive coverage of both Durham University teams in what promises to be an action-packed season.