New London — Thursday's warm weather was perfect for a post-practice cookout.
So the Mitchell College baseball team gathered near home plate for a meal — hotdogs, of course — on the day before the Mariners headed to Nashua, N.H., for the New England Collegiate Conference tournament.
Just another team bonding experience.
"We've grown as a family here," said sophomore Drew Doyle, a Fitch High School graduate. "We always hang out together. ... We've grown closer and closer every day. We're all brothers."
Doyle and his baseball brothers are attempting to become the second Mitchell baseball team to earn an NCAA Division III tournament berth.
The Mariners (21-12-1, 15-3) enter the weekend as the No. 2 seed after sharing the regular season title with Daniel Webster (24-9, 15-3), which secured the top seed and right to host after winning the regular season series.
Mitchell faces No. 3 Elms College (19-17) at 3 today in its opener while Daniel Webster plays No. 4 Becker College (11-24) in the morning game.
"I feel great about our chances," Doyle said. "We beat Elms four times this year. The fifth time is going to be pretty hard, but we're feeling confident. We're just trying to stay out of the losers' bracket."
Second-year coach Travis Beausoleil has rebuilt the program, from failing to qualify for the NECC tournament and finishing 10-18 overall last year to title contender. The Mariners start just one upperclassman.
"What a turnaround, and with a lot of the same guys," Beausoleil said. "They're getting older. I look at what we've done this year and what we can do in the future.
"... The future of the program looks very strong."
Beausoleil has stressed development and squeezed the best from his young team. He's also tapped into local talent.
Doyle, an All-NECC first team candidate, spent a semester at UConn-Avery Point but didn't try out for the baseball team before coming to Mitchell. He's leading the team in batting average (.389), hits (42), doubles (14) and ranks second with 25 RBI.
His former Fitch teammate, Al Jordan Johnson, also found a comfortable home at Mitchell. He's starting today's opener and owns a 5-3 record and 4.20 earned run average.
Johnson nearly no-hit Elms during the regular season, giving up the only hit with two outs in the seventh inning.
"I'm very excited," Johnson said of starting assignment. "It's an honor since I'm a freshman to start the conference tournament. It's a lot of pressure. I'm just going to keep pitching my game like I know I can."
Doyle, Johnson and freshman Nova Crespo of New London grew up together, dating back to their Groton Town Little League all-star days.
"It's great," Doyle said. "It's fun to have a teammate for so long. ... Me and Nova always talk about Groton Town baseball. It was just so much fun."
Crespo, a catcher, is enjoying a productive season, with a team-best three home runs and batting .320 with 19 RBI. Waterford's Gavin LaLima (.259, 12 RBI), a sophomore, Josh Zurita (2-1, 4.69), a freshman pitcher from New London and freshman Eddie Lorah of East Lyme also are contributing.
The Mariners have momentum on their side, 10-2-1 in their last 13 games. Their potent offense ranks first in batting average (.334) and runs per game (8.7) in conference games.
Pitching depth is a bit of a concern, but Beausoleil is confident in his team as long as the defense remains sound.
"I think we're the best team," Beausoleil said. "We're a little banged up with injuries. We're going to swing it and we've gotten good pitching performances from Al and Tyler (Shamas, 8-1, 2.01).
"If we field the ball behind them, we should have an easy tournament."