By Jill Saftel, News Staff
Chosen to finish in the bottom of the preseason polls, the Northeastern baseball team wasn’t supposed to make it to the Colonial Athletic Association Championship tournament in Harrisonburg, Va. From there, the Huskies certainly weren’t expected to stave off elimination with a 7-6 walk-off win against the University of Delaware before taking down James Madison University in a decisive 11-7 victory.
It was then that University of North Carolina-Wilmington stood in Northeastern’s path to the CAA title. As the top seed in the conference and nationally ranked No. 20, the Seahawks were set to be Northeastern’s biggest challenge yet, but again the Huskies proved themselves, defeating UNCW by a single run in a 5-4 extra-innings, walk-off thriller.
The playoff magic ended there for the Huskies, who were finally knocked out of the tournament by the College of William & Mary in a 12-4 loss in the semifinal round May 25, three days after their run began. But for head coach Neil McPhee and his team, the 2013 season built a strong foundation for the program to continue to improve, especially considering the early part of their season was filled with highs and lows following three rough seasons.
“Our goal always is to get into the tournament and I guess you could say we started our run at about the midway point of the season,” McPhee said. “We kept hanging on to the last spot, then we moved up one to the fifth spot and then as the end of the season came I thought we were playing our best baseball and certainly when we got into the tournament it all came together and we ended up in the semifinal round. It was a great accomplishment for us this year.”
The accomplishment was made sweeter by that preseason poll, which McPhee said offered motivation to the players especially.
“In some ways this could be considered one of our best seasons ever because it ends up with 30-plus wins for the first time in 16 years, we won the Beanpot and not only did we make the conference tournament, we made the semifinals,” he said.
For the past four years, McPhee and his staff have been attempting to get the program back into the position it had been in previously. For them, that meant CAA tournament appearances with winning seasons. There had been a steady progression in the past four seasons, each year succeeding a little more than the year before, which McPhee said is directly correlated to the athletics department’s full funding of Northeastern’s baseball program. In 2010, the team finished 13-31, 2011 and 2012 brought 18-33 and 23-28 records respectively, while the Huskies ended this season 31-26.
In 2007 the team’s funding was reduced by two scholarships, and the 2013 season is the first time the program has been fully funded scholarship-wise.
“The credit goes to the players who brought us there and seniors who were part of those past four years,” McPhee said. “To see what they have led us to in 2013, not just getting into the tournament but the semifinal round, it’s such a terrific run.”
Northeastern took out both the host team and the No. 1 seed – no easy feat. That, along with their two walk-off wins, made up the culmination of a long road the program has been on in its return to success.
Part of that success came from the team members standing on the mound.
“We actually evaluated this team to be strong offensively and we did not expect the pitching staff to be as dominant as it turned out, and there was a bit of role reversal going on with that,” McPhee said. “They were really the key to so many wins this year.”
The pitching staff was led by senior Kevin Ferguson, who McPhee said had an outstanding senior year and was the rock of their rotation every Sunday, sophomore Nick Berger and senior closer Dylan Maki, who set the program’s save record this year.
Freshmen Nick Cubarney and James Mulry make up some of the pitching rotation’s future. Mulry had a standout game against UNCW, which McPhee said was just a bright sign for the future.
And while the pitchers made sure the Huskies had a fighting chance on the mound, sophomore Jason Vosler was a force at the plate.
“He started out the season on fire, then struggled through middle part, but when we needed offense the most he was absolutely magnificent,” McPhee said. “I don’t think our coaching staff has seen an offensive run in the tournament like Jason had.”
Vosler had a .591 batting average through Northeastern’s five games in the tournament with 7 RBI and 9 R, and led the offense with junior Aaron Barbosa, sophomore Rob Fonseca, junior Brad Burcroff and redshirt freshman Michael Foster.
The Huskies couldn’t emerge from Virginia victorious, but their run wasn’t short of those moments that stick in a coach’s mind.
“One of the things that I’ll really remember from the tournament was Pete Castoldi’s at-bat against UNCW in the 11th inning against one of the absolute best pitchers in the conference, and he came up with walk-off win,” McPhee said.
Even when the outcome left Northeastern on the losing end, like in its first game of the tournament against Towson, good came out of it.
“We came back in that first game,” he said. ” We had the tying and winning runs on base when it ended. It was just a terrific experience for everybody.”