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May 26—Trying to advance deep into the NCAA tournament is difficult enough.

Attempting that feat with a shorthanded roster is a whole other level of challenge.

That’s what the Mitchell College baseball team faces as it begins play in the NCAA Division III Auburn (N.Y.) Regional on Thursday, taking on Keystone College at 6 p.m.

Already down two starters after losing shortstop Jeremy Sagun (hamstring injury) and No. 2 pitcher/first baseman Jakari Pellegrini who’s attending the Connecticut Police Academy, the fourth-seeded Mariners (25-7) took another hit before boarding the bus for upstate New York.

Five players didn’t make the trip for COVID-19 related reasons. Two players tested positive for COVID earlier this week and three others tested negative but were sidelined due to contact tracing.

“I understand it with the guys that test positive; It’s not an indictment on them,” coach Travis Beausoleil said. “I feel horrible for the guys that tested negative, (but) because they’re close contact, they can’t travel. Two of them already had COVID but just outside the 90 days the NCAA and Ledge Light (Health District) are saying.”

While Beausoleil declined to name the impacted players, he added that a couple have played pivotal roles this season. All six teams at the regional were scheduled to be tested once they arrived on Wednesday.

The Mariners had a COVID-related pause earlier this season.

“It’s been a house of cards,” Beausoleil said. “Who knows? We will go out and compete to the best of our ability. We’re still putting out a formidable team and lineup. It would have been nice to have the team that we had (in the NECC tournament). That team could have competed with anybody in the country.”

Earlier this month, Mitchell went undefeated on the way to capturing the New England Collegiate Conference tournament title and earning the program’s sixth NCAA berth.

Mitchell heads into the double-elimination regional having won 12 of its last 13 games. There’s reason for the Mariners to be optimistic entering the opener against fourth-seeded Keystone (21-4).

Senior Roland Thivierge, the team’s ace, will be on the mound Thursday. A two-time NECC Pitcher of the Year, Thivierge (7-1, 3.26 earned run average) hasn’t allowed more than three runs in nine straight starts.

“Thivierge has been one of the best pitchers in New England for the last three years,” Beausoleil said. “He gives us a good shot to win.”

Thivierge is one of two pitchers on the roster with previous NCAA experience, throwing seven scoreless innings in relief and earning the win in a 9-3 victory over Suffolk in a 2018 elimination game.

“It’s always good to have been there and had a chance to do it, especially pitching seven innings in that game,” Thivierge said. “I’m feeling a lot more confident going into this regional that anything can happen. I was a freshman at the time. So anybody can step up and get the job done when their number is called.

“That’s all we’re about, next man up.”

That’s been the case this season for the Mariners.

When Sagun went down with a hamstring injury early in the NECC final, freshman Robbie DelaCruz, a Montville graduate, came in and delivered two hits and two RBI.

Hunter Yaworski, a junior outfielder from Killingly, began the season on the bench, then worked his way into the lineup and never left, becoming one of the top hitters and an All-NECC performer. He’s first on the team in batting average (.465), tied for first in home runs with Montville’s Dougie DelaCruz (eight apiece) and second in RBI (39).

“I think it’s just a confidence thing,” Yaworski said of his success. “I wanted to help out this team. I wanted to do big things for this team. That’s just what’s been going on.”

The Mariners still like their chances in the regional despite missing some key players. They’re powerful attack (they’re .359 team batting average is fourth in the country) can keep them in any game.

“We’ve had a great season,” Thivierge said. “We’re a very close team. We’ve done a lot of damage so far. … All we need is one chip to fall in our favor and we might make a run. Even with a couple of guys down, guys are going to step up and get the job done and we’re still going to be a threat.”

“… At this point, we’re not afraid of anybody. No matter what, we’re going to give it the best we can give. When you’ve got nothing to lose, it makes you a lot more dangerous.”

Eastern Connecticut State University, the top seed, kicks off the Auburn Regional by playing No. 6 Merchant Marine at 11 a.m. New London’s Josh Vincent (6-1 1.65), who was named the Little East Conference Pitcher of the Year and an all-conference first team selection, is the anchor of the staff.

No. 2 SUNY Cortland faces No. 5 Tufts at 2:30 p.m. in the second game.