By Austin Ferguson
Despite scoring 22 runs in a three-game series against Niagara to open conference play, the baseball team opened MAAC play 1-2 after back-to-back losses on March 23 and March 24. Rider 8-14 (1-2 MAAC) won its first home game of the season against LIU Brooklyn, 6-5, on March 20 and won at La Salle, 12-11, on March 26.
With the score knotted at five heading into the eighth inning, junior pitcher Sebastian Williamson was called upon to hold the Blackbirds’ offense. Williamson dominated and put out LIU Brooklyn’s batters in order.
In the bottom of the eighth, graduate student catcher Mike Ionta hit a single to right field that drove in senior infielder Richie Tecco to give Rider a 6-5 lead, and senior pitcher Zach Gakeler threw a strong ninth inning out of the bullpen to secure the win. The win was credited to Williamson, his first of the season and Gakeler was credited with his team-leading third save of the year.
Rider’s good fortune continued in the first half of its doubleheader against Niagara. Strong starting pitching and a late offensive explosion gave the Broncs a second-straight victory.
Junior pitcher Pete Soporowski started for Rider and dominated throughout his seven and two-thirds innings of work. Soporowski let up three earned runs throughout his start, striking out a career-high 15 batters during his work.
“You can’t ask for anything better than what we got today from our starters,” Head Coach Barry Davis said. “[Soporowski] had 15 strikeouts. He got a little tired at the end there, but he picked up where he left off in California.”
Soporowski tossed eight strikeouts, only letting up one run in a 5-1 Rider victory over UC Riverside on March 8.
The Broncs struggled early against Niagara, only amassing two hits in the first five innings. With the game tied, 2-2, in the bottom half of the sixth, junior outfielder Jack Peterson blasted a two-run homerun, his first of the year, to give Rider a 4-2 lead over Niagara.
From there, the Broncs didn’t look back. With Rider holding a one-run lead going into the bottom of the eighth, the Broncs exploded for seven runs, highlighted by a two-run double by Ionta. The Purple Eagles went scoreless in the ninth to give Rider a 13-5 victory in the first half of the doubleheader.
The second game of the day proved to be the exact opposite, with only one run scored between both teams.
Matthew Brash and sophomore Vincent Vitacco got the starting nods for Niagara and Rider respectively. Both starters went the distance, each pitching all seven innings of that game.
During his performance, Vitacco let up seven hits while striking out five batters, and allowed one run in the third inning.
The rubber game of the set between Rider and the Purple Eagles was a high-scoring affair, scoring a combined 21 runs during the game.
After an early offensive onslaught from Niagara, the Broncs found themselves down 8-0 going into the home half of the fourth inning. Peterson’s hot bat came up big once again, driving in Rider’s first run of the game and driving in three more in later innings.
“It has a lot to do with continuous repetition and a positive mindset,” Peterson said about his recent hitting success. “During our California trip, I really struggled with timing and being over anxious at the plate. I was getting behind early and putting myself in a hole.”
Peterson got himself out of that hole against Niagara, hitting three home runs and driving home six in those three games. His three home runs and 16 RBI this season ranks second in each category for Rider, only trailing senior first baseman Riley Mihalik in both categories.
Despite a season-high 17 team hits, the Broncs ultimately fell to the Purple Eagles in the third game, 12-9.
Though Rider’s bats weren’t enough to will them to a series victory, Davis sees promise in the Broncs’ offense.
“This team, unlike every other team I’ve ever had here, is the most positive, enthusiastic group in the dugout,” Davis said. “We stayed in the game and they battled. They believed in themselves and what you saw was a result of their enthusiasm. I think you’ll continue to see that moving forward.”