By John Cirillo
Ivey Lee Speight contributed to this story
Follow us on Twitter at JohnnySportsMan
Fairfield University (31-24) head coach Bill Currier and his Stags baseball team have certainly been giving opposing coaches, batters and hurlers the hives, as in an allergic reaction brought forth by an onslaught of clutch hitting and timely pitching.
The barrage reached its crescendo on Saturday afternoon (May 28) at Dutchess Stadium in Wappingers Falls, New York, when # 1 seed Fairfield swept through the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament with an 18-2 whupping of #2 seed Siena College to earn its first MAAC Conference championship since 1983. That’s when Hall of Famer Don Cook was cookin’, skippering the Stags as he led the program to prominence.
The 18 runs and margin of victory were both MAAC tournament records.
“We thought we had something a lot more special than the preseason ranking of eighth,” said Coach C. “We certainly had to prove it to ourselves and we did that. I think that’s the best way to do it. Keep proving it over the course of the season and in baseball it’s an endurance run. We kept proving it to ourselves, and kept believing in ourselves.”
MAAC Coach of the Year Currier is leaving his mark as one of baseball’s elite skippers in the college ranks, vaulting the Stags to its first NCAA Regional berth in program history. The skipper exudes a confidence that is contagious amongst his players.
When Fairfield gained its first championship round appearance in school annals on the strength of Friday’s win over Canisius, center fielder Drew Arciulo said: “It’s pretty unbelievable. We know we have this kind of talent and this kind of hard work. We have to stay focused and we’re one win away from doing what we’ve been working for.” But the coach was quick to modify his sophomore fly chaser’s comments: “I can believe it…It’s where we expect to be.”
What was expected to be a pressurized finale quickly became a runaway win – back to those hives for the Saints – when the Stags scored a pair of runs in the opening stanza and kept piling on the runs with efficient hitting.
The poised arm of freshman John Signore, who was handed the ball for this critical game despite his youth, kept the Siena hitters at bay. The rookie scattered six hits over his seven inning stint. Aaron Howell closed it out for the Stags.
The Saints by no means were a pushover. Siena had staved off elimination twice on Friday, first ousting No. 6 seed and tournament host Manhattan 15-4, before knocking out defending MAAC Champion and fourth seeded Canisius 5-0, catapulting the Saints to their fourth consecutive MAAC tournament final appearance.
But this game was all about the hitting. Right fielder Jake Salpietro continued his heroics, and was named MAAC Tournament MVP. Hitting a blistering .692 on the strength of a 9-for-13 barrage in the three Fairfield wins, which included three hits and three RBI in the finale, and four doubles and seven runs scored during the tournament.
Catcher Kevin Radziewicz continued his torrid hitting with four hits and five RBI, and selection to the All-Tournament team with a .600 batting average.
He was joined by freshman Jack Gethings (.500 average), Arciuolo (.417 average and five runs scored), and Michael Conti (.333 average and four RBI).
Brendan Tracy, who has had the flair for the dramatic the last week, launched his third home run of the season to give Fairfield an 8-2 lead in the Siena slaughter.
“It certainly has been tremendous effort,” said Coach C. “We weren’t sure where the guys were going to improve to this year and they exceeded expectations. We knew we had this here but you never know how guys are going to improve. It shows the hard work they put in and our coaches put in by pushing them and everyone else, it really paid off.”
Currier has incredibly blended veteran players and youngsters, with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors all contributing mightily, and different heroes emerge on a daily basis.
Salpietro and center fielder Arciuolo wielded the hot bats, both stroking three hits, including a solo home run and two RBI apiece, in Fairfield’s 8-5 victory over Canisius College on Friday, setting the stage for Saturday’s fireworks.
Relievers Howell and Mike Bonaiuto then slammed the door on the Golden Griffins bats after Canisius tied the game at 5-5 in the fifth inning. Bonaiuto, a junior southpaw, retired all six batters he faced to lift the Stags to the title round.
Salpietro’s circuit blast in the sixth proved to be the game winner. It was the Berkley, Massachusetts product’s second straight three-hit performance. Arciuolo, a Millford, Connecticut native, was a double short of hitting for the cycle.
The clutch-hitting captain Mac Crispino was riding a six-for-nine hot streak at the plate i, and was Fairfield’s Mr. Clutch again against Manhattan on Wednesday, lining an RBI single to give Fairfield a 2-1 lead, and the Stags never looked back. Fairfield added to the lead in the seventh stanza when DH deluxe Troy Scocca launched his fifth home run of the season to put Fairfield in front, 3-1, en route to the 5-2 win in the opener.
The Stags had played “Wally Ball” for the eighth time in that contest when sophomore hurler Gavin Wallace became the first Fairfield pitcher in 16 years to win eight games in a season, matching the program record.
Fairfield achieved its first MAAC Championship tournament victory after losing in the final series in both 1995 and 2000. Fairfield has three previous MAAC titles in 1983, 1991, and 1993. However, those latter two seasons there was not a tournament and Fairfield won the MAAC South Division.
Said the venerable C. Donald Cook in a congratulatory email to Currier, a confluence of two Coach C’s: “A wonderful outcome in the history of Fairfield baseball. When I think about how far Fairfield baseball has come over many decades, I can’t think of a more treasured moment than today’s MAAC championship! Congratulations! You have a lot to be proud of.”
A baseball star at Fairfield, and head coach for 19 seasons beginning in 1966, transforming the program into a Division I entity, Cook appraises the Stags season: “The team overcame a lot from the start the season. It’s a credit to their hard work and discipline to have accomplished all that they have. To have won (that many games) is wonderful tribute to the team’s resiliency, season-long development and maturity, which was a filter down from the professionalism and temperament of head coach, Bill Currier. I have known Bill for many years going back to his playing and coaching days at Vermont. I never enjoyed competing against him. He was always prepared and ready for anything I would dare throw his way.”
Now the Stags await their opponent and destination for their first-ever NCAA Regional appearance. The selection show is Monday at noon on ESPNU. Perhaps there are still hives to be induced by Currier and the Stags. Why not?