OMAHA, Neb. – By Thursday afternoon, most of Stony Brook’s players had mastered the art.
Stand in the middle of a cavernous 25,000-seat stadium most had only dreamed of stepping foot in on a sun-kissed June day and act like it was no big deal.
Longtime Seawolves coach Matt Senk still hadn’t gotten that completely down, though.
Ready or not, the Stony Brook baseball team does its best ‘Hoosiers’ imitation Friday at the 2012 College World Series, taking the national stage for all the little guys who’ve never been here but long to be just like every other Division I college team that laces up its cleats and endures rain, snow and heat.
The Seawolves (52-13) will face No. 2 national seed UCLA (47-14) at 4 p.m. CDT in the CWS opener.
“(Thursday) was amazing,” Senk said, still seeming a little awed by the heights his program has vaulted to by winning the Coral Gables Regional and then going to Baton Rouge, La., and winning a Super Regional there against mighty LSU.
“The autograph session was just blowing our minds. And the people of Omaha, since we've been here have been absolutely incredible. But our attention will be turning back to baseball, and they feel very good about what they've accomplished to this point. I think they don’t want to disappoint. More than anything, they don't want to disappoint each other, and not go out there and play their very best. So that's a balance we're hoping to strike.”
The Stony Brook players’ theme? We got this, coach.
After all, it’s been Senk who all along told players as they were being recruited that the College World Series was always the goal. He began at Stony Brook 22 years ago as a part-time coach of a Division III program struggling to survive and has guided the Seawolves to college baseball’s version of Broadway.
No reason for Senk to keep motivating now. His sermon has sunk in. And the coach who grew up 15 minutes down Long Island from Stony Brook has taught his team well.
“We need to take all of our pictures now and then get ready to get down to business,” first baseman Kevin Courtney said. “We didn’t just come here to visit. We want to win a national championship.”
That might seem like a far-fetched notion, but the Seawolves have pretty much looked far-fetched in the grill and refused to blink the last few weeks.
Is there still some disbelief among the players? Sure. But that’s not founded in any kind of feeling of not belonging here with heavyweights from the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC.
“Absolutely not,” third baseman Willie Carmona said when asked if he ever thought Stony Brook would wind up at the CWS. “This is a kid’s dream. Being here is unbelievable. We’ve already won just by being here. But we earned it. We’ve shown the whole country we can play with anybody.”
How exactly that happened is pretty amazing itself.
The Seawolves’ roster is made up primarily of players from the Northeast with a handful of Californians sprinkled in and a few more from Canada.
Assistant coach Joe Pennuci heads up recruiting and said the philosophy is to start with the Long Island and New York City areas – if you don’t know by now, Stony Brook is perched at the northern edge of Long Island – and fan out.
With no boundaries as it turns out. The Seawolves’ top two starting pitchers, Tyler Johnson and Brandon McNitt, are from the Los Angeles area. Johnson gets the start against UCLA, adding an interesting twist to a story line already burgeoning.
“We’ll go to the moon if we have to,” Pennuci said, then smiled and turned questioner. “You hear of any good players on the moon?”
Pennuci, a Colorado native, said Stony Brook’s formula for success isn’t that much different than most programs that excelled through the years. Find good players who fit, coach them well and establish chemistry along the way.
“We trust our eyes and then we try to develop guys,” Pennuci said. “This is such a special group in how they have come together and play so well together.”
The difference this season is that the Seawolves seemed to have found a perfect blend of talent (seven Major League Baseball draft picks), experience (five juniors or seniors in the starting nine plus Johnson) and motivation. That last element stems from being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee after going 42-14 during the regular season but losing unexpectedly in the America East tournament.
|If a slogan sticks: Shock the world|
When this season began, Stony Brook’s goals started taking shape and have morphed into a basic, audacious intention: Shock the world. With that mission accomplished, Pennuci – as much as he wants to soak up the Omaha experience as long as he can – is eager to get back on the recruiting trail.
“Getting here has to help us (recruit),” he said. “Everything we truly believed could happen at Stony Brook has happened. It’s not a fairytale anymore. It’s fact.”
A fairytale that arrives at a new, thrilling and unlikely chapter Friday.