Thursday, May 31, 2012
A year after snub, Stony Brook rolling into NCAAs
After setting the school record with 42 victories and breezing through the regular season, a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament seemed a lock. But the Seawolves lost in the America East conference tournament and were denied a few days later of an at-large berth for the field of 64 teams.
"That was definitely a big letdown for us," senior right-hander Tyler Johnson said.
Fueled in part by that stunning end to its season, Stony Brook came back this year and left nothing to chance.
"We did our best," junior outfielder Travis Jankowski said, "to make sure it didn't happen again."
Mission accomplished, and then some. Stony Brook one-upped last year's squad by going 46-11, leading the nation with an .807 winning percentage, winning the America East tournament and earning an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament.
"Last year's disappointment was a motivating factor, but it wasn't a rallying cry," said Senk, in his 22nd year as Stony Brook's coach. "We had a lot of motivation, mostly just to play our best. We felt that if we did that, we could end up right where we are. Last year's team did some tremendous things, and this team turns around and outdoes that team. I can't be more proud of our group of guys."
The Seawolves are in Coral Gables, Fla., set to open up Friday against host Miami (36-21). It's the second time the schools are meeting on the diamond, with the last being a 9-8 victory by Miami in 2003, when the Hurricanes' Ryan Braun - last year's NL MVP - hit a walk-off single in the 10th inning.
While Stony Brook is the No. 4 seed in a regional that also includes Central Florida (43-15) and Missouri State (39-20), the Seawolves are hardly an overmatched underdog. They enter the tournament having won 11 straight and 22 of their last 23.
"In sports in general, it's always easy to underestimate a team, but I'd like to think that with our record and how we've hit the ball and pitched the ball, we're getting some good respect," Jankowski said. "I think we'll put up a good fight against whoever we play."
And, the Seawolves have shown they can be a tough out. In 2010, they got the first NCAA tournament victory in program history by beating North Carolina State before being eliminated by Coastal Carolina. Stony Brook was more of a nice, feel-good story back then, a Northeast-based school taking on the big boys.
Now, the Seawolves are truly one of the big boys themselves, ranked in the top 30 in a few national polls.
"Most of the guys on our team right now have been to a regional and have won a game against a very, very good ACC team in N.C. State," said Johnson, who was on the mound for that 6-2 victory two years ago. "Now we're facing a Miami team right off the bat and they're good and have been for a long time. But even a team like us from the Northeast seeing a team like Miami, we have some confidence to go out and put together a good game against them."
Some thought Stony Brook was even deserving of a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament instead of a No. 4.
"Certainly, the number of wins this team has and the winning percentage we have, when you post a record like that and do so many things as far as individual and team accomplishments, I think a strong argument could've been made for us being a 3-seed," Senk said. "But the fact we're a No. 4, it doesn't really concern us."
Senk has done an outstanding job, particularly in the last 10 years, in elevating the program to national prominence - helped by an increased focus on baseball by the school and athletic director Jim Fiore. Late last season, the Seawolves broke in their slick new ballpark, Joe Nathan Field - named after the Texas Rangers reliever who was a star shortstop at Stony Brook.
Back when Nathan was there in the early 1990s, the athletic programs were Division III and the teams were called the Patriots.
"For that program to come so far from the days before our recruiting class, and we kind of got things started a little bit in D-III and I think things really started moving quick for them," Nathan said this week. "I think they had to go independent for a year or two, and then right into D-I and they really didn't skip a beat. Their success continued even though they were in obviously tougher baseball, so it just speaks for what that program has done."
Nathan has followed his alma mater since it made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2004 and nearly pulled off an upset of host Arizona State in 2008 before getting that first win two years ago.
"They've been to the NCAA regionals now and hopefully they can get over that hump and get past the regionals," Nathan said. "They've played some good ball. A couple of years ago, they had a chance, but fell short ... so hopefully they have a little better luck in Miami."
The Seawolves are loaded with talent, starting at the top of the lineup with Jankowski, who's hitting .411 with four homers, 40 RBIs and 34 stolen bases. The America East player of the year is a possible first-round draft pick next week who ranks among the national leaders in several offensive categories.
"Having Jankowski to start a ballgame for us, he's just that catalyst you want," Senk said. "He can set the tone right away for what we're going to do offensively."
Jankowski is followed in the lineup by catcher Pat Cantwell (.306, 1, 27), an outstanding situational hitter. Third baseman Willie Carmona (.380, 10, 60) bats third and was the conference player of the year last season. Next is second baseman Maxx Tissenbaum (.400, 3, 41), who has struck out just four times in 200 at-bats.
"Timely hitting really came through toward the second half of this season and we stress scoring first and jumping out to an early lead," Jankowski said. "We've been able to do that the last couple of weekends, and just been playing a really good game of baseball overall."
The rotation is led by the solid 1-2 punch of Johnson (9-1, 1.78), the America East pitcher of the year who holds the school record with 33 career victories, and sophomore righty Brandon McNitt (8-2, 2.26). Senior right-hander Evan Stecko-Haley (7-3, 3.08), junior righty James Campbell (5-0, 3.09, two saves) and closer Frankie Vanderka (1-2, 2.22, five saves) provide pitching depth, a necessity to succeed in the NCAA tournament.
"Honestly, it's been a little bit of everything this season," Johnson said. "We start off with pitching and defense, and our bats have gotten really hot lately. We're really starting to click as a team, and that's just a great feeling. It definitely gives us a lot of confidence going into this."