Monmouth U. baseball blows chance to make nationals

Hawks lose to Mount St. Mary’s in NEC tourney, ending season at 37-16

BY DOUG McKENZIE Correspondent

There was no question who the team to beat in the 2008 Northeast Conference Baseball Championship at Bernie Robbins Stadium in Atlantic City was perceived to be.

Entering the tournament as the conference’s best-hitting and -pitching team, the Monmouth University Hawks came strolling in with 35 regular-season wins under their belts and all the swagger that a heavily favored defending champion should have.

But that, as they say, is why they play the games. After winning their first two games, with the second victory coming in truly dramatic fashion, MU simply ran out of steam against a Mount St. Mary’s team that got hot at the right time. The fourth-seededMount took two games from the Hawks on the final day of the tourney, 8-3 and 14-2, to become just the second team in the NEC since 1993 to capture the title from the loser’s bracket, and clinch the team’s first NCAA tournament berth in the process.

Monmouth finished the season with a school-record 37 wins (against just 16 losses), and while the Hawks certainly enjoyed one of their finest seasons in school history, head coach Dean Ehehalt’s team left the field on Saturday overcome with both surprise and disappointment.

“The last day was disappointing, there’s no doubt about that,” Ehehalt said. “But when you look back on what we were able to accomplish this season, these kids have plenty to be proud of.We set a school record for wins and this group of seniors is the most successful in school history.”

It all started as designed for the Hawks at the NEC tournament. Monmouth used an eight-run fourth inning to build an early advantage and saw its bullpen slam the door on a Mount St. Mary’s comeback bid in game one on Thursday. The defending champion Hawks received six hits and six RBIs from the fifth and sixth spots in the batting order to begin its repeat bid with a 12-7 victory.

Hawks junior second baseman Chris Collazo, of Edison, enjoyed a 4-for-5 day at the plate with three RBIs, while freshman designated hitter Nick Pulsonetti drove in another three runs as part of his 2-for-5 performance.

The two first team all-NEC selections each received two at-bats apiece during Monmouth’s fourth-inning explosion that resulted in eight runs, eight hits, and 13 batters coming to the plate.

Trailing 9-0, Mount St. Mary’s finally broke through against three-time all-NEC starter Brad Brach, of Freehold, cutting the Monmouth lead to 9-5.

With one out in the top of the seventh and Monmouth holding an 11-6 lead, Mount produced three consecutive singles to load the bases and end Brach’s afternoon. Sophomore reliever Nick Vallillo came on for the 2007 NEC Pitcher of the Year and needed only three pitches to escape the jam with back-to-back foul outs.

While not many teams have had success against Brach, who entered Thursday’s opener with a 7-2 record and 2.92 ERA, the Mount seems to have the righty’s number, having beaten him 9-5 during a regular season meeting. Brach was on the winning side of the decision this time around, but labored through 6.1 innings of 11-hit, six-run ball.

Brach received some help from centerfielder Shawn Teters when his diving catch in right-center saved a run and prevented an extra-base hit in the top of the third. During the bottom half of the frame, Teters followed up the defensive gem by blasting the inning’s first pitch over the left-field fence to open the game’s scoring.

After Pulsonetti’s two-run triple and Collazo’s RBI single opened the fourth inning for Monmouth, Teters led off the bottom of the inning. Senior catcher John Dennis sent a 3-2 offering over the leftfield fence to plate Collazo.

With the opening win, Monmouth advanced to the winner’s bracket to play No. 2 Central Connecticut State University, an 8-4 victor over No. 3 Wagner College in the second game.

The result was one of the most exciting games in the program’s history, as Monmouth rallied from an eighthinning 9-2 deficit, powered by senior Andy Meyers’ game-tying ninth-inning homer and game-winning single in the 10th, to earn a 10-9 victory.

Meyers, who had two home runs on the day, capped Monmouth’s seven-run rally in the final two innings of regulation with a solo shot to left off reliever Kyle Kerski on a 2-2 pitch. The first baseman then collected the game-winning single to second base in the home half of the 10th frame, plating senior Kyle Higgins with the game-winning run.

Meyers put Monmouth on the board first, as the senior hit a towering two-run home run to right field, plating Higgins, who led off the bottom of the first with an infield single, off CCSU starter Matt Gianini.

In the top of the fourth inning, CCSU’s Kyle Zarotney tied the score, lacing a tworun shot to left field with two outs, which drove in Jak Kidd, on base after being hit by a pitch from Monmouth starting pitcher Ryan Buch.

In the top of the fifth, SeanAllaire connected on a one-out single through the left side, and advanced to third on Anthony Scaildone’s single to right. With runners on the corners, Red Bank Catholic grad CaseyWalko’s sacrifice fly to right put the Blue Devils in front, 3-2. After a single and a walk loaded the bases, Tommy Meade drew a walk, making the score 4- 2, knocking Buch from the game.

Monmouth reliever Tim Ballard, of Sayreville, got Zarotney to strike out swinging with the bags packed to end the threat in the fifth frame. The Blue Devils made the score 8-2 in the top of the sixth inning when Sean Allaire connected on a three-run homer to left field off Ballard, andWalko followed with a solo shot to left off Tim Dexter, a senior from South River. CCSU pushed the lead to 9-2 in the top of the seventh when Zarotney drew a leadoff walk, stole second, and crossed home on Allaire’s bloop single to center.

Monmouth then rallied for six runs in the bottom of the eighth to pull within 9- 8. Ryan Terry reached on an error and Meyers singled to left to start the frame. Run-scoring hits from Paul Bottigliero, Pulsonetti and Collins made the score 9- 5, and after the Hawks loaded the bases with two outs, Higgins delivered a tworun single through the right side, pulling the Blue andWhite within 9-7, and knocking Gianini from the contest.

