Ten things to keep in mind before the announcement show:
Fire up the StitchHead LearJet. It’s conference tournament week. I spent the first few days of it at home slothfully lounging on my couch just getting fat. Well I couldn’t take it any more. The wanderlust in me came roaring out and I hopped on board the Jet and took off for Oklahoma City.
I will spend the next few days checking in on the action at the Big 12 tournament in Tulsa and hoping to catch the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in Wichita on Saturday.
Back in 2002, the new 64-team format for the NCAA tournament was three years old and it was turning profits for the non-profit organization instead of losing money like the old 48-team format was. Then-NCAA Selection Committee Chairman Wally Groff famously said to the media after the Regional assignments were handed out that “money was no longer a driving factor” in deciding where Regionals were held.
The way things look right now, this will be a banner year for the non-traditional powers of the college baseball world.
The SEC is top heavy. The Big 12 is barely going to be represented. The Pac 12 is always short-shifted. And the ACC hasn’t been over-valued for once.
It was another wild day in college baseball. Miami plastered Georgia Tech 22-1. Clemson won at Florida State for the second day in a row. Illinois just keeps on winning. And UCLA tossed a no-hitter against Arizona. But one game that lacked any amount of wildness to it was LSU’s 9-2 win over South Carolina. The Purple Gang was able to come out and put a hearty foot-stomp on the momentum that the Gamecocks had going for itself with a dominating win in front of another strong crowd in Columbia. Once again, the Doctor of College Baseball was there to document what happened.
My gawd. What a crazy Thursday it was in college baseball, from all four corners and then some. We had seven schools secure regular season titles, we had some more programs eliminated and see their seasons end and we had some off-the-radar teams post big wins to put themselves into the post-season picture. South Carolina was one of those…
NEW YORK — When Columbia won its third straight Ivy League title this past Sunday over Dartmouth, it’s quite likely that no Lions player was more appreciative of the extension of their season than designated hitter Joey Falcone. And not just because he is a senior.
There was a time when all Falcone could do was dream about playing baseball again. As a medic in the armed forces, he served three tours of duty, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
He has said there were days during his long deployment when he would find himself daydreaming about playing baseball again.
“It’s the game that I grew up with,” Falcone said. “I loved it and I never stopped thinking about it.”
He has a longstanding appreciation for the sport; growing up as the son of major league pitcher Pete Falcone, he has been surrounded by baseball all his life. He was a star player at Bolton High School in Alexandria, Louisiana, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after he graduated.
“I didn’t want to sit around after high school and just be a knucklehead,” he said, “because that’s what I would’ve become, a knucklehead.”
With options and time running out, he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps at age 17. He trained as a medic and was eventually shipped off to the different theaters of war in the post-September 11 world. Now 29, he doesn’t spend much time talking about that experience now, though, instead choosing to focus on what lies ahead.
What is in the immediate future for the 6-foot-5 slugger and his comrades is a trip to the NCAA tournament, thanks to a pair of back-against-the-wall wins on Saturday and Sunday to win the Ivy League tournament. In the last two years, Columbia has found itself playing its best baseball when there is no tomorrow, going 7-2 in win-or-else games the last two campaigns.
“It feels great to go back to the NCAA tournament again,” Falcone said. “We never take it for granted, that’s for sure.”
The phrase “take nothing for granted” hits home with Falcone. With his medic duties in the Marines, he saw the horrors of battle firsthand. Many of his comrades came back less able-bodied as they were before they left.
So when he got out of the Marines with all his faculties still about him, he decided to give the game he loved another try. In fall 2010, he walked into the office of Neil Barbella, an assistant baseball coach for Division III College of Staten Island, to ask about enrolling and playing baseball again. Barbella knew Falcone’s father and lived right around the corner from him during his Mets days from 1979 to 1982.
Despite Falcone’s six-year layoff from the game, Barbella and the rest of the CSI coaching staff were impressed with his hand-eye coordination and his ability to hit for power. So after the long sojourn away from the game, Falcone found he had a gig in baseball again.
During his freshman year in 2011, Falcone hit .336, helped the Dolphins win a conference championship and was voted City University of New York Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year. He had found his stroke and renewed his love for baseball once again.
But one season at CSI wasn’t enough for the strapping slugger. Falcone had bigger fish to fry. He went to Barbella’s in December 2011 and told him he had an opportunity to transfer to Columbia and enter a program geared toward veterans and other “nontraditional” students. As Barbella recalls, the loyal Marine in Falcone didn’t want to abandon his new team.
“He was so loyal to the team and the program, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to leave us to go play D-I ball,” Barbella said. “But I told him, ‘Dude, I will drive you to Columbia myself right now if I have to,’ because I knew he couldn’t let this opportunity pass him by.”
Columbia head coach Brett Boretti offered Falcone a tryout in fall 2012. Not only did he make the team with his raw power and keen ability at the dish, he forced his way into the starting lineup immediately.
During the 2013 season, Falcone hit a team-best .331 with five home runs and 41 RBIs and made 35 starts during the season, which garnered him All-Ivy League honors. He was also named a semifinalist for the Gregg Olson Award, which is given to college baseball’s breakout player of the year. That year, the Lions won an NCAA tournament game for the first time, going 1-2 in the Fullerton Regional.
The 2014 season was a bit of a detour in Falcone’s college experience. He suddenly lost his touch at the plate and struggled with nagging injuries. As a result, Falcone hit just .125 and only started 17 games in his junior season.
But as a testament to the Lions’ program, they won the Ivy League title again and returned to NCAAs, losing a pair of one-run games to Texas Tech and Bethune-Cookman in the Coral Gables Regional.
Falcone leaned on his Marine training in the offseason, getting into the best shape of his life. He also got his swing back, learning not to be so gung-ho at the dish, instead choosing to stay back on pitches more and be patient for the pitches he could crush. In fact, going into this past weekend’s Ivy League playoffs, Falcone was hitting .340 with nine home runs, 41 RBIs and a .640 slugging percentage. