By Benjamin Shinault
When the past school year came to a close and everyone packed up their bags and headed home, Rider baseball didn’t: the Broncs were just getting started.
Rider had a mission to accomplish, and they did just that and more within the summer months, winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Conference and notching its first NCAA Tournament win since 1987.
At the conclusion of the regular season, the Broncs finished with a record of 36-21 which planted them as the second seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament, only behind Fairfield University.
In the MAAC tournament in Pomona, New York, the Broncs faced Quinnipiac and crushed them in a shutout win, 8-0.
Current graduate student first baseman Luke Lesch had a two-run home run in the fifth inning to send a jolt of energy into the Broncs’ offense that ultimately gave them the win, landing them in the MAAC Championship game for the third consecutive year, this time facing top-seeded Fairfield.
The Broncs faced adversity in the first game against the Stags and Head Coach Barry Davis recalled the tough opening loss: “Losing game one in the championship round when you are one pitch away from winning … was heartbreaking.”
However, the loss did not deter the Broncs, as they came back and won the next game 18-4 to crown them MAAC Champions for the fourth time in program history, and second time in the last three seasons.
With the MAAC Championship belonging to the Broncs, their next step was the NCAA Tournament. Rider was selected to play in the Conway Regional along with Duke, Coastal Carolina and North Carolina Wilmington.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Broncs were prepared to play bigger baseball programs, as earlier in the season when they had beaten Duke and Oklahoma.
“We were confident entering the tournament,” said Davis. “Winning the MAAC, beating Oklahoma and Duke during the year gave this team added confidence. … We were ready.”
In the first game, Rider had to face the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, who were ranked as the 10th best team in the nation, and the Broncs went toe to toe with them, engaging in a slugfest that included a combined 21 runs and 26 hits.
The Broncs were down by five runs in the fifth inning before exploding for nine runs in the seventh inning to give them the lead. The Broncs were able to hold on to the lead until the ninth inning, when the Chanticleers made things interesting and tied the game up at 9-9.
The game went into extra innings, and Rider was able to add two runs to give them the lead heading into the bottom of the tenth. With two outs and the bases loaded, Coastal Carolina was running on contact as a Chanticleer ripped one into center field, but junior outfielder Richie Sica made a spectacular, diving catch to pull off the historic upset in Rider’s first game of the NCAA Tournament.
The next day, Sica’s catch was shown on ESPN as SportsCenter’s top play of the day.
Immediately after the breathtaking catch, the Broncs dugout was suddenly out on the field and jumping with multitudes of joy and jubilation.“You could see the excitement on the field. Everyone was euphoric,” said Davis. “It was a special time for this team.”
The next game was a different story for Rider as they lost to Duke, 2-1. The Broncs were tied heading into the later stages of the game but the Blue Devils scored on a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth and Rider could not equalize.
The next game the Broncs were scheduled to play was a renatch in loser’s bracket against Coastal Carolina, and the Chanticleers got their revenge with a 13-5 win.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the last time the Broncs won a game in the tournament was in 1987.
With the Broncs getting the spotlight on the big stage, many Broncs from last season’s team got opportunities to play for different programs, including outfielder Brendan O’Donnell, who holds the single-season home run record for the Broncs, infielder John Volpe, who came up huge at the plate multiple times in the MAAC Tournament, and starting pitcher Dylan Heine, who was one of the best pitchers in the MAAC last season.
Davis commented on the departures of some of his top producers from last season and what he is expecting from the new-look Broncs.
“It is a new team. It is hard to look into the crystal ball and predict how we will do,” said Davis. “I am certain there will be storms to weather. It is how we handle them that will determine our fate.”
Davis had a clear-vision in place for this upcoming season.
“Goal: get in the MAAC Tournament and I promise you we will be dangerous,” Davis said.