Cardinals shock top-seeded Kean 3-2 in NCAA opener
LAKEWOOD, N.J. – In its first-ever appearance in the Division III NCAA Tournament, CUA (23-19) made quite a first impression, downing top-seeded Kean 3-2 on Wednesday evening at FirstEnergy Park. Senior Ron Esposito was spectacular on the mound, striking out seven and allowing only six hits and the CUA offense did just enough to lift the Cardinals to victory over the country's third ranked team (36-9).
CUA was making its second appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but first-ever in the Division III tournament; CUA was a member of Division I in 1977. Despite none of the current team members having even been born the last time CUA made the tournament, Head Coach Ross Natoli's squad was hardly fazed. "I tell our guys all the time, no one we play is going to be as prepared as we will be and that we will always go into a game prepared to succeed."
He continued, "There are so many equalizers in baseball and all of the little things add up that your chance is as good as anyone. Our guys truly buy into that philosophy and understand that they can play with and beat anyone."
For someone that has been in charge of the Cardinals program for 26 years, Wednesday's NCAA Tournament win was well worth the wait for Natoli. "It's a big thrill, no doubt. This win is for all of the guys I've coached during my 26 years, that's what goes through my mind. I've gotten calls from former players of every era since I've been the head coach and it's great to share this with every single one of them."
Natoli added, "This is especially for our latest group of guys; the teams from 2008 and 2009 that won the Landmark Conference championships - they are a huge part of this win. To make the NCAA Tournament in any sport is a special accomplishment; there's a lot of hard work that goes into it. I'm happy that our guys have this chance to experience the postseason and have created a memory that will remain with them for a lifetime. They really deserve it."
Kean got on the board first when Vinny Galya came around on a throwing error by Mark Kalokitis in the bottom of the first inning. Galya began the frame with a lead-off single and moved to second on a stolen base.
The Cougars threatened in the third when Tyler Smarslok doubled to left with one out and Gayla singled to put runners at the corners. Gayla then stole second, but Esposito retired the next two batters with a strike out and a fly out.
In the sixth CUA loaded the bases when Kalokitis and Tim Mierzwa led off with back-to-back singles and LJ Travaglia followed with a walk. Dan Sullivan then grounded into a double-play, but it did push Kalokitis across to tie things at one.
With two outs in the bottom of the sixth Kean had a pair of runners on but Kalokitis made a terrific play along the stands behind home plate when he caught a foul ball off the bat of Nick Nolan to retire the side and keep the score knotted at one.
The Cougars went in front with a single run in the seventh when Galya's ground out brought in Stephen Nappe to make it 2-1.
CUA took its first lead of the night in the eighth when the Cardinals pushed two runs across. Brendan Breslin led off with a double, Kalokitis was hit by a pitch and Mierzwa then laid down a bunt that was supposed to be a sacrifice, but died in the infield grass and wound up being a hit, which loaded the bases with no outs.
Greg Baruka then came into pitch for the Cougars, and Travaglia was next for CUA. After falling behind 1-2, the Cardinals shortstop worked a walk to tie the score at two.
The next two Cardinals were retired, which brought up Matt Grieb. Grieb and Baruka battled throughout the at-bat, until the count was full. Baruka then hit Grieb with a pitch and that brought home Kalokitis for the eventual game-winning run to make it 3-2 CUA.
In the bottom half of the inning Kean put runners on first and second with two outs by way of a walk and a CUA error, but Esposito notched his seventh strikeout of the night when he blew a fastball past Nappe to preserve the one-run lead.
With only three outs remaining to pull off the upset Esposito retired the Cougars 1-2-3 in the ninth, including a fly out by Galya to end it. Kalokitis and Esposito then met midway between home plate and the mound to celebrate CUA's big win. "It's really hard to put into words what Ronnie did tonight," Natoli said. "Pitching in a competitive environment like that and to perform the way he did, it's everything you could ask for as a coach."
Natoli went on to say, "He's done it for us all season long; he competes and gives us everything he has. He got big outs tonight and made Kean hit his pitches. Our guys really love playing behind Ronnie because they know he trusts them and he elevates their play. That was one of the best pitching performances I've seen in my 26 years as the head coach at Catholic."
The Cardinals now move on to face Misericordia on Thursday evening in the winner's bracket. First pitch from FirstEnergy Park is slated for 6:45 p.m.