By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Beating Bryant in the first round of the Northeast Conference playoffs was huge for the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds last season. Unfortunately, it might have left them a little overconfident against the eventual NEC champions, when Bryant got payback and beat them 16-1 in the next round.
“Bryant was a nationally ranked team at one point and their entire bullpen threw in the 90s so beating them was huge,” the Blackbird’s center fielder Pete Leonello said. “It was an awesome time in our lives. We came in as the underdog and beat the No. 1 seed.
“That second game, though, we came in thinking that we would beat them again and I don’t think we had the same intensity as we had in the first game. We had high hopes and it was definitely a depressing moment.”
This season the Blackbirds were picked to finish fourth in the NEC in a coach’s poll while Bryant was unanimously picked to finish first. So to achieve this year’s goal of winning the NEC, the Blackbirds are likely going to have to go through Bryant again. It wasn’t an easy task last year and it could be even harder to accomplish this year after losing nine seniors to graduation.
“We're young, not as experienced as last year, but we have good leadership and we're talented,” shortstop John Ziznewski said. “We compete and I think we're pretty solid.”
The biggest chance the Blackbirds have made was to their head coach. Don Maines is out and Athletic Director John Suarez has taken over on an interim basis. From the way the players on the team talk about Suarez, it certainly sounds like they hope he sticks around beyond this season.
“It's a completely new way for us to play baseball,” Leonello explained. “He’s the type of coach that lets us be who we are. He doesn’t try to change too much on the field. Instead, he focuses on our mental approach to the game. It’s definitely something new, but so far I think we’ve really benefitted from it.”
Leonello went on to explain that sometimes last season, players would dwell on little mistakes which would cause them to snowball. This season, Suarez has preached focus and poise. When a mistake happens, Suarez wants his players to forget about it and focus on the next pitch instead.
With the new coach comes a new group of players including a few freshmen that are expected to contribute right away. Two such freshmen include starting pitchers Bobby Maxwell and Nick Freijomil. Those two will join Brian Drapeau and Matt McCormick as part of a solid rotation.
"I like our pitching staff," Ziznewski said. "Brian Drapeau is a new guy that transferred from Howard that has good maturity and has shown a lot of promise. Matt McCormick has been our best pitcher, he's a bit older, and he gets the job done every time he touches the mound. And the freshmen have been throwing real well for us. They throw strikes and show a lot of promise."
Pete Leonello, who has LIU Brooklyn's all-time stolen bases record, leads off. He's followed by Jon McAllister and Ziznewski. All three players are upperclassmen that can play both sides of the ball well. Behind them is Mark Hernandez, a sophomore that Suarez raves about, Bobby Webb, a junior who transferred from Golden West Community College (California), and Kevin Needham, a power-hitting senior.
“Our biggest strength is our hitting,” Ziznewski said. “It seems like we average at least 10 hits a game. Leonello has a knack for getting on base followed by McAllister all the way to the bottom. We're a good situational hitting team with a bunch of guys that can drive the ball. That's definitely our biggest strength.“
The one area that could hurt the Blackbirds is on defense. Recently, they committed five errors in a game against St. John’s that would have been winnable had they kept their composure. That’s where Suarez’s mantra of staying focused comes into play.
“It seems that when we are able to focus and be consistent in the field we win games and when we don't we lose them,” Suarez said. “It's something that we've talked about and will continue to talk about until it gets better. It helps having Pete (Leonello) and John (Ziznewski) at center (field) and shortstop. Those are two important positions and having them out there gives us real stability.”
It’s going to tough to take the NEC this year. The bats seem in place, but the rotation is going to need consistency from a pair of freshmen and the defense will have to improve. Having said that, there seems to be a real confidence about this team this year.
"This is the best team that I have been on since I've been here," Leonello boasted. "We might have not been picked to be at the top of the NEC, but people don't know that we have good leadership, some promising freshmen, and a great group of kids that transferred in from junior colleges so I think we're going to surprise some people.
“We have a good chance to bring home a ring this year.”