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May 31—Let’s start this off with a bit of math, because that’s the easiest way to show how impressive what happened in college baseball around the region last week really is.

There are 389 NCAA Division III schools that offer baseball programs, and in a normal year, only 58 of them typically get a chance to compete in the tournament that crowns the division’s champion.

This year, due to the pandemic, that number was slashed to 48. So, only 12.3% of teams in Division III earned entry.

This is a big country, full of pretty good baseball at the Division III level from coast to coast, sea to sea, the border with Canada to the one with Mexico.

Now, consider that three of those 48 programs are within about 25 miles of each other. The odds of that aren’t great, considering there are only a handful of cases in the 2021 NCAA Division III regionals where there are even two teams that near each other.

But that’s the way it was at regionals last week for Keystone College, Misericordia University and the University of Scranton, the three programs from Northeast Pennsylvania that competed for a Division III World Series berth and showed the nation something that has become pretty obvious over the last few years: Baseball, around here, has never been better.

After all, this is somewhat of a routine for Misericordia and Keystone, who frequent the regionals. But this was Scranton’s first.

“It’s awesome for our area,” Keystone head coach Jamie Shevchik said last week, before he and his Giants boarded a bus for the Auburn, New York Regional. “I’m thrilled for Scranton. I’m so proud that those guys get a chance to experience that. For our area to have three teams within 30, 40 minutes of each other going to play in the NCAA Regionals? That’s huge.”

It’s not uncommon to see two teams from the same area make the tournament; after all, there are are five other sets of two schools from within 30 miles of each other that made the field. Throw in Lackawanna College, which played in the NJCAA Division II World Series over the weekend in Enid, Oklahoma, and that’s four teams competing among the very best in the country out of our area.

Crazy thing about it is, nobody seemed all that surprised it happened, even with a newcomer among them.

The Royals are, in a nutshell, the epitome of why this area has become a baseball hotbed.

Just five years ago, this program’s home games were played at Connell Park. And this is no knock on Connell Park, which has a lot of history and is a facility where pretty much every young player who has come out of the city and the surrounding area has played meaningful games on the way up. But, you’re not getting a program over the top, from contender to regionals quality, playing home games there. You can’t recruit the type of players you need, when your facility isn’t what other schools have on campus.

So, the university built Volpe Field, a sterling turf field on the site of the former South Side Complex, and when it opened in 2018, it changed everything for the Royals.

“I think we had some successes,” said Royals head coach Mike Bartoletti, whose teams got to within a series of the Landmark Conference title a handful of times before finally putting Elizabethtown away May 23. “Some of those successes lent themselves to the university saying, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t even have a facility.’ Now, we have somewhere that can attract some talent, some of the prime kids, and I think that showed. We’re playing freshmen now. This is only the fourth year of the facility, but I think it’s paying dividends.”

Keystone refurbished its stadium heading into the 2020 season, redoing dugouts and bullpens, redoing the infield and putting in turf, even constructing a new press box and hitting facility. Misericordia’s Tambur Field was built in 2012 and still sparkles. That’s three area college baseball facilities built or extensively renovated in the last decade, and Lackawanna has helped make plenty of improvements to Scranton High School’s field, which is now its home base.

Facilities are critical in drawing top talent from outside the area. But the next step in building the local college programs involves getting area athletes to realize what they have in their own backyard.

Some of the best ballplayers ever developed in Northeast Pennsylvania have sprouted up in the last two decades. There are plenty of reasons for that: State of the art indoor training facilities around the area are much more common, and they enable players to train year-round. Say what you will about young kids playing travel baseball long before they’re even in Little League, but there’s no debating travel ball has created opportunities here that didn’t exist in the past.

That’s why we’re seeing so many high school stars in the Lackawanna League and Wyoming Valley Conference heading to Division I college programs. But Shevchik, for one, would like to see more locals understand the type of player they can become by staying in their own backyard.

“There’s a lot of kids here that are driving past Scranton, Misericordia and Keystone, heading to their (college) destination,” Shevchik said. “That’s why the three of us being in a Regional is so huge for our area. I’m hoping some of the bigger local kids can really see now the baseball they have around them.

“A lot of those guys have no idea how good Keystone or Scranton or Misericordia can be until they go somewhere else, and they work their way back.”

For so many reasons, from facilities to history to the future these programs appear to have, it’s difficult not to notice it now.

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