By Dylan Manfre, Andrew Smolar and Hannah Newman
Rider and Fairfield’s recent history features a riveting conference championship series that the Broncs won in 2021. The two programs met for the first time since then from April 9 to 12.
Stomped by the Stags
When the Fairfield Stags arrived at Sonny Pittaro Field, there were a few updates that looked different to them. One addition, however, stood out more than the others.
Located on the left-field side was a list of Rider’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championships and 2021 is now cemented in Bronc history as the team’s third title. That victory, against none other than the Fairfield Stags. The heralded team the Broncs upset to secure the title last spring.
A three-game rematch does not hurt to get the competitive juices flowing; however, Fairfield showed its dominance in a series-opening game that lasted three and a half hours.
From the first pitch, the appearance of the 2021 MAAC Championship addition to the left-field fence was all Fairfield needed to start a rally. The Stags jumped on Rider early and won 17–2 on April 8.
Fairfield’s lineup made a full rotation in the top of the second inning, drawing six runs on five hits off Broncs pitcher Joe Papeo. The senior struggled with his early command, throwing more balls than strikes.
After Papeo’s exit, Rider ran through the pitching gauntlet, putting in six players including junior infielder Luke Lesch. Senior pitcher Danny Kirwin’s outing lasted two innings and fanned five batters.
“I feel like sometimes I didn’t get them ready … ultimately I’m the guy that’s got to get them ready,” Head Coach Barry Davis said. “Tomorrow will be an indication of what kind of character and what kind of pride we have.”
Twelve innings of redemption
Rider bounced back from the series-opening defeat to Fairfield with a 4-3 win in 12 innings on April 9.
The game started slowly offensively for both teams. The first run wasn’t scored until the bottom of the sixth when junior John Volpe singled in redshirt senior Jake Barbiere.
After letting the Stags tie the game in the eighth, the Broncs went down by two in the 11th. They responded promptly, starting the bottom of the 11th with four hits and a walk to tie the game once again.
The Broncs took to the 12th inning to close things out. Two walks and a sacrifice bunt led to the opportunity for freshman catcher Ty Gilligan to play the hero. He did just that, hitting a walk-off double to drive in the winning run for the Broncs.
“I just wanted to go up there and do everything I can to help my team win,” said Gilligan. “Ever since I was a kid, it was my dream to play baseball at a high level, so I’ve envisioned that moment a million times over.”
Senior Frank Doelling pitched a great game for Rider. He blanked the Stags for six innings, only allowing one hit in the process.
Lesch goes yard twice in big win
Given how Fairfield has displayed its offense throughout the series, Rider backed the Stags into a corner on April 10 in the rubber match.
On the backdrop of a gray cloudy day that produced sprinkles of rain and frigid winds, Rider found its opportunities when the sun poked through and its offense shined.
Lesch smashed crucial home runs in the sixth and seventh innings putting the Broncs ahead 14-6 and on a path to winning the game in a 14-7 final.
“It’s a huge confidence boost for me,” said Lesch who homered late in the first game of the series as well. “I felt good going into the next at-bat. Coach Lipinski said to just sit on a fastball, and I did.”
A hit from sophomore infielder Brian Skettini in the bottom of the third inning scored Rider two runs with bases-loaded giving the Broncs a 2-1 lead and forcing Fairfield to make a pitching change.
When the Broncs made mound changes, their relievers got some much-needed run support scoring half of their runs during innings five through seven.
“I tried to tell them don’t panic,” Davis said.
Early mistakes prove costly
The Broncs hosted the NJIT Highlanders on April 12, suffering a frustrating, self-inflicted 4-3 loss.
The Highlanders found their runs early, scoring all of them in the game’s first three innings. Their second and third runs were brought in on two wild pitches by junior pitcher Kenny Quijano, and the fourth was scored after NJIT stole home.
Rider spent the rest of the game trying to dig itself out of a four-run hole, but the comeback fell one run short despite a superb showing from junior infielder Jack Winsett.
Winsett went 3-3 at the plate, including an RBI single to put Rider on the board.
The Broncs will look to get back in the win column on April 14, when they get back on the road for a three-game series against Niagara.