NEW YORK — Matt Senk remembers looking out at his players during his first practice as Stony Brook’s baseball coach 22 years ago and thinking he had made a huge mistake.
“‘What did you do?’” a laughing Senk said, recalling those momentary doubts. “‘Why did you leave?’”
He was a successful coach at Kellenberg Memorial High School, a Long Island-based Catholic school with a baseball program that produced a few Division I players every year. Senk left to become a full-time coach and took over a college team at a Division III school that lacked talent and tradition.
“It turned out to be the greatest decision I ever made,” he said. “They were dying for someone to come in and bring stability. These guys were just starving for leadership.”
Stony Brook found that in Senk, the team’s third coach in less than a year after the first two hires did not work out. He guided the program through successful transitions from Division III to Division II in 1995, and up to Division I in 2000.
“And now,” Senk said, “we’re going to Omaha.”
The Seawolves (52-13) are in the College World Series for the first time in school history, and it is no sudden rags-to-riches story. Senk has gradually transformed Stony Brook into one of college baseball’s top programs with 124 wins and two America East titles in the past three years — and the rest of the country knows it now.
“I think they had the belief,” said Texas Rangers relief pitcher Joe Nathan, who was a shortstop for then-Division III Stony Brook Patriots in the early 1990s. “But now everybody else is kind of getting a chance to witness what the Seawolves can do, and they’re getting on the map and that’s nice to see.”
Where on the map?
People still might not understand exactly where Stony Brook is — about 60 miles east of New York City on Long Island — or what a Seawolf is — a mythical creature said to bring good luck to those who see it. But the baseball team has generated a buzz, an underdog that went from being a regional feel-good story to a legitimate national championship contender.
Stony Brook is just the second No. 4 regional seed to make it to the College World Series, joining a Fresno State team that won it all in 2008. Those Bulldogs were labeled a “Cinderella team” after having an inconsistent season and then putting things together down the stretch.
The Seawolves do not necessarily fit the fairy-tale mold. While they took the stunning route of winning at Miami and LSU to get here, they have been dominant all season and some thought they were deserving of at least a No. 3 seed. Stony Brook has also been among the national leaders in victories during the past three years, and the Seawolves made the NCAA tournament three times in five seasons.
“I don’t know that I or my team has reacted too strongly to the Cinderella or underdog label,” Senk said. “We kind of look at all that as just coming with the territory and we don’t allow that to define us. We feel strongly about defining ourselves by the way we play and the way we go about the game.”
The Seawolves lead the country in wins, were ranked in national polls during the season and are the first New York school to make it to the College World Series since St. John’s got there in 1980. They are also the first Northeast-based team to reach Omaha since Maine in 1986 — a few years before any of the Stony Brook players were born.
The Seawolves’ dream
“It’s something you dream of as a little kid,” senior pitcher Tyler Johnson said. “When we first won the super regional, there was a little disbelief at first, like, ‘Did we really just do this?’”
They sure did, and there is no need to pinch themselves because there is plenty of proof. The Seawolves were the lead story on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” after they upset mighty LSU in the super regionals — despite blowing three late leads and losing in 12 innings in the opening game of the series.
There have been countless radio and television interviews and a hero’s welcome on campus, and they were even a trending topic on Twitter. Nathan received so many media requests about his alma mater that the Rangers set up a conference call so he could talk about the team that plays in a facility named after him.
“Anytime you get a chance to be on nationwide coverage and get your face out there, your game out there, I think players and top recruits are going to see that you don’t have to go to the South and to the West to play at top schools,” Nathan said. “You can play in the Northeast, you can get on a squad that has good facilities now, and are continuing to improve the sights and everything around campus.”
Who are these guys?
The Seawolves are a scrappy bunch with a roster loaded with talent. They had seven players drafted last week, led by speedy center fielder Travis Jankowski, a supplemental first-round pick of San Diego who is hitting .422 with five home runs, 46 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.
Jankowski is followed in the lineup by catcher Pat Cantwell (.296, 1, 32), third baseman Willie Carmona (.399, 12, 72) and second baseman Maxx Tissenbaum (.389, 3, 51) — a top four that had LSU’s outfielder Mason Katz declaring that they are “an SEC-caliber team.”
Johnson (12-1, 1.94 ERA) is the school’s career victories leader and heads a staff that includes Brandon McNitt (8-3, 2.50), Evan Stecko-Haley (7-3, 3.47) and Frankie Vanderka (3-3, 2.37, 5 saves).
“People can say we’re a Cinderella team or whatever they want,” Johnson said. “We like having the underdog story. We don’t mind that. The only thing that might make us the Cinderella story is that we definitely don’t make as much money as the big-time schools and don’t bring in as much cash flow and fans. It’s a little more of a grind for us, but we’re used to it and we feel we can compete with all the best teams in the country.”
Pulling for the underdog
Stony Brook will head to Omaha as the likely fan favorite in the college baseball-loving town, so expect plenty of Seawolves red in the stands when they open up Friday against UCLA (47-14).
“It’s one thing to be an underdog and another to be an underdog that no one has ever heard of before,” said Matt Shick, co-host of “The Schick & Nick Show” on Omaha’s 1620 The Zone. “When you think of the College World Series, you think of the LSUs and the Texases. If you ask fans around here about Stony Brook, they think that’s the name of an apartment complex in west Omaha. You know that these people are going to embrace this feel-good story.”
Stony Brook’s alumni association says there are nearly 100 alumni living in Omaha. Pat Lawlor, owner of Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear — one of Omaha’s biggest sports outfitters — plans to print up 200 to 300 Stony Brook baseball T-shirts with the team’s “Shock the World” rally cry on the back.
“If they get past that first weekend to where they’re one of the final four teams going forward, then watch out,” Lawlor said. “This town will be crazy.”
After playing in front of tens of thousands of fans rooting against them the past few weeks, the Seawolves look forward to cheers from 20,000-plus in Omaha. After all, Stony Brook drew a total of about 5,800 fans at home — all season.
“I have no idea what it feels like to have that many people cheering for you when you strike people out and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we will in a few days. It’s going to be amazing.”