Ethan Tam, sports editor, is a senior applied mathematics & statistics and economics major.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the untimely end of the Stony Brook baseball team’s 2020 season. Now, a widely criticized decision by the America East Conference has prematurely ended Stony Brook’s 2021 season.
In the double-elimination tournament, Stony Brook advanced to the America East championship round. The Seawolves needed to beat the NJIT Highlanders twice to take home the title since Stony Brook had already lost once in the tournament while the Highlanders had not.
On Saturday, May 29, it appeared as if Stony Brook was in command of forcing a final game. Graduate outfielder John LaRocca pulled off a straight steal of home that made the SportsCenter Top 10 list. Three straight walks loaded the bases in the third inning for graduate first baseman Chris Hamilton, one of the Seawolves’ most dangerous hitters.
What would have happened from that point on is now unknown.
Despite being up 1-0 and ready to blow the game open, Stony Brook never had a chance. The game entered a rain delay, then suspended and rescheduled for Sunday, then postponed again on Sunday with no notice of restarting. Around noon, the America East abruptly announced the game’s and the tournament’s cancellation.
NJIT received the automatic bid from the America East instead of Stony Brook, the highest seed remaining and regular-season champions who set the record for most conference wins in a season. Without a completed postseason, the team with the strongest overall resume should have been rewarded with a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“Prior to today’s decision, we exhausted every option available to finish our championship,” Conference Commissioner Amy Huchthausen tweeted.
If only they did. No, the America East failed in a multitude of ways.
NJIT graduate pitcher Jared Kacso entered Saturday’s game with a 6.79 ERA and more walks than strikeouts on the season. The loss of control he exhibited in the third inning was not uncharacteristic of his usual performance, yet the umpiring staff gladly agreed to the Highlanders’ request to call for a rain delay, made in fear of the Seawolves breaking the game wide open.
It was a poor decision at the time — with more rain forecasted for Sunday, it would have been best to get as many innings in on Saturday instead of halting a game currently in progress. The inability to resume the game only makes this look worse in hindsight.
Rain was predicted to disrupt the tournament up to a week ahead of time. The conference could have been proactive and moved all postseason games forward a day to prevent weather conflicts, or at the very least pushed the second Stony Brook-Maine game to Friday, giving the championship round two full days to finish.
Huchthausen’s claim that the America East “exhausted every option” contradicts her choice to cancel the tournament shortly after noon rather than try to play until sunset. The Northeast Conference (NEC), on the other hand, refused to give up and played its final game at 5:45 p.m. Although the NEC only had to play one game compared to the America East’s two, they attempted to finish as much of the tournament as possible, unlike the America East.
Of course, the time frame to play was limited because of Joe Nathan Field’s lack of lights. It is an issue that has prevented Stony Brook from hosting the conference tournament in the past. Plans to add lights to Joe Nathan Field were floated around as early as 2017 but have never come to fruition. This scenario may have been avoided if they had completed the project as planned.
Other schools in the conference, such as Hartford and UMass Lowell, have the luxury of playing in minor league ballparks, but as much as Stony Brook has talked about upgrading its baseball facilities, there have been no results. Perhaps this controversy will inspire the athletic department to finally get the renovations done.
The America East’s decision to hold the postseason at the regular-season champion regardless of lighting conditions opened the door to this rain disruption, and it became clear that it would be the case when Stony Brook clinched home-field advantage a week before the regular season ended.
Rather than putting together a solid contingency plan with the extra time, the conference just pointed fingers at Joe Nathan Field’s absence of lights in its official statement, although it was widely known beforehand. They did not account for the genuine possibility of rain disrupting the game.
We can draw parallels between this and the NCAA’s bungling of the Baton Rouge regional in women’s golf earlier this year. Mishandling the end of a postseason with tournament berths at stake just reinforces the small-time image of this conference, which stands in stark opposition to what Stony Brook says it strives for.
Negative press already surrounded the America East, with Hartford dropping to Division III soon after its first March Madness appearance and Vermont’s athletic department allegedly covering up a rape committed by a prominent men’s basketball star.
Nothing is more painful for the Stony Brook program than opening the America East season 15-1 only to have its chance to compete for an NCAA bid taken away despite all the previous success the Seawolves had brought to the conference.