Defending champs swing into season as preseason favorite in conference

The Rider baseball team celebrates its MAAC Championship title last season. Rider is picked as preseason favorites for 2011.

By Corey Donetz

Baseball season is now upon us, and the Broncs have their eyes set on a repeat performance as MAAC champions in 2011.

“Team expectations are high,” said head coach Barry Davis. “The goals are simple and clear: win the regular season, win the MAAC tournament and participate in the NCAA tournament.”

This ultimate goal is shared by the softball team as it looks to prove its doubters wrong this season.

Rider’s baseball and softball teams kick off the seasons on the road today. Picked to win its 3rd MAAC championship in four years, Rider baseball opens up against East Tennessee State in the first game of a four-game weekend series. The softball team is headed to Greensboro, N.C., to take on Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and Presbyterian in its  double-header season opener in the NC A&T Invitational.

The Broncs return to the diamond this year looking to defend their MAAC title. The team is bringing back 22 players from its 2010 championship team and has added seven freshmen.

“Seven returning starters in the field and three starters on the mound should be a positive thing,” Davis said. “They’ve been in a lot of big games. It certainly could be a big factor that could separate us from others.”

Rider returns the reigning MAAC Pitcher of the Year, senior Mike Thomas, who led the team in wins (nine), strikeouts (98) and innings pitched (104.1). Thomas was also named to the All-MAAC preseason team.

“Mike is a very hard worker who is deserving of his accomplishments,” Davis said. “He leads by example, he’s a solid student-athlete and represents our program the way we want our players to.”

Alongside Thomas on the All-MAAC preseason team is junior outfielder Brandon Cotten, who is third on the team in average (.351), on base percentage (.447) and stolen bases (12), and ranks second in runs scored (56).

“Being named preseason All-MAAC was a big surprise for me,” Cotten said. “I wasn’t expecting to be named preseason all-conference but when I found out, I was very excited and really want to prove myself this season and eventually become all-MAAC at the end of the season as well.”

Rider returns most of its pitching staff, which led the MAAC in earned run average, along with the bulk of its high-powered offense that was only shut out two times in 2010.

Missing, however, is Rider graduate Nick Wojnowski, who led the team in home runs (nine), average (.388), slugging percentage (.607), walks (37), and on base percentage (.488) last year.

“Losing outfielder Nick Wojnowski, a second-team All-MAAC/All-Tournament team and leader in a few offensive categories will be tough to replace,” said Davis.

Senior A.J Albee earned the team’s Most Improved Player Award in his junior campaign, setting Rider records in runs batted in (60) and runs scored (63). The Broncs return Albee and Cotten, as well as seniors Steve Galella, Mason Heyne and Karl Johnston, all of whom  hit over .300 last season and played in all 24 conference games.

Heyne led the team in doubles with 21 and is 11 shy of the Rider record of 53.

“We had a great fall and we all worked extremely hard,” said Heyne. “We are ready to go.”

Rider begins conference play March 26 at Niagara and will host the MAAC championships at Mercer County’s Waterfront Park May 25-29.

The lady Broncs are looking to rebound from a down year last season. The team is returning 12 players from last year and has added five freshmen. Iona was picked to win the MAAC while the lady Broncs were picked to finish 8th, but will look to exceed expectations as only three votes separated Rider from Marist which is 7th, and four votes behind Siena, which is 6th.

Leading the way for Rider offensively is senior Brittany Eckett who led the team in home runs (10), runs batted in (40), slugging percentage (.612), total bases (71), on base percentage (.481) and walks (36) last season.

The Broncs also return last season’s first team All-MAAC selection, senior Amanda Centeno. The Ventura, Calif. native was a do-it-all type performer for head coach Tricia Carroll last year. The team captain was named to the all-conference team as a utility player. She finished second on Rider in batting average (.333), knocked in 17 runs and led Rider with 11 multiple hit games.

On the mound, Rider returns its ace, junior Rachael Montreale, who led the team in wins (11), earned run average (3.25), innings pitched (170), complete games (26), shutouts (3), strikeouts (120) and batting average against (.252).

The Williamstown high school graduate also hurled a no-hitter in a victory against Marist, the first in Rider history since 2004.

The Broncs begin conference play on the road against St. Peter’s on April 2 as they look to make their way into the MAAC tournament, which will be hosted by Marist.

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