Sacred Heart’s Road to the NCAA Tournament

For the second time in this group of seniors’ careers, Sacred Heart is the last program standing in New England college baseball. Last week, the Pioneers took down NEC nemesis Bryant to punch a ticket to the program’s fourth Division I Tournament. In a decisive game seven, the Pios did it in style, coming back from a ninth-inning deficit to beat the team that’s defeated them in each of the past two championships. All in all, that’s not bad for a club that started the year 1-14. After the jump, I take a look at the Pioneers’ season, playoff run, key contributors, and matchups in the tournament.

The History

Sacred Heart’s a relatively fresh face on the Division I scene, having moved up from Division II in 2000. Prior to the move, they’d made the postseason five times, in 1976, 1978, 1990, 1991, and 1992, twice advancing as far as the D2 College World Series. After coming through the transition to Division I, they used their first NEC playoff trip in 2005 as a springboard to a tournament title and NCAA trip in 2006, where they nearly defeated Jacksonville in an elimination game. They followed that up with back-to-back NCAA bids in 2011 and 2012.

The constant in that success has been head coach Nick Giaquinto, who’s been at the helm since 1986. As you’d expect from the only coach in college baseball with a Super Bowl ring, the man knows how to win. Since 2009, SHU has had three 30-win seasons and five winning campaigns– not an easy feat in the NEC. His Pioneers have also been a consistent presence in the NEC Tournament, reaching seven straight title rounds.

The Season

In a year of bad starts, Sacred Heart’s was one of the worst, if we’re being honest. (That’s not really a shock when offseason practice looks something like the picture below and your schedule takes you to three different time zones in the first three weeks.) Regardless, when the Pioneers sat at 1-14 on March 26, having scored more than two runs just four times all season, it couldn’t have felt to many outsiders like 2015 would end with a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

This picture is from the 2014 offseason, which was balmy compared to this year's.
This picture is from the 2014 offseason, which was balmy compared to this year’s.

But at the end of March, Sacred Heart started to turn things around. It started with a late March trip to Kingston, where they took a series off a good Rhode Island team in less than ideal conditions (the SID’s official weather report for that game was “It’s snowing. SNOWING!”). NEC play started the next weekend, and the hot streak continued. Series wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Long Island left SHU in an early tie for first. They faltered midseason with series losses on the long trip to Mount St. Mary’s and to eventual champions Bryant, but they recovered to take 5 of their last 8 NEC games to wrap up the three seed for the conference tournament.

The NEC Tournament

At Dodd Stadium in Norwich, the Pioneers hopped into the 2-0 driver’s seat by defeating second-seeded Wagner 3-1 and fourth-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson 10-0. After that, they faced a stiff test in a Bryant team storming back from an opening-game upset and lost to the Bulldogs on Saturday. When Bryant led 4-3 in the 9th in Sunday’s decisive game seven, it looked like the Bulldogs would best SHU for the third straight season, but a dramatic rally changed the Pioneers’ season and sent them to the NCAA Tournament.

Some of the Pioneers’ biggest contributors stepped up big to help them claim that NEC Tournament crown. Junior righty James Cooksey, a reliever for much of the year, came through when called upon to start the opener, shutting down Wagner with a complete-game two-hitter. The next day, sophomore Jason Foley joined the party with a two-hit shutout of his own against FDU. The righty walked no one and struck out six in his second straight complete game. Offensively, Cody Doyle’s two-run double completed a 9th-inning comeback in the opener, and Zack Short’s two dingers carried SHU to the big win.

In the tense weekend games with Bryant, the stories were senior reliever Dan Wertz and some clutch hitting. In Sunday’s finale, Wertz appeared in his 31st game of the year (and that’s after throwing two innings in a losing effort the day before). He entered in the 4th to stop the bleeding by stranding a runner on second. From then on, he put on the Pioneers’ performance of the season, holding the best offense in the NEC hitless over the next five white-knuckle innings of the conference title game.

