By Josh Veltrie
Back-to-back championships in any sport is a major accomplishment. Rider’s baseball team is on a mission this season to win the MAAC Championship for the second straight year.
In most sports, both collegiate and professional, two titles in a row usually paves the road to a team becoming a dynasty: the New York Yankees in the late ’90s, the New England Patriots earlier in this decade and the Florida Gators, who have won four titles between their football and basketball programs in the past four years. In collegiate baseball, the Oregon State Beavers won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
So believe it or not, the Broncs (14-15, 6-6 MAAC) can put themselves in position to become a powerhouse in the MAAC for years to come. Unfortunately, Siena has already established itself as the team to beat in basketball. Maybe baseball can be the pride of Rider during the spring when there isn’t any football on campus.
The Broncs only saw three players graduate last season, after the team went 29-28 overall, and 13-10 in the MAAC. They were the fourth seed in the MAAC tournament, but right now, Rider would be out of the playoff picture, seeded at sixth. Only the top four teams make the MAAC playoffs.
Manhattan has a solid hold on the No. 1 seed, with only one conference loss so far. After that, however, there are six teams fighting for the last three spots. Rider, near the bottom with its 6-6 record in conference play, is only one game behind Marist and Niagara, which have 7-5 records in the MAAC and are second and third, respectively. If the Broncs had beaten Marist on Monday, they would have been second because they own the tie-breaker with Niagara. So Rider, which has 12 conference games left, still has a very good shot at making the playoffs.
“We control our own destiny with half of league play left,” said Head Coach Barry Davis. “The experience we possess should help because we know what it takes to win, and we know we are capable of doing it.”
Seniors Sean Olson and Jamie Hayes, both members of the First Team All-MAAC last season, are leading by example this year. Olson is batting .342, knocking in 34 runs and blasting six home runs this season; he is leading the team in RBIs and homers. Hayes has four saves on the season while batting .327. He has also walked 17 times and stolen 14 bases, both team highs.
Junior Matt McCollum is leading the team in batting average, hitting .353 so far this season. Sophomore John Ralston has also been very solid at the plate, batting .333.
Sophomore Mason Heyne, who was named to the Freshman All-American team last season, is having a down season compared to last year: Heyne is batting .230 this spring. But he is getting the hits when it matters most. He has piled up 27 RBIs on the season for second best on the team.
Sophomore Patrick Devlin has been a very consistent starting pitcher for the Broncs, posting a 2-1 record with a 3.90 ERA in five starts.
Players like Olson and Hayes are needed on teams looking to defend their titles; they bring consistency and leadership to the field. However, senior leadership is not lacking on the squad, as they boast six seniors. There are also eight juniors on the squad, giving Davis a very experienced team.
One of the toughest things about winning a championship and returning a lot of players is the expectations. It is easier to win when there are no expectations and nothing to lose; once the teams win, however, it loses the underdog label. Everyone is gunning to bring down the returning champs, and the pressure is on them to repeat.
“The motivation really changes after you win the first time,” Davis said. “Once you become one of the teams to beat, you have to be ready to play at a high level each and every game.”
Having players who can step up and take the pressure off the rest of the team really helps the team relax and the end result is better play. Senior Derek Caldwell has shown he is up to the challenge, pitching very well this year and at one point winning three starts in a row. Olson had a walk-off home run in extra innings against Temple, where the Broncs came back to tie it after being down six runs in the ninth inning.
This season has been up and down for Rider as it has had a five-game losing streak and a four-game winning streak highlighted by the tremendous comeback win. This is what you expect out of an experienced team, never getting too high or too low.
The next seven games are crucial for the Broncs, as six of them are in-conference and every game is big when it comes to conference play. One loss could be the difference from playing in the postseason to sitting out and waiting for next year.