Few moments in sports are more invigorating than when something we all thought was impossible actually happens.
The 1980 US Olympic hockey team pulls off a miracle against the Soviets. A group of small-town Indiana boys wins the 1954 state high school basketball title. George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth take their 11 seeds all the way to the NCAA Final Four in 2006 and 2011, respectively; the Los Angeles Kings take their 8 seed all the way to this season’s Stanley Cup. The Fresno State Bulldogs sweep through the 2008 college baseball tournament to win the school’s first men’s national championship.
And now the Stony Brook Seawolves make a run from obscurity all the way to the College World Series.
Let’s go over the rather extreme disparities at play in Friday’s opening game of the College World Series in Omaha, where the Seawolves will take on the UCLA Bruins:
• UCLA has won a record 108 NCAA championships in team sports. Stony Brook has never won a national title in any team sport.
• UCLA’s baseball team is the top-ranked team in the NCAA Baseball RPI standings. Stony Brook ranks 86th.
• UCLA has had more than 200 players selected in the Major League Baseball draft, including All-Stars Chase Utley, Troy Glaus and Eric Byrnes. Before this year, Stony Brook had 14 players selected by big-league teams, and only one — pitcher Joe Nathan, whose name is on the Stony Brook ball field — made the big leagues.
• UCLA has advanced to the eight-team College World Series four times. Before this year’s run, Stony Brook had won only a single game in the tournament. Ever.
“The underdog tag — there are so many things you can control and things you can’t control,” said Matt Senk, who has been the Seawolves’ head baseball coach since 1991. “But our style play, the way we go about playing, doesn’t come across like underdog. Perhaps it comes from that stereotype, that built-in bias about Northeastern schools. Then how is it possible we had seven guys drafted?”
That’s right: seven members of this Seawolves team, led by center fielder (and 44th overall pick) Travis Jankowski, were taken in the draft last week. Most of America couldn’t tell you where Stony Brook is located (on Smithtown Bay along Long Island’s northern shore, a New England-like community 50 miles outside of New York City), or what a seawolf is (a mythical creature from the Tlingit tribe, if Wikipedia is to be believed). But baseball scouts have been paying attention to the school’s steady climb to national prominence. Having seven players selected in this year’s draft puts Stony Brook right up there with college baseball’s bluebloods: Arizona State had nine selections, Texas A&M eight, Stanford seven and six-time national champion Louisiana State — whom Stony Brook beat twice in Baton Rouge to advance to the College World Series — had five.
It was barely more than a decade ago when Stony Brook was a Division III program with a head coach whose only prior coaching experience was in high schools. Senk taught physical education classes at Stony Brook and served as a part-time baseball coach.
Last Friday, the opening game of a three-game series against LSU, the Seawolves lost a heartbreaker in 12 innings (which actually concluded on Saturday after a series of LSU comebacks followed by a rain delay on Friday). You had to assume their run was over. How could such an underdog team overcome such a gut-crushing loss? How could they do it at LSU’s home park, where the more than 10,000 fans in attendance were more than Stony Brook’s season attendance? And how could they do it against a pitcher who’d just been selected with the fourth overall pick in the draft?
But they did it once Saturday, with the Seawolves’ Tyler Johnson tossing a three-hitter in a 3-1 win, then again on Sunday, beating LSU 7-2 and advancing to Omaha — the first team from the Northeast to make the College World Series since Maine in 1986 and the first team from New York State in more than 30 years.
“We got back to the hotel the other night after winning the game to secure the spot going to Omaha, and on TV there we were, the lead story on SportsCenter,” Senk said. “It wasn’t like 10 seconds or 30 seconds. It was 3 or 5 minutes. I sat down on the couch and was laughing to myself, how unbelievable this all is.”
It’s not as unbelievable as it sounds, though. The Seawolves’ statistics are more worthy of a blueblood than an upstart. Jankowski is batting .422, fifth-best in Division I. The team’s .335 batting average is the second highest in Division I, and the Seawolves are second in slugging percentage, 12th in ERA and 12th in fielding.
Yet their trip to Omaha will have all the excitement and wonder of a kid’s first trip to Disney World. Senk has never been to the College World Series, not even as a spectator. There have been reports of a rush to get Stony Brook ball caps licensed and rushed to merchants in Omaha. Senk says he has hundreds of congratulatory text messages, emails and voicemails he needs to return.
You can imagine these young men stepping onto the field in Omaha on Friday and being overwhelmed by it all.
Senk swears that won’t happen.
“It’s almost like in ‘Hoosiers,’ ” he said Tuesday. “The bases are still 90 feet. It’s still 60 feet, 6 inches from home to the pitching rubber. These guys love playing baseball, and they love to play baseball together.
“The only advice I’m offering the team is the same advice when we went down to play LSU,” Senk said. “Just embrace it. Just embrace everything happening there. You can go one of two ways: You can enjoy it or be overwhelmed by it. So just embrace the whole experience.”
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