It’s almost time to put away the shovels and break out the bats. Baseball is back in Connecticut. Okay, so maybe no games are being played in The Nutmeg State just yet. But, baseball programs from Connecticut’s top colleges and universities are traveling down south this weekend to kick of their 2017 campaigns. I will be taking a brief look at each school and asking what challenges lie ahead for them as each will look to bring some hardware back to Connecticut.
CCSU Blue Devils – 2016 Record: 23-34 (15-17 NEC):
Expectations: Despite going winless in the postseason last year, the Blue Devils have high expectations for 2017. Receiving two first-place votes and being picked second in the preseason coaches’ poll, head coach Charlie Hickey’s squad is expected to make a run at a fifth conference title. The Blue Devils return ace pitcher Andrew Hinckley for his senior year. Hinckley was named to the All-NEC First Team after going 8-4 with a 3.73 ERA. The pitcher was a consistent offensive option for CCSU as well, batting .283 with three dingers on the season. Also returning will be the big bat of Dean Lockery. A fellow All-NEC First Teamer, Lockery hit .344 with 32 runs scored and 21 RBIs, starting all 57 games last year.
Biggest Challenge: Replacing Matt Martinez and Connor Fitzsimons
The Blue Devils lost two of their best offensive threats to graduation in Matt Martinez and Connor Fitzsimons. Martinez batted .323 in Northeast Conference Games and drove in 21 runs with 23 runs scored. Fitzsimons was named to the All-Northeast Conference First Team after leading his squad with 29 RBIs. His .321 batting average was second-best on the team, trailing only Lockery. The team will need to replace this output, but that’s easier said than done, of course.
Fairfield Stags – 2016 Record: 32-26 (17-7 MAAC):
Expectations: After taking home the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship last season, the Fairfield Stags were selected to repeat in the MAAC Preseason Poll. This is with good reason, as much of head coach Bill Currier’s title-winning squad has remained intact for 2017. Two-time captain and Avon, Conn. native Mac Crispino will be entering his senior season after coming off his best year yet. As a junior, Crispino hit .329 in MAAC games and had a .361 batting average with runners in scoring position, earning him All-MAAC second team recognition. Also returning to the Stags is power-hitting outfielder Troy Scocca. Last season, Scocca finished second on the team with a .434 slugging percentage. The senior put the bat into overdrive down the stretch, hitting .345 in his final 25 games with three hits in the NCAA regionals. Scocca was also an All-MAAC Second Team selection.
Biggest Challenge: Who will be the next Jake Salpietro?
While most of last year’s team is returning, one massive hole has been left by the graduation of Jake Salpietro.The outfielder set program records with 77 hits and 128 total bases in his senior season, hitting a whopping .344 across all competition. Salpietro was named to the All-MAAC First Team and was the MAAC Tournament MVP. Replacing his firepower will come down to a collective effort by the 2017 team.
New Haven Chargers – 2016 Record: 17-20 (10-12 NE10):
Expectations: The Chargers are expected to finish fourth according to the Northeast-10 Southwest Division preseason coaches’ poll. New Haven will be returning two All-Conference players in Branford, Conn. native Robert Petrillo and Andrew Garcia. Petrillo led the team with a staggering .356 batting average, scoring 20 runs in the process. He played in all 37 of the team’s games and was named to the NE10’s All-Second Team. As a freshman, Garcia hit .298 with 18 RBI. He was named to the NE10’s All-Rookie team and should see an even bigger role in 2017.
Biggest Challenge: Can P.J. Contreras hold up as the starting catcher?
The Chargers are in relatively good shape with much of their position players and pitchers returning for 2017. However, the team lost starting catcher T.J. Riccio to graduation. Riccio hit .277 and was a reliable option behind the plate, starting in 35 of the team’s games. With the only other catcher on the roster being freshman Gaetano Famiglietti, the vast majority of the load will fall on sophomore P.J. Contreras. Last year, he hit .212 and will need to improve on that number to have an output similar to his predecessor.
Hartford Hawks – 2016 Record: 37-18 (14-9 America East):
Expectations: Coming off a program record-setting 37-win season and a conference semifinals appearance in 2016, the Hawks will be looking to go even further this year. Playing his sophomore season with Hartford will be catcher and designated hitter Erik Ostberg. As a freshman, Ostberg hit .340 and started 54 games. He was a First Team All-New England and a Second Team All-Conference selection last year. Also returning is the huge bat of David MacKinnon. The senior first baseman hit an eye-popping .392 last year with a .544 slugging percentage. He was named the America East Player of the Year and was also named to the All-New England and All-Northeast Region Second Teams.
Biggest Challenge: Replacing Aaron Wilson and other seniors
The Hawks lost nine seniors to graduation, including five pitchers and starting second baseman Aaron Wilson. The senior infielder was a constant source of offense for the Hawks, batting a career-high .347 and ending the season on a 10-game hit streak. He was named a First-Team All-New England and a Second Team All-Conference Selection. This year’s squad features just four seniors, so they will need to provide the leadership to guide this young but talented Hawks team.
Quinnipiac Bobcats – 2016 Record: 21-31 (10-14 MAAC):
Expectations: The Bobcats are entering the season with much lower expectations than the Red Foxes down I-95, tabbed to finish seventh in the MAAC Preseason Coaches Poll. Last year, the team missed the MAAC Tournament for the first time in program history. Senior shortstop and Shelton, Conn. native Matthew Batten returns to lead the Quinnipiac offense into 2017. He hit .344 with four homers and 25 RBI last season. These numbers earned him a spot on the All-MAAC Second Team, and his 73 hits were the fourth most in program history for a single season. Also returning for the Bobcats is pitcher Matthew Osieja. The senior led the team with a 2.70 ERA and made 24 appearances, all in relief.
