For the baseball team, it was a season of highs, lows and unexpected twists — of the knee, arm and other body parts.
Injuries were a major story for the Owls in 2008, but through the pain the team grinded out their most successful campaign in years.
When the dust settled over Skip Wilson Field, the Owls finished 27-29 overall and 16-11 in the Atlantic Ten Conference to qualify for the A-10 Tournament for the first time since 2002.
In their opening round game in Camden, N.J., the No. 4 Owls were disposed by No. 5 Rhode Island, 7-1, on May 21. The team bounced back later that day to defeat No. 6 Saint Bonaventure, 5-2, but lost to No. 3 Duquesne, 10-7, in an elimination game on May 22.
Despite their short stay in the A-10 Tournament, the Owls reached many notable benchmarks this season. The team set a program record with 16 conference wins, ultimately giving the Owls a solid fourth-place finish in the league standings. The 27 overall wins were the most since 1999, and nine more than last season.
Just two years ago, the Owls were 12-41, and the rapid improvement can be partially attested to the work of third-year coach Rob Valli.
“He was a huge impact,” said senior outfielder Stan Orzechowski. “He is a great recruiter and he does a great job with talking to the players and motivating the players.”
With a slew of players missing action — including senior anchors Orzechowski, infielder Mike Kelch and pitcher Tom Dolan — Valli steadied the Owls clubhouse.
The Owls broke through against a ranked opponent on April 5, when they defeated No. 18 Charlotte, 5-2. Just weeks later, the Owls confidently swept a well-balanced Duquesne team in a three-game set at Skip Wilson Field.
Even when playoff hopes appeared to be dashed, and a six-game losing streak weighed heavy in late April, hope survived. The Owls won five of their last seven games to stride into the A-10 Tournament for the first time in six years.
“Our coach said take it one game at a time, and don’t worry about tomorrow just worry about today, and that’s how we got back on track,” senior closer Arshwin Asjes said.
After a 2007 season that saw skyrocketing offensive numbers for the Owls, this year was about re-establishing the pitching staff.
Junior Matt Mongiardini led the starting rotation with six victories, and a 3.59 earned run average while his brother, senior Mike Mongiardini, added three wins and led the team in strikeouts with 43, despite arm trouble. Asjes stood tall in relief, garnering 10 saves.
Making noise for the Owls offense was freshman outfielder Byron McKoy. He led the team in batting average (.352), and slugging percentage (.511). McKoy was named to the A-10’s All Conference second team, as well as the All Rookie team.
Fellow team members were impressed with McKoy’s talent early on.
“When I saw Byron in the fall I knew he was special,” Orzechowski said. “He is one of the fastest kids I [have] ever seen in my life. I was truly impressed, but I wasn’t surprised,” he added.
Also sparking the offense was junior outfielder Sean Barksdale, who led the Owls with 47 RBIs and 27 stolen bases.
For the Owls, the small taste of postseason play will linger over the next few months and add incentive for another run next year. In two years, the team has climbed from 12 to 27 wins, and a group of young players continue to gain the experience their predecessors could not.
“I’m definitely not satisfied with the way the season ended,” Asjes said. “When the incoming freshmen come in the fall and get to work early, set the goal that this year you don’t want to lose in the A-10s.”
Anthony Stipa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Rotator photo by Kevin Cook.)