By Carl Stoffers
It’s been another successful campaign for Cougars baseball, and Kean is once again in the fight for a postseason berth and an eventual trip to the College World Series this spring.
“We hit a rough patch a few weeks ago, and we put ourselves in a tough spot,” said head coach Neil Ioviero, “but we’ve been battling back, we’ve won seven of eight conference games right now, so it’s going to take our best week of the season. We’re going to have to win every game to have a chance at it, but that’s really all we can ask for, to be playing the last few games of the year with a chance to come in first place.”
The Cougars (26-8) will face rival Rowan University in a doubleheader on Saturday, April 26, two games that will likely decide the NJAC conference champion. Kean will send ace Charles Thielmann to the mound in the first game before Matt Mantione pitches game two.
“I like to think of every game as just another game,” said Thielmann, “but this one is going to be a big one. Just knowing how far this team can go is all the drive I need.” The junior right-hander overcame an injury earlier in the season to record a 3-2 record, with a minuscule 1.88 ERA and 34 strikeouts.
“He pitched the last three weeks in a row,” said Ioviero, of Thielmann. “That’s a good sign. We think he’s built up his arm strength again, and he’s ready to make a push these last few weeks because from here on out every game is really big.”
Thielmann and the pitching staff will rely on a strong defense, led by sure-handed second baseman Tyler Smarslok and shortstop Ryan Reitmeyer. Kean has been a consistent and solid team defensively this year, a hallmark of Ioviero-coached clubs.
“Pitching and defense has been strong and has given us a chance to win almost every game,” said Smarslok, who won a Rawlings National Gold Glove award last season. “The team chemistry is great and that’s important, especially at this time of the year with the playoffs coming up.”
Ioveiro echoed his second baseman’s sentiments about the pitching staff, which has tossed three shutouts this season, including a 1-0, 12-inning complete game gem by Matt Mantione vs. NJCU on April 12.
“Pitching has always been our strength,” said the coach, “if we can’t pitch, we won’t get very far. If you look at the games we won, our pitchers threw some very good games and kept the score down for us to get a win.”
Kean heads into the last week in April having won five straight games, including eight of its last nine contests.
The offense has come alive of late, led by sophomore first baseman Sal Taormina, who is hitting .331 with 12 extra base hits this season.
“Sal Taormina is one of those throwback players,” said Ioviero. “He could play in any era; he’s got tremendous moxie, he’s not afraid of whoever we’re playing. He’s very consistent, and he comes to play every day. I’m very proud of him and how he’s come along this year.”
After taking on Rowan in the doubleheader on April 26, the Cougars will face York College and Farmingdale State to close out the regular season.
With the team peaking at the right time, Ioviero is cautiously optimistic but knows the goal is within his club’s reach.
“The guys on the team put a lot of pressure on themselves because the expectations are so high,” said the coach. “We’re facing a lot of good pitching and teams coming at us with their best, but we’re at the point right now where we can break out. We’re looking for an NCAA tournament bid and, thankfully, we’re in a position to achieve it.”