Slow start, fast finish: SU baseball’s road to their second-straight CAC Title

By ZACH GILLELAND

Staff Writer

@_zachariahg

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Senior catcher Tom LaBriola takes a swing at the plate vs. Oswego St. earlier this season. Hannah Wichrowski photo

It is a frenzy in front of the mound.

A dogpile ensues as junior right hander Connor Reeves induces a flyout to end the game. The Sea Gulls (31-9), who tacked on 21 against Mary Washington on a rainy Saturday, won their second-straight Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) Championship.

A few games remain before Salisbury baseball embarks on its eighteenth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Ranked No. 10 in the D3baseball.com top-25 poll and winners of eight of their last nine, SU has all the momentum heading into the tournament.

“Winning the conference—we got our goal,” senior pitcher Pete Grasso said after the CAC Championship game on April 22. “We’re not finished, so we’re going to focus on the [NCAA] Regional and take it one step at a time. It’s a good feeling, but we know we’re not done.”

It was not always smooth sailing for the eventual CAC Champions. Playing tough non-conference games against State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) opponents, Cortland St. and Oswego St., the Sea Gulls found themselves 2-4 to start the season. SU head coach Troy Brohawn said he wanted a tough schedule to prepare his players for the rest of the year.

“I love to win more than anybody,” coach Brohawn said. “Wins and losses early might be important, but they’re not as important as getting your team ready to play at the end of the year and playing good baseball.”

The story at the beginning of the season was about walks and defense. Coach Brohawn, throughout the year, emphasized to his pitchers the importance of limiting walks and errors on defense.

Those two items hampered SU when facing some of the nation’s top offenses. In the first seven games of the season, the pitching staff issued 48 walks and the defense committed 20 errors.

That seven-game stretch led the staff to allow an average of 10.42 runs per game.

A liability earlier in the season, the pitching staff became a strength the rest of the way for the Sea Gulls. In the games following the 13-12 win over Oswego St. on Feb. 25, the pitching staff only allowed 10 runs once the rest of the season—a 25-10 win over Wesley in the CAC semifinals.

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The Sea Gulls celebrate their 2017 CAC Championship. Zach Gilleland photo

Highlighted by a four-man rotation of seniors Pete Grasso, Jeff Oster, Micah Wells and junior Connor Reeves, the staff has flourished, with three Salisbury starters placing in the top-10 in ERA in the conference. And since that seven-game stretch, the pitching staff holds a 2.87 ERA in its last 31 games.

The pitching resurgence has seen the Sea Gulls move to second in the conference in ERA. Coach Brohawn says that he stresses that his pitchers have confidence and the competitive toughness of being out on the mound.

“Not everyone has the arm of a Pete Grasso on the mound,” coach Brohawn said. “But if you believe that you are good with what you have, success is right around the corner.”

The offense that has built Salisbury’s success in the past two decades also had its ups and downs. A March 7 trip to Neumann University just outside of Philadelphia saw the team do something it has never done under Brohawn in his three seasons at SU.

The Sea Gulls lost to the Knights 6-1 that day. What looked like an ordinary loss proved to be something extraordinary—the maroon and gold failed to record a hit.

With a lineup that features nine batters batting over .300, when SU is hot, it is difficult for opposing pitchers to quiet the bats. But when the bats go quiet, Salisbury has a mixed bag of success. The Sea Gulls are 4-7 this season when failing to score more than five runs in a game.

SU found themselves in a similar position last season. With a .338 batting average that led the way, the Salisbury bats cooled as the team fell in the NCAA Regionals to Penn State-Berks, only scoring two runs in 12 innings.

But unlike a season ago, which featured three one-run victories in the CAC Tournament, this Sea Gull offense caught fire. Salisbury won each tournament game by double digits, including a 21-0 win over Mary Washington in the championship game.

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Junior outfielder Kyle Canavan steps up to the plate vs. Oswego St. Hannah Wichrowski photo

But after a few bumps in the road, the SU offense is still one of its greatest features. The Sea Gulls’ .317 average is good for second in the conference and their 47 home runs outpaces the next school by 12.

“Hitting is very contagious,” coach Brohawn said. “When one, two, three of the guys start doing it, I think that confidence floats over to the rest of the guys and they put good at-bats together.”

It is about leaving a legacy.

Coach Brohawn talks about each senior class leaving their own legacy at SU. He says the motivation is always getting back to the NCAA Tournament.

“Do you want to be remembered as that class that doesn’t get there?” coach Brohawn said. “We’ll have a pretty big senior class next year and now it’s their job to carry that on after we finish what we’re doing this year.”

May 17 starts the beginning of the NCAA Regionals. With a 31-9 record and back-to-back CAC Championships, coach Brohawn has confidence in his team.

“I’ll take our starters over anyone in the country,” coach Brohawn said. “We have to pitch and play defense to do anything in the postseason and if we don’t do that, it’s going to be an early exit. If we do that, we have a chance to do some damage.”

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