Empire State Of Mind Hits Regionals
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Coaches across the Northeast had the same thought this winter. A mild winter, fairly free of snow by regional standards, let college baseball teams in the area get outside far more than usual.
"We had great weather—we were outside more than ever this spring," St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "That's why it was so disappointing that we got off to the start we did."
The Red Storm were 4-9 at one point, and Blankmeyer said the team had a "confession session" to clear the air and move forward after losing the first three games of a series at Liberty. They won the last game of the series and hardly looked back. St. John's was 36-12 since then, including a regional victory at North Carolina that included two wins against the Tar Heels.
The most dramatic was a three-run walk-off home run off closer Michael Morin—who set North Carolina's single-season saves mark the next day—by sophomore catcher Danny Bethea. It turned a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 victory, put St. John's in the regional driver's seat and sent coach Mike Fox's Tar Heels reeling.
A day later, the Johnnies finished the deal, beating North Carolina again 9-5 to win their first regional since 1980.
"We had that storybook ending and maybe took the wind out of their sails," Blankmeyer said at the end of the regional. "Sometimes it's destiny. I thought we brought our 'A' game. Mike's club wasn't at their best, but I thought we played very, very well."
The next day, fellow Empire State denizen Stony Brook finished its own storybook ending, beating Central Florida to win the Coral Gables regional at Miami. The Seawolves became just the third No. 4 seed to win a regional since the 64-team NCAA tournament field era began in 1999.
St. John's winning was considered a surprise, as North Carolina was the only top-eight national seed to lose a regional and has made it to Omaha five times in the last seven years. But Stony Brook, even as a fourth seed, was the upset pick of the first weekend by BA national writer Aaron Fitt.
"We appreciated his confidence in us," Seawolves coach Matt Senk said with a laugh. "We did feel we at least had a level of talent that, if not even, was at least not at a significant difference from the rest of the field."
The reward for both teams is another road trip for super regionals. The Red Storm is headed to Arizona to face the Pacific-12 Conference regular season co-champion. Stony Brook goes to Baton Rouge to face six-time national champion Louisiana State.
The regionals weekend was a good one for Northern teams. Oregon, in just its fourth season back at the Division I level, won a home regional, but as a national seed that was no surprise. Oregon has financial resources as a BCS football school that many other schools lack.
Then there's Kent State, a consistent winner before and after coach Scott Stricklin and his staff arrived. The Golden Flashes won their first regional ever, the first regional win by a Mid-American Conference team since 1976.
The Golden Flashes have a long tradition of winning, with only one losing season in the last 30 seasons. St. John's has now won 40 games in six of the last eight seasons.
Stony Brook, meanwhile is in just its 13th year as a Division I program. Senk said becoming the first America East Confernece school to win a regional since 1991 was the culmination of a process that included making the transition from Division II, raising the money for and building Joe Nathan Field (named for the program's top baseball alumnus) and rebounding from last year's league tournament loss.
Both Blankmeyer and Senk said it takes more than just talent for a Northeastern team to win a regional. It takes some of the breaks that St. John's got, such as Morin having a nightmarish weekend, or having your flares fall in while North Carolina's didn't.
It often takes experience. St. John's plays the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill regularly in non-conference play and is a consistent regional team. Stony Brook was making its third regional trip in five years. As Fox said last year, knocking down the door can be huge for any program. For the Tar Heels, it was winning a super regional in 2006 at Alabama, which kick-started its CWS run. "Every coach will tell you, you can't coach or teach experience, you just have to get it," Fox said in defeat, speaking of his freshman-and-sophomore-heavy team. "It's part of it."
The Tar Heels gained experience the hard way, just as Stony Brook had last season when it lost in its league tournament. But the Seawolves sent six players to the Cape Cod League last summer, led by outfielder Travis Jankowski and ace righthander Tyler Johnson, and they performed well. They expected success this year as a club.
"You hope it's a cumulative thing," Senk said. "You're trying to build on each success—winning the league, which helps recruiting, which helps your talent level, which gets you to regionals, and then you hope it adds up to this year. You grind it out, year after year.
"The next step is for this to happen on a consistent basis, so it's not a surprise when Kent State, St. John's or Stony Brook wins a regional."