Biggest Challenge: Replacing Offense and Thomas Jankins
Last year, the Bobcats had five players bat .291 or higher. One of them was Batten, and the rest left for graduation. Quinnipiac will need to find offense from its underclassmen to replace and rejuvenate an offense that had a team average of just .258 when the rest of the MAAC averaged .294. Also foregoing his senior year and departing from Quinnipiac was pitcher Thomas Jankins who led the team in innings pitched last year. Jankins leaves the program after being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 13th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. He sits in eighth place for most strikeouts in program history with 180. With key losses at offense and at pitching, Quinnipiac head coach John Delaney will have his hands full in his third year at the helm.
Sacred Heart Pioneers – 2016 Record: 30-28 (18-13 NEC):
Expectations: The Pioneers were selected to finish third in the Northeast Conference Preseason Coaches Poll, right behind CCSU. In 2016, Sacred Heart made its eighth-straight NEC Baseball Tournament appearance and reached the 30-win plateau for the fifth time in the past seven years. Captains Ted Shaw and Jake Friar both return for their senior seasons to lead a strong Pioneers offense. Shaw, a native of Southington, Conn., led the team with 41 runs. Friar boasted a solid .288 batting average, playing both catcher and designated hitter. Ace James Taubl will return to the mound for his junior year. The New Haven, Conn. pitcher had a 2.16 ERA, the second-best in the NEC.
Biggest Challenge: Finding More Offense
The Pioneers hit just .265 as a team last year, below the conference average of .282. The team also lost its two best hitters in Victor Sorrento and Jayson Sullivan to graduation. Sorrento hit .307 and drove in 44 RBIs, team-highs in both categories. Sullivan was second on the team for batting average with .298, and fourth in RBIs with 27. The Pioneers will need to have their younger players be better at the plate if they want to go deeper into the postseason.
SCSU Owls – 2016 Record: 16-25-1 (8-14 NE10):
Expectations: Preseason rankings showed SCSU was picked to finish fifth in the Northeast-10, right behind crosstown rival, New Haven. The Owls feature a total of 13 transfers, giving the team a vastly different look from previous squads. One player who has spent his entire collegiate career at SCSU is senior Ethan Joyce. The shortstop was tied for second last year in batting average, hitting at a .288 clip and driving in 21 runs. With several changes to the team’s roster in the offseason, where the Owls finish will ultimately depend on how well the new pieces fit into the puzzle.
Biggest Challenge: Can a transfer fill the void left by Jake Paul?
The most glaring loss for this program is Jake Paul to graduation. The star outfielder led the Owls with an incredible .381 batting average and had 24 RBIs. He was an All-Northeast-10 Conference selection in 2016, and replacing his productivity at the plate will be the biggest challenge for veteran head coach Tim Shea. Perhaps the answer lies in one of the team’s older newcomers. If you don’t have an attachment to any of the schools listed here, consider rooting for SCSU and its 22 players from Connecticut.
UConn Huskies – 2016 Record: 38-25 (14-9 American):
Expectations: After winning last year’s American Athletic Conference Tournament, the 2017 UConn Huskies will look to reload and repeat. The Huskies were picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason poll, to which UConn head coach Jim Penders commented, “Foul poles are more interesting to me than preseason polls.” UConn returns senior co-captain Willy Yahn who led the team last year with a .319 batting average. The Sharon, Conn. native also led the team in hits with 88. Sophomore pitcher Tim Cate will be back the mound after a strong freshman year. The southpaw made 13 starts and posted a 5-1 record with a 2.73 ERA. He was just the sixth UConn pitcher to record 100 strikeouts in a single-season with 101.
Biggest Challenge: Replacing Anthony Kay
The New York Mets drafted hard-throwing pitcher Anthony Kay with the 31st overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. Kay posted a 9-2 record last year during his junior season, recording a 2.65 ERA and a team-best 111 strikeouts. He set a program record with 263 career punch outs and was selected as the American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year. Replacing a talent like that will be no easy task, but the Huskies are talented enough to have a shot at repeating even with this loss.
Yale Bulldogs – 2016 Record: 19-28-1 (11-9 Ivy)
Expectations: Last year, the Bulldogs won the Red Rolfe Division and pushed Princeton to three games before falling in the Ivy League Championship series. Coming that close to victory and losing can be a powerful source of motivation for a team returning 18 lettermen and nearly all of its pitching staff. Senior captain Richard Slenker will be back after leading the team with a strong .342 batting average. He played in every game for the Bulldogs last year, picking up second team All-Ivy League honors for his efforts at the hot corner. Also retuning is sophomore pitcher Scott Politz. He had six wins and was a freshman All-American pitcher who also received First Team All-Ivy honors.
Biggest Challenge: Replacing offense from losing Nate Adams
While most of the team is returning ready to make another run at the title, the Bulldogs lost a major piece of their offense in Nate Adams. The utility player batted .331 last season, good for second on the team. His 10 doubles also had him tied for second on the team as he scored a total of 21 runs off 43 hits. Should the Bulldogs find some of its younger members able to step up and contribute some more firepower, Yale could find itself with another shot at the title.