By Carl Stoffers
Despite the unseasonably cold weather, the Kean baseball team is off to another hot start, and head coach Neil Ioviero has his sites set on the team’s fourth straight College World Series berth.
“We’ve been able to win a bunch of different ways,” said Ioveiro. “Some days, we’ve had to win high-scoring games. Sometimes, we’ve won in our last at-bat. I think what it’s showing is that we don’t rely on just one person to win.”
Ioviero’s squad is currently in second place in the New Jersey Athletic Conference standings, with a 13-3 record, just behind rival Rowan University. Kean is ranked third in the nation by D3sports.com and the American Baseball Coaches Association’s Collegiate Baseball Poll.
The team began the 2014 campaign in chilly February with wins over Baruch College and Neumann University before splitting a doubleheader with Gwynedd Mercy University. They closed out the month with a 3-1 record, despite the pitching staff fighting nagging injuries.
“[Pitcher Charles] Thielmann is going to have an MRI on his arm, Dan Hansen has only pitched six innings so far, but I don’t know that it’s weather-related, it’s just been freak things.”
The team stormed into March, winning its first three games and outscoring its opponents, 18-6, while preparing to head to the west coast for a six-game road trip.
Thielmann picked up his second win, tossing seven-innings of four-hit, shutout baseball vs. FDU-Florham, as right fielder Ryan Kelley went 4-for-4 in the 8-0 Cougars romp on March 1.
Senior Tyler Smarslok powered Kean to a 6-5 extra-inning win the following day, ripping the first pitch of the bottom of the 10th over the left field wall to give the Cougars a walk-off win over the College of Mt. St. Vincent.
“His home run was key, no doubt about that,” said Ioviero, “and it was great for the team to see Tyler hit it.”
Left-hander Dan Hansen tossed six strong innings, allowing only two hits, leading the Cougars to a 4-1 victory over Eastern Connecticut State on March 5, the team’s final home game before embarking on the west coast trip.
In California, the squad swept a three-game series vs. the University of La Verne, as Richie Ferguson notched his first collegiate win in the Cougars’ 7-6 victory in the first game of the set. Kean rallied for three runs in the ninth behind Brock Podgurski’s RBI single to complete a comeback 7-6 victory in the second game, and the Cougars completed the sweep with an 8-6 triumph on the third contest.
Kean dropped its next game, 6-2, to Chapman University before the Cougar bats came alive in a 9-1 victory over the University of Redlands. Kean was led by center fielder Matt Meleo and catcher James Lyczkowski, who chipped in two RBI apiece. Pitcher Mike Daley tossed eight solid innings for the win.
Kean defeated Whittier College in a slugfest, 12-10, to complete the impressive road trip, winning five of six contests.
“We’ve never left California with just one loss,” Ioviero said. “To come out 5-1, playing the type of teams we played, is quite an accomplishment.”
Returning to New Jersey, the Cougars beat DeSales University, 6-2, behind designated hitter Anthony Fischetti’s four RBI and seven strong innings by Daley, before edging Alvernia University, 12-11.
The Cougars have been led by Fischetti, who is batting at a .370 clip, and shortstop Ryan Reitmeyer, who is hitting .333. Outfielder Shane Alvarez, who has clubbed two home runs, has also stolen six bases and played flawless defense. Outfielder Ryan Kelley has knocked in 15 runs while batting .328 so far.
On the mound, Thielmann has been solid, posting a 2.25 ERA while winning two of his three decisions, including a complete game victory. Mike Daley is undefeated with three wins while notching 20 strikeouts, and Nick Zucchero is 3-0 with 21 strikeouts.
“This game is all about pitching,” said Ioviero. “Typically, you’re going to match up your best guys, but if you can bring a guy out of the bullpen who’s just as good as a starter, that bridges the gap to winning, and that’s been a big plus for us to be able to do that.”
The Cougars began conference play with a March 29 doubleheader vs. Rutgers-Camden and, despite the team’s stellar record so far, coach Ioviero still feels there is work to do for the team to reach its full potential.
“It’s not like we feel like we’re winning now so everything is great, and we just keep moving on,” the coach said. “We know we have things to fix to really lock this thing down and start to play even better.”