An RBI double from Short brought SHU within one in the 7th, but it looked like Wertz’s heroics would go to waste when the Pioneers entered the top of the 9th trailing 4-3. Jayson Sullivan’s leadoff triple changed the mood instantly, however, and when Bryant brought in ace Kyle Wilcoz, Jesus Medina took an 0-2 pitch the opposite way for a single that tied the game at 4. After a wild pitch and a popout, Vic Sorrento came up with the crucial hit, a single to center that brought in the go-ahead run. SHU left the inning with just the one-run cushion, but three Wertz-induced groundouts later, the Pioneers were celebrating another trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Team

Overall, Sacred Heart finished the year last in the NEC in hitting (.246), third in ERA (5.10), and second in fielding (.968), and all three of those numbers improve (.280, 4.90, .970) if you take out the early season slump and look just at conference play. Short (.302, 9 HR, 25 XBH, 38 RBI, 12 SB) was the team’s only First-Team All-NEC honoree, but Second-Teamers Medina (.327, 18 RBI) and Sullivan (.296, 12 XBH, 23 RBI, 13 SB) helped key the offense, as well. Sorrento racked up 14 XBH and 30 RBI of his own. On the mound, Foley (3-6, 4.93) and Robbie Maguire (4-5, 4.94) were the most consistent presences in the weekend rotation, but Medina (3-4, 3.29) threw well in eight starts, as well. Besides those three, starting options include Cooksey, Matt Cooney, and Connor Landers, who all started five games on the year. Wertz (4-1, 2.31, 2 saves, 31 apps) anchors the ‘pen. The freshman tandem of Cooney and James Taubl are the top lefty innings-getters on the staff should Coach Giaquinto be looking for matchups against some of the big bats of the Fort Worth Regional.

The Regional

When the field was anounced on Monday, Sacred Heart was sent to the Fort Worth Regional, hosted by #7 national seed TCU, also the first-round opponents of the fourth-seeded Pioneers. The 2/3 matchup sees North Carolina State face off with fellow Northerners Stony Brook. It’ll be the Pioneers’ first trip to Texas since taking their Southern trip there in 2008, and their first-ever visit during the NCAA Tournament.

The host Horned Frogs (43-11, Big 12 autobid) will be a very, very tough matchup. At 27-2, they have the best home record in Division I, and both of those losses came in a late-March series loss to fellow regional hosts Oklahoma State. Before last week’s 0-2 showing at the Big 12 Tourney, Jim Schlossnagle’s team hadn’t lost back-to-back games all year. And coming off an Omaha trip in 2014, they won’t feel out of place on the national stage. They’re led by center fielder and Big 12 Player of the Year Cody Jones (.376, 30 RBI, 25 SB) and designated hitter and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Connor Wanhanen (.339/.398/.418, 31 RBI). The pitching staff, however, might be the biggest reason behind TCU’s success. They feature four elite starters in Alex Young (9-2, 2.05), Preston Morrison (11-2, 2.63), Tyler Alexander (5-2, 2.87), and Mitchell Traver (7-2, 1.89). Those four haven’t left the bullpen with much to do, but the six relievers who’ve logged more than 10 innings all have ERAs of 3.32 or better. The Horned Frogs, in short, are every bit the national seed.

The Pioneers’ second-round matchup will be either #2 NC State (34-21, ACC at-large) or #3 Stony Brook (34-14-1, AEC autobid). Elliott Avent’s Wolfpack comes in hot off a run to the ACC title game and has won 13 of their last 16, but they’ve also had trouble away from Doak Field this year, going just 13-15 in road/neutral games. That said, NC State’s just two years removed from a trip to Omaha with a lineup that features four all-ACC honorees, so they’ll pack a punch. Stony Brook, meanwhile, makes their first NCAA trip since their magical College World Series run in 2012. After a tough start against a tough schedule, Matt Senk’s Seawolves haven’t lost consecutive games since a sweep at the hands of Florida in late February. In AEC play, they lost just one series (to Hartford in early May) and made a 3-0 run through the conference tournament. A few writers have argued that Stony Brook is overseeded as a #3, but they’re a strong team regardless.

The Games

Sacred Heart’s opener will come in a Friday night game at Lupton at 8:00 PM EST. Depending on how that goes, they’ll play either in an elimination game Saturday at 3:30 or the winner’s bracket at 8. For the third straight year, every game of the tournament is available via the WatchESPN app. And if you happen to be looking for a March Madness-style Bracket Challenge to spice up your weekend viewing, you’re in luck.

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