Tim McEndy, who legged out a pinchhit, infield single in the rally, crossed home on a passed ball with Kerski on the mound, making the score 9-8 after eight frames.

Meyers then tied the score in the ninth with his second homer of the game, and 26th career shot.

Buch worked 4.2 innings, allowing four runs on five hits, with four walks and three strikeouts, in the no-decision. Ballard registered just a third of an inning, surrendering three runs on three hits. Dexter allowed two runs on five hits in three innings of work for Monmouth.

Justin Esposito, who induced a double play to end a CCSU threat in the top of the ninth, with two runners aboard, worked two full innings, improving to 3-1 on the year. The senior scattered two singles.

eyers, who drove in four to pull within one RBI of tying the school record, went 4-for-5 with three runs scored. Higgins went 3-for- 6 with two RBIs and two runs scored in the leadoff spot, while Pulsonetti collected two hits, including his second triple of the tournament. Higgins, whose diving stop in the ninth inning saved a run and allowed Esposito to get out of the inning with the double-play groundout, pulled within three hits of tying the school record for single-season base knocks; the shortstop has 86.

From there it was on to the finals, where the wheels fell off for the Hawks team that seemed destined to earn a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

In game one, Mount St. Mary’s used a five-run eighth inning to break a 3-3 tie and defeat Monmouth 8-3 to force a final game in the 2008 Northeast Conference Tournament at Bernie Robbins Stadium.

NEC Rookie of the Year Ryan Terry put the Hawks on the board in the first inning, as the freshman connected on his eighth homer of the season, a solo shot to the opposite field, to give Monmouth a 1- 0 lead.

Monmouth went ahead 2-0 in the second when Pulsonetti connected on his team-leading 11th home run of the year, a solo shot off the scoreboard in left center, to start the frame.

Mount loaded the bases in the bottom of the second, allowing catcher Alex Andrews to lift a sacrifice fly to center, and plate Ryan Murray, cutting the lead in half. TheMount strung together three singles in the third inning to tie the score at 2-2, as Shane Eyler led off with a single to right. With one down, Josh Vittek’s single through the right side put runners on the corners, before Murray delivered a runscoring hit through the left side.

Drew Counselman put Mount St. Mary’s in front 3-2 in the bottom of the fifth when the shortstop drilled a solo home run to left center on a 1-0 delivery from Monmouth starter Matt Marc-Aurele.

Higgins started a one-out rally for the Hawks in the top of the seventh with his second double of the game, and after Terry’s single put runners at the corners, Andy Meyers singled to right to tie the score at 3-3.

The Mount went back ahead in the eighth whenAndrews drew a bases-loaded walk, which was followed by Matt Eiden’s double, coupled with a Monmouth error, allowing four runs to score in the frame, as theMountaineers took a 7-3 lead.AsecondMonmouth error in the inning allowed the fifth run of the frame, asMSMtook an 8-3 lead behind two hits in the inning.

In the second game, Mount St. Mary didn’t take long to end MU’s bid at another NEC title. The Mount jumped on Hawks starter Kyle Breese, of South Brunswick, in the first inning, plating three runs on four hits, highlighted by Josh Vittek’s two-run double and Ryan Murray’s RBI single.

The Mountaineers pushed the lead to 5-0 in the bottom of the third, when Zach Helman delivered a two-run single with the bases loaded.

Meyers started a rally for the Hawks in the fourth frame, beating out an infield single. After Collazo delivered an infield hit as well, Teters doubled down the left field line, plating Meyers to make the score 5-1.

Monmouth trimmed the lead to 5-2 in the fifth with a two-out rally when Terry doubled on a deflection off the pitcher, and crossed the plate on a Meyers’ single up the middle.

Drew Counselman led off the fifth with a single, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored when Vittek delivered his second, run-scoring hit of the game.Adouble from Ryan Murray scored Vittek, giving theMountaineers a 7-2 lead, and Zach Helman’s bloop single to right field gave MSM an 8-2 advantage.

Vittek’s three-run homer, his fourth of the tournament, offMonmouth’s Esposito, put Mount ahead 11-2, and Ryan Murray followed with a solo shot to left center as the Mountaineers went ahead 12-2.

Zach Helman greeted reliever Andy McDonnell with a first-pitch, two-run homer to left center, as MSM took a 14-2 lead.

Mount St. Mary’s, which registered double-digit hits in each of its five games in the tournament, collected 20 hits in the title game victory.

“We preapred the same way as we did throughout the season,” Ehehalt said. “They just played better than we did on that day.”

Breese worked three innings for Monmouth, allowing five runs on eight hits, with five strikeouts. Vallillo worked one frame for the Hawks, allowing three runs on three hits, while Esposito gave up four runs on six hits in an inning of work. Senior Brett Conner registered the final out for Monmouth.

Seniors Meyers and Higgins were named to the All-Tournament team for Monmouth, along with Collazo and Pulsonetti. Higgins, who tied the school record with 89 hits in a single season, ended the year hitting .389 and batted .421 for the Hawks in the four NEC games, collecting eight hits, including two doubles. Meyers, who hit two home runs in Monmouth’s comeback victory over CCSU, went 8-for-16 in the series, with a team-high six RBIs.

Collazo batted .444 with eight hits, while Pulsonetti connected on a home run, two triples and five RBIs.

“I would never say this season was a disappointment by any means. We just ran into an extremely hot team that is continually getting better and got beat,” Ehehalt said.