When Rider faced the dominant Fairfield Stags in early April, the team looked outclassed and outmatched, getting outscored 29-3 in the four-game series.
The Broncs looked like a completely different group on May 28, smashing five home runs in a 7-2 defeat of the Stags on their home field to secure the MAAC Tournament Championship and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2010.
“We really peaked at the right time. I’ve done this for a long time, I’ve peaked at the wrong times and lost when I’m the number one seed or number two seed,” Head Coach Barry Davis said in his postgame interview with ESPN+. “If you just get it right, you get to playing, you grind it out and you start believing… When you have good baseball players, that work hard and believe and come together as a team you can do things like this and that’s what they did.”
Fairfield, who came into the game with a record of 37-2, was able to get on the board in the first inning, but unlike its previous matchups with Fairfield, Rider responded.
The Broncs were held mute for the first 2 ⅔ innings, but senior outfielder Kyle Johnson launched the first pitch of his at-bat well over the fence in left center field to tie the score at one.
“We knew the pitcher mainly threw fastballs and change ups, I stuck to my same approach and was sitting on a fastball. He gave me a fastball and I put a good swing on it,” Johnson said of his crucial home run. “I was fired up, the atmosphere was electric. I was excited to help the team out.”
The following inning, Rider chased Fairfield starting pitcher John Signore from the game, hitting a pair of two-run home runs to extend the lead to 5-1, all before the veteran in his sixth-year with the program could record an out.
“Whatever the team wants me to do I’m here,” freshman catcher Brian Skettini said to ESPN+. “I just can’t thank the seniors enough… They’ve all just been great mentors to us younger players.”
Skettini hit the first of the two home runs in the fourth inning that caused Signore to be removed from the game, with his blast giving the Broncs a 3-1 lead that they never relinquished.
Fairfield inched back into the game with a home run of its own in the bottom of the fourth inning, cutting the Rider lead to 5-2, but the Broncs stifled any Fairfield momentum the next time they were at the plate.
The first two batters of the inning, graduate student outfielder Sean McGeehan and sophomore designated hitter Socrates Bardatsos clobbered baseballs over the fence, giving the team a 7-2 lead.
After giving up a run in the first, senior Joe Papeo pitched out of bases-loaded jams in the second and third innings to keep the Broncs in the game. Papeo earned his fourth win of the season, pitching five innings of reliable two-run baseball before the Broncs turned to their bullpen.
It’s not too often you can get through the final 12 outs of a game using one pitcher out of the bullpen, especially against a lineup as talented as Fairfield’s. But that’s exactly what happened, as graduate student Cal Stazler breezed through the Stags in his four innings of work, only needing to throw 44 pitches to secure a historic win for the program.
“We hoped Joe could get us five [innings]. He started off shaky, I thought he got behind, pitched out of a couple jams… I think he just carried that through the fifth, he pitched through that and he kind of gutted it out,” Davis said to the broadcasters of ESPN+. “We didn’t think Cal would go the final four [innings]… But Cal was outstanding, it’s a special day for Rider and those two guys had a lot to do with it.”
In the two games preceding the Fairfield standoff, Rider relied on late game heroics to pull off victories. This time, the Broncs played arguably their most complete game of baseball of the tournament and it resulted in nothing less than jubilation.
“Words can’t describe what was going on in my head, I was speechless thinking we were going to win the MAAC championship,” Johnson said of the monumental victory. “We won the championship as a team every one played a part in helping this team win.”
Rider’s opponent in the NCAA Tournament will be revealed on May 31.