When Cal Stazler threw the final strike of the Metro Atlantic Conference Tournament the graduate student was not only the catalyst of a euphoric and rambunctious celebration, but he secured the Broncs a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
With a record of 23-16 and coming from a conference that is consistently rated as one of the worst in college baseball means that Rider is less talented on paper and handed lower expectations entering the tournament.
“We don’t set a goal to win a national championship, that’s unrealistic. Can we win a game in the region? Sure, we can do that. Can we win the region? I don’t know,” Head Coach Barry Davis said bluntly. “Our goal would probably be to be in the ball game through four or five innings whoever we play.”
College baseball organizes the opening round of its 64 team tournament by having 16 regionals with four teams each in a double-elimination tournament. Rider enters as the fourth seed and an afterthought in a highly competitive Ruston Regional, which is hosted by Louisiana Tech. But with the eyes of the college baseball world watching, who will the Broncs be tasked with trying to upset?
No. 16 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (40-18, 22-8 Conference USA)
Louisiana Tech comes into the tournament as the top seed and regional host, having been tough competition for any team they have faced all season. J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park (more affectionately known to college baseball fans as the Love Shack) even proved to be a tough place for No. 1 Arkansas to play, with the Bulldogs taking one of three games against the Razorbacks and taking the odds-on favorite to win the national championship to extra innings in another matchup.
The Bulldogs are one of the best offensive teams not only in Conference-USA, but in the entire country, smashing 64 home runs leading up to the regional and have a team on-base percentage of .398.
There’s no sugarcoating it, this team hits the baseball and they hit it far and hard. Rider will be facing Louisiana Tech in its first game of the tournament and will task ace Pete Soporowski with limiting a potent lineup. The graduate student has had a strong year, earning an ERA of 3.20 in his swansong season and is Rider’s most experienced pitcher. Soporowski may not strike out a crazy amount of batters, but he’s a savvy veteran pitcher, who makes hitters work to get on base, only allowing 14 walks this season.
“Going into the game on Friday, I’m sticking with the same approach I’ve been using for the past five years. It’s no different, obviously a bigger stage, but it’s still baseball,” Soporowski said in an email. “I plan on working ahead of batters and keeping them off balanced.”
Making the Louisiana Tech hitters earn their runs and not handing them walks is a must for Soporowski and anyone else that takes the mound for him in relief.
North Carolina State Wolfpack (30-19, 19-14 ACC)
North Carolina State (NC State) entered the season with much anticipation, but seemed set to be one of college baseball’s major disappointments, starting its season 4-9 and had lost five of six games in series against Louisville and Miami. But, a young Wolfpack team came together and matured in front of pessimistic eyes and enters the NCAA Tournament as one of the nation’s hottest teams.
Remember how I said Louisiana Tech can hit? So can North Carolina State, hitting 76 home runs and batting .285 in the third-best conference in college baseball based on Rating Performance Index (RPI) calculations. The Wolfpack are a well-rounded lineup that has four players that hit double-digit home runs and five batters who have an on-base percentage of .345 or higher.
There’s very little NC State is unable to do offensively, but they lack true stars on the mound. The Wolfpack don’t have a starter with a sub-4.00 ERA. However, after a subpar start to the season, closer Evan Justice is coming into the tournament in amazing form, having only given a single run in his last 10 ⅔ innings of work.
Alabama Crimson Tide (31-24, 12-17 SEC)
Crimson Tide second baseman Peyton Wilson seems to be the engine that makes this offense go. The sophomore leadoff hitter travels to Louisiana with a .301 batting average along with 10 stolen bases and nine home runs. He’s as well rounded as they come and the Crimson Tide have plenty of great bats behind him. Alabama had the fourth best on-base percentage in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), which is undoubtedly the best conference in college baseball. If the Crimson Tide are going to shock anyone, all-conference catcher Sam Praytor will have to be at his best. The redshirt junior paced Alabama with 13 home runs and 46 RBIs this season.
Much like NC State and LA. Tech, the Crimson Tide can score a lot of runs and they can do it fast, but they lack standout pitching heading into the tournament. The team has lost multiple pitchers to injury during the season and will be hoping that the “next man up” approach that got them to this point can keep them competitive in the regional.
Davis has already said that junior flamethrower Frank Doelling will be on the mound for the second game Rider plays, but whether he will be facing the free-swinging, yet calculated, NC State Wolfpack or the battle-tested Alabama Crimson Tide is the only question that remains.
No matter who they face or how low the expectations are in this tournament, Soporowski said he can answer for every member of the MAAC Champions when saying “being on this stage is why we came to Rider. We never stopped believing in ourselves the entire stretch and that’s why we’re here.”
The Broncs will play their first NCAA Tournament game on June 4 at 7 p.m., exactly 11 years since the opening game of their last appearance in an NCAA Tournament, when they take on regional hosts Louisiana Tech.