Out of the shadows: Buzz follows Stony Brook
Headed to first CWS, former underdog relishing rush of spotlight
STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- One day, they were an unknown underdog, an upstart challenging one of the traditional powers in college baseball. And the next day, they were a cause célèbre.
That's the reality for the baseball program at Stony Brook University, which defeated six-time national champion Louisiana State University on Sunday. The Seawolves will leave for their first trip to the College World Series on Wednesday, and they'll do it with a vastly increased national profile.
Travis Jankowski, Stony Brook's star center fielder, said his phone has rarely stopped buzzing since beating LSU, and he spoke with pride about the way the community has embraced his team.
"That was incredible," he said of the team's homecoming. "We got on the bus and we got a police escort, and we were like, 'Alright, this is going to be kind of cool.' And then we got here and there were 200 people -- alumni, fans, administration, the president of the school -- just waiting for us."
That kind of thing may happen every season at other schools, but at Stony Brook, it's something new. The Seawolves went Division I in baseball during the 2000 campaign, but prior to this season, they only had won one game at an NCAA regional and only had 14 draftees in program history.
Somehow, that all went out the window in one memorable two-week stretch of baseball. Stony Brook beat host Miami and survived the Coral Gables regional, and then without going home, traveled to Baton Rouge and engaged in an epic three-game series at venerable Alex Box Stadium.
Stony Brook, playing in one of the biggest venues it had ever visited, dropped a marathon first game despite holding leads in the ninth, 10th and 11th innings. Despite that difficult loss -- which was actually completed the next day due to inclement weather conditions -- the Seawolves went back to work and beat LSU two games in a row to clinch its first slot in the College World Series.
"It's been pretty hectic being away from home, but it's been an incredible run," said catcher Pat Cantwell. "We've been fighting back from the bottom of the bottom, losing the second game of the regional and the first game of the super-regional. It's a testament to the guys on the team, their heart and their dedication to the program. I couldn't ask for a better bunch of guys to do it with."
Coach Matt Senk has been the architect of Stony Brook's success, presiding over 22 seasons that have seen the Seawolves grow from a Division III power to their current state.
Stony Brook even has a brand-new facility -- Joe Nathan Field, named for the program's only big league alumnus -- that sits 1,000 people and features FieldTurf. It's a long way from the old days for Senk, who said his old field's advantage came in the form of familiar bad hops.
"When I first took the position, we were Division III and I was just trying to make it the best Division III program I possibly could," said Senk. "It really comes down to the players, because over these 22 years I've had outstanding young men and their families that trusted that this was the best place for them academically. Due to them, we've won and we've won on a consistent basis."
Indeed, Stony Brook has won the America East conference title three times in the last eight years, and it's managed to advance to a regional three times in the last five years. The Seawolves even shattered a school record this year by having seven players taken in the First-Year Player Draft.
Now, after the most hectic two-week stretch of their lives, the Seawolves have to prepare for their Friday game against UCLA, and they have to do it with just two nights of sleep at home. But for Tyler Johnson, the winningest pitcher in the school's history, it's not that big a deal.
"The thing about this team is we're road warriors," he said. "We played 47 games on the road last year because our field wasn't built yet. We're used to being on the bus and we're used to being on the plane. For the first half, we're always down south, so it's almost weird for us to be at home."
Stony Brook has performed well in the role of underdog, but it's starting to get comfortable in the limelight. Several of the players mentioned what an imposing experience it was to play in front of 11,000 fans at Alex Box, but they also thought that they had won people over in the end.
Jankowski, taken 44th overall by the Padres, told of how the LSU fans encouraged the Stony Brook players to celebrate on their field, how they seemed to relish sharing the moment with them. Now, if Jankowski and the Seawolves have their way, they'll get another chance to dogpile.
"I don't think anyone was nervous going in," said Jankowski of Baton Rouge. "We're the Cinderella team. We're the underdog. And no doubt, that was a hostile crowd. There was about 10,500 people rooting against you and just heckling the heck out of you. But even after the first game -- the one we tied and finished later -- we went out to eat and there were LSU fans in purple and gold that came over and said, 'You guys are a great team. We're diehard LSU fans, but you guys might win us over by the end.' And sure enough, we did, so they're coming out to Omaha and they're wearing red."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.