By Shaun Chornobroff
Opening day for the Rider baseball team usually involves a non-conference opponent and a feeling out process for a new team. But in the 2021 season, with the weight of a pandemic still affecting the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Rider was tasked with facing the Niagara Purple Eagles to open up the season on March 20 and 21.
The Broncs took the challenge in stride, winning three out of four games against the Purple Eagles, flashing elite potential at the plate and on the mound in their first matchup with Niagara since a three-game series in March of 2019.
March 20 Doubleheader
Rider sent out its ace, senior Pete Soporowski, for the opening game of its 2021 campaign. The lefthander, who was a superstar in 2020, continued to showcase his talent, with an eight-inning complete game shutout, leading the team to a 1-0 victory.
Soporowski’s performance led to him being named MAAC Pitcher of the Week on March 22.
“It was definitely a great feeling to be back out there,” Soporowski said. “My strategy on the mound was throwing strikes and getting ahead. I know if I can do that and they put the ball into play, my teammates are going to make the plays.”
Soporowski was dominant, striking out nine batters and only allowing two hits on the day. The veteran looked untouchable for the entire game, the closest Niagara seemed to score was in the fourth inning, but a savvy play by redshirt freshman infielder Jordan Erbe, followed by a strikeout snuffed out any opportunity.
The game was at a stalemate and even went an extra inning, but the Purple Eagles fluttered in the bottom of the eighth.
After an error on a routine pop-up, a single and a walk, Rider had bases loaded and graduate transfer Sean McGeehan stepped up to the plate. The transfer from St. John marked his Rider debut with a game-ending walk, handing the Broncs a 1-0 victory.
Rider secured a sweep of the first double-header with an 11-5 victory, which was more notable for sloppy defensive play than strong hitting.
At the end of the second inning, Rider did not have a single hit, but a multitude of mistakes by the Purple Eagles gave the Broncs a 5-2 lead that they may not have earned.
Niagara cut the lead to 5-4, but a throwing error, followed by an RBI single from McGeehan, catalyzed a five-run fourth inning that gave the Broncs a 10-4 lead they refused to relinquish.
McGeehan’s first four games already showed star potential, with the Hamilton, New Jersey, native hitting .333 with five RBIs and three runs scored.
“I remember in high school, I’ve heard from people locally that have seen him play a lot more than I have that he can do those things,” Head Coach Barry Davis said. “If you come out and watch the games and he’s out there, you’re going to see that every ballgame.”
March 21 Doubleheader
Frank Doelling proved that the Broncs had more than one ace in his first start, opening his junior campaign with a shutout victory, striking out eight batters and taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in the process.
“I felt like I threw the ball well today, I felt like I got stronger as the game went on and that enabled me to get the game shutout,” Doelling said of his star performance.
Unlike Soporowski’s stunning performance, Doelling was handed nine runs of support in his dominating display.
Rider failed to secure the sweep after winning its first three games, falling 8-3 in the last game of the four-game set.
Niagara got runs in three of the first four innings but didn’t capitalize on any further opportunities, and the Broncs found themselves grateful to only be down 3-0 heading into the fifth inning.
“We got out of there 3-0, and it easily could have been 6, 7, 8-nothing,” Davis said after the double-header. “They had opportunities to knock in runs and they weren’t able to do it, so we feel fortunate that we made the pitches and made the plays.
With the Broncs trailing 3-1 heading into the ninth, they needed their pitching to hold firm for one more inning, but the bullpen collapsed, allowing five runs in the top of the inning.
Niagara’s offensive beatdown in the top of the ninth made the two runs Rider scored in the bottom half of the inning nothing more than a consolation prize.
“Our bullpen just kind of unraveled and the ball started finding holes and we just started throwing the ball around,” Davis said. “We keep it within four to one, even five to one, you have a chance and we ended up getting a couple guys on. Five to one is one grand slam away from tying the game, eight to one is two grand slams to win and that’s hard to do.”
Rider will look to continue its success and make a statement against one of the MAAC’s elite baseball programs when it faces Quinnipiac at Sonny Pittaro Field on March 27 and 28.
Follow Shaun Chornobroff for the latest on Rider baseball.