2022 America East Conference College Baseball Preview
New Jersey Tech last season won the America East Tournament in its first season in the conference to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Highlanders won a game in the Fayetteville Regional, making for a strong end to the program’s best season in Division I.
Now, NJIT will aim to repeat its success, albeit in a changing conference landscape. First, Hartford announced at the end of last spring that they were dropping from Division I to Division III by 2025. Hartford head coach Justin Blood—who inherited a team coming off a 43-loss season in 2011 and built the program up to its first NCAA Tournament appearance—promptly departed to Keene State (N.H.), making the move to DIII on his own.
Then, just a week ago, Stony Brook announced the acceptance of an invitation to join the Colonial Athletic Association, and America East followed by announcing that the school would be unable to compete in conference championships. Stony Brook is back-to-back defending regular-season champion, while Hartford won the year prior.
For now, the America East remains unchanged, and the conference race figures to be an interesting one in 2022.
Can NJIT build on its momentum?
Before last season, NJIT hadn’t had a winning season since 2015. Not only did the Highlanders end up on the right side of the ledger at 27-24, they swept their first two games in the America East Tournament and, as the remaining undefeated team in the tournament when rain washed out the championship round, they claimed the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid. NJIT made the most of its trip to regionals, pushing No. 1 overall seed Arkansas in the opener and beating Northeastern in an elimination game before falling to Nebraska.
Now, NJIT enters 2022 looking for more. Much of the lineup returns, led by outfielders Julio Marcano (.322/.425/.567, 10 HR) and Albert Choi (.311/.389/.515, 27 SB). The Highlanders have solid defense up the middle with catcher Paul Franzoni (.236/.375/.424, 6 HR), shortstop David Marcano (.238/.325/.297, 13 SB) and Choi all returning. On the mound, top starter Ryan Fischer (5-3, 2.64) and closer Jake Rappaport (8-2, 3.71, 11 SV) form a strong core. Finding the right pieces around them will be key for NJIT. Lefthander Grant Vurpillat (1-6, 6.33) and righthander Evan Gegeckas (0-1, 6.75) are two pitchers who could take a step forward.
With Stony Brook ineligible for this year’s America East Tournament, NJIT has to be seen as the clear favorite in the conference. Regardless of that decision, however, the Highlanders will be formidable all spring long.
How will Stony Brook’s final year in the America East play out?
It’s been a great run in the conference for the Seawolves. Since joining the America East in 2002, they’ve gone to the NCAA Tournament six times and reached the College World Series in 2012. Stony Brook has the best winning percentage (.627) of any current member and will immediately compete for titles the CAA.
However, the Seawolves won’t make the move until the 2023 season, which leaves one final run in the conference they have thrived in for two decades. While they’ll likely be unable to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, the team will want to avenge last season’s results. Last year’s America East Tournament left a bad taste in Stony Brook’s mouth, seeing as they went into a rain delay with the lead over NJIT in the first of potentially two games to decide the champion—only to have that game and the ensuing game postponed. The Highlanders earned the automatic bid as they’d not lost in the tournament, but the Seawolves felt hard done. After being skipped over, the offseason was filled with prolific departures. Stony Brook had nine all-conference selections in 2021 and only four are back. The Seawolves must replace John Tuccillo, Chris Hamilton, and John LaRocca in the lineup as well as Sam Turcotte, Jared Milch and Brian Herrmann in the rotation.
There’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Stony Brook, though. Outside of the fact that head coach Matt Senk has steered the Seawolves to a .500 or better mark in all but five of his 31 full seasons at the helm, the team has plenty of talent. Righthander Nick DeGennaro (8-3, 3.14) will lead the rotation, while third baseman Evan Giordano (.314/.412/.515, 7 HR) and catcher Shane Paradine (.328/.397/.519, 4 HR) form a strong duo in the lineup. Keep an eye on shortstop Stanton Leuthner (.274/.348/.462, 13 SB)—he’s talented defensively and a plus runner.
Will there be a sixth straight year of a different auto-bid team?
Since 2016, the conference tournament has crowned Binghamton, UMBC, Hartford, Stony Brook, and NJIT. With Stony Brook out of contention as of today, NJIT is the odds-on favorite, but Maine, Albany and Massachusetts-Lowell are teams that could extend that streak of different auto-bid recipients. Of that group, Albany seems the most likely to make a run and earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
After finishing a half-game back of Stony Brook for the regular season title in 2019, Albany bounced back after the pandemic-shortened year by winning the temporarily created Division A. The Great Danes did so comfortably but lost a pair of one-run games to NJIT and Stony Brook in the conference tournament to bring their season to an end. That mirrored their 2019 America East Tournament appearance, when they lost back-to-back games to quickly end their campaign. Getting over the final hurdle and winning the conference tournament has proven difficult for Albany. If there’s a year for the Great Danes to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, there’s a good chance it could be this one.
Albany returns the entirety of its weekend rotation, headlined by Ray Weber (7-2, 3.69) and Anthony Germinerio (3-5, 3.97). Cregg Scherrer (4-4, 4.92) and Connor Eisenmann (2-5, 5.95) are expected to take steps forward, while closer Rob Manetta (2-3, 3.69) is back. The lineup is similarly intact with the up-the-middle combination of John Marti (.349/.422/.592, 7 HR) and Brad Malm (.345/.415/.546) coming off seasons in which they finished fourth and sixth in the conference in batting average. If an experienced supporting cast that includes John Daly (.248/.384/.383), Will Feil (.226/.381/.304), and Jason Bottari (.258/.340/.282) can improve offensively, the Great Danes might have enough to get over the hump.
How will Hartford deal with turnover amidst a transition to Division III?
In 2011, Blood took the reins at Hartford after the Hawks had managed just six wins the previous season. He engaged in an impressive rebuilding project, eventually leading Hartford to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history in 2018. Now, just three years after that, Blood is off to Keene State and longtime assistant Steve Malinowski inherits a roster filled with prominent departures and fresh faces.
Three-fourths of the rotation is gone, headlined by undrafted free agent Nick Dombkowski and transfers Nathan Florence (Rutgers) and Ken Turner (Bryant). Reigning America East player of the year John Thrasher will use his final year of eligibility at Kentucky, while second baseman Drew DeMartino departed for Massachusetts. The Hawks finished two games under .500 during a conference-only schedule last season, so they could take some lumps early. The team will need big seasons from players that haven’t gotten much experience if they want to mirror a run like La Salle in 2021—the Explorers responded to the cutting of their program by winning a program-record 32 games.
Tim Blaisdell (4-3, 4.53) is the only returning starting pitcher and will be looking to build off a strong summer in the New England Collegiate Baseball League—he posted an 11.7 K/9 across 12 appearances as a closer. Righthander James Judenis has bounced between the rotation and bullpen over his four years with the Hawks but will assume a starting role, while transfer Rob Chaney (York) and Ryan LaPierre round out the rotation. Keep an eye on senior righthander Will Nowak, too—he missed 2021 due to Tommy John surgery but will assume a closer role and is only a few years removed from America East all-rookie team honors. Offensively, Hartford will count on returnees Tremayne Cobb (.308/.386/.427), Derek Tenney (.303/.361/.561), and Donnie Cohoon (.259/.328/.407) as well as potentially impactful junior college transfer Logan Cole and Connecticut transfer Ben Maycock. A lot has changed since the announcement of the move down, but Malinowski is an experienced coach and Hartford could make some noise in what’ll be a D-I swan song of sorts.
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Will Hartford and Stony Brook’s hold over the Player of the Year award come to an end?
For the last seven years, a player from Hartford or Stony Brook has won the league’s player of the year award. Last season, it was Hawks’ outfielder John Thrasher, who took home the honors after hitting .369/.470/.680 with 37 stolen bases. In the four seasons prior to Thrasher’s win, it alternated between Stony Brook and Hartford. While this year’s favorite may very well be Stony Brook’s Evan Giordano—after hitting .314/.412/.515 with 19 extra base hits, 40 runs and 39 RBIs last season—there are several strong contenders.
NJIT’s Albert Choi was the conference’s rookie of the year winner in 2021, hitting .311/.389/.515 with a league-high 43 runs scored while going 27-for-28 on stolen base attempts. The third-year sophomore will be atop the Highlanders returnee-heavy lineup this year and could top his stats with another year of experience. Choi isn’t the top returning hitter on his own team, though, as outfielder Julio Marcano is a fifth-year senior coming off a .322/.425/.567 season. Marcano has more pop—he slugged 10 home runs in 2022—and is an RBI machine in the middle of the order, racking up 42 last year. His patience at the plate (28 walks, 29 strikeouts) makes him one of the more dangerous hitters in the conference.
Other contenders include UMass-Lowell outfielder Gerry Siracusa, Albany first baseman Johnny Marti, and UMBC outfielder Ian Diaz. Siracusa was off to an excellent start as a sophomore in 2020, but really turned it on in 2021. While he was limited to 31 games due to injury, he posted hit .370, which would have topped the conference had he had enough at bats to qualify, with eight stolen bases, 13 extra base hits. Marti—a former Lafayette and Delaware transfer—impressed in his first year at Albany with a .349/.422/.592 slash line and the third-best OPS (1.014) among America East hitters. Diaz hit .346/.441/.603 with eight home runs and followed it up with a strong summer in the Valley Baseball League.
Can UMass-Lowell’s crop of newcomers come together?
Of all the teams in the conference, UMass-Lowell might have the most interesting roster. The River Hawks finished third in Division A in 2021 after starting the year 1-8 in non-conference play. However, Ken Harring’s 22nd year the helm will be overseeing a team that’s almost completely changed or younger players.
The lineup will likely feature four transfers and a freshman, replacing the likes of Keagan Calero, Cam Climo, and Vinnie Martin. Catcher Ryan Proto (.298/.374/.404), third baseman Robert Gallagher (.266/.384/.427) and DH Jimmy Sullivan (.341/.416/.444) join Siracusa as the four returnees. Three-fourths of the infield will be brand-new, whether it’s junior college transfer Frank Wayman at first, true freshman Jacob Humphrey at second or Virginia Tech transfer Fritz Genther at short. Humphrey stood out for the River Hawks in the fall, playing his way out of a redshirt and into the starting lineup, while Genther is a plus defender who will hope a change of scenery can help get his bat going. Plus, there’s another two junior college transfers in Trey Brown and Matt Tobin to take the corner outfield positions. UMass-Lowell was second-to-last in the conference in runs per game last season, but a group of new faces could help turn that around.
Submarine righthander Matt Draper moves from the rotation to the closer role, joining righthander Henry Funaro (4 SV, 3.49) as a capable duo in the bullpen. Meanwhile, top starter Josh Becker (5-4, 3.52) returns and will be joined by righthander Sal Fusco (1-1, 2.60), freshman southpaw LJ Keevan, and sophomore righthander Michael Quigley. There are plenty of question marks—Fusco hasn’t been a starter since he posted a 9.72 ERA as a freshman in 2019 while Quigley and Keevan will be new to the role—but if the newcomers can gel the River Hawks could improve on a 5.08 ERA that ranked third in the America East last season.
Top Five 2022 Draft Prospects
1. Tom Babalis, LHP, Binghamton
2. Nick DeGennaro, RHP, Stony Brook
3. Stanton Leuthner, SS, Stony Brook
4. Albert Choi, OF, NJIT
5. Sal Fusco, RHP, UMass-Lowell