The memories were wonderful for Stony Brook Baseball: the walk-off homer against UMass Lowell in the America East Tournament; the swinging strike for the title win over Binghamton on the Bearcats’ home turf; the sixth NCAA Tournament appearance and the return to Alex Box Stadium seven years after the Seawolves upended the Louisiana State (LSU) Tigers there to make college baseball history.
Now it’s time for Stony Brook to put the past behind them and focus on the task in front of them. Picked to finish second in the America East by the preseason coaches’ poll — behind the Binghamton Bearcats — the Seawolves’ sole focus is making it two in a row. Then again, Stony Brook has been here before. Last year’s squad was also slated to place second, and that ended fruitfully.
“It was pretty awesome,” junior catcher John Tuccillo said about making the NCAA Tournament in an interview with The Statesman. “I never had an experience like that before. Knowing the history between Stony Brook and LSU, a lot of fans whenever we went out would be talking to us, telling us, ‘It’s not going to happen again this year.’ It’s pretty cool and a life-changing experience.”
A lot of firepower has been lost for Stony Brook, as three of the top four batters in last year’s lineup are no longer with the team. Juniors infielder Nick Grande and outfielder Michael Wilson passed on their last season of NCAA eligibility, being selected in the 2019 MLB Draft, while senior infielder Brandon Alamo graduated. Wilson was drafted in the 16th round by the Milwaukee Brewers and played a game at Triple-A as a result of September call-ups, while Grande was taken in the 17th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, playing 44 games in Low-A Hillsboro before announcing his retirement at the age of 21.
“I feel confident in the guys that we have,” senior first baseman Chris Hamilton said. “We definitely lost a lot from last year, but I feel confident about the guys that are coming in.”
Hamilton, the lone survivor from the top of the order, is coming off a season where he set career highs in batting average, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. The Seawolves also get back graduate outfielder Cristian Montes, who missed all of 2019 due to a rotator cuff injury. Both of those players are expected to be slotted in the middle of the order this season.
“Some of the returners will need to step it up,” head coach Matt Senk said in an interview with The Statesman. “Johnny Decker, John Tuccillo, Brad Hipsley has been swinging the bat well. We’ll run several people through there over the next couple of weeks and it’ll work itself out.”
A healthy Montes is key for Stony Brook. The defense-first center fielder from California’s Glendale Community College played errorless ball in his 2018 junior season and is excited to contribute to the team after being sidelined for so long.
“I just can’t wait to play,” Montes said in an interview with The Statesman. “I know I’m going to do well … This game has a lot of mental [components]. You’re going to fail seven out of 10 times, and those three times you do succeed, that’s what makes you a good hitter.”
Changes will be coming on the pitching end too. Greg Marino and Bret Clarke, the two arms who made the most starts for the Seawolves last year, have graduated. Senk threw out numerous names he expected to contribute to the rotation in 2020, including senior pitcher Jared Milch, senior pitcher Sam Turcotte and sophomore pitcher Nick DeGennaro.
The righty Turcotte was primarily used as Stony Brook’s closer last year, recording a team-high seven saves, but Senk plans to give him the chance to start. “It’s good to know that if we need Sam, we can use him in a lot of different roles,” Senk said. With Turcotte in the rotation, senior pitcher Brandon Bonanno will step into the closing role.
Another pitcher to keep an eye on is senior pitcher Brian Herrmann. Herrmann was limited to eight starts in 2019 having suffered a complete tear of his elbow ligament and is expected to make his return from Tommy John surgery in mid-March.
“With the entire outfield, middle infield and three starters gone, it’s a legitimate concern,” Senk said. “But it’s a great opportunity for the returners. We feel like we brought in a really talented class of freshmen. It’s a long season. Once we start playing, guys will step up and we’ll be able to put together a solid lineup, a solid pitching staff and bullpen.”
Of the 12 freshmen, most are planned to contribute this season. Catcher Shane Paradine can also play first base; infielders Stanton Leuthner and Brett Paulsen impressed with their athleticism in the fall; outfielders Derek Yalon and Ellis Schwartz will be given opportunities right away due to positional needs; pitchers Josh O’Neill, Brendan Disonell and Brandon Lashley are expected to take the mound.
The Seawolves open their season with 10 straight games on the road, playing in warm-weather locations. Their season began on Friday, Feb. 14, the first game of a 4-game series against the Texas State Bobcats, whose alumni include notable big-leaguers Paul Goldschmidt and Marcus Thames. Then, series with the Clemson Tigers of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Southeastern Louisiana Lions round out the road trip.
“It’s a matter of going out and competing,” Senk said. “If they do that, I’m not that concerned about the wins and losses, especially going to the places we’re going to early in the year. It really is more about going out there and competing for the good of the team.”
Stony Brook makes its return to Joe Nathan Field on Saturday, Mar. 7 for their home opener — a doubleheader against the CCSU Blue Devils. The hunt for a second straight America East championship is on all the Seawolves’ minds, and they believe they have what it takes to come out on top yet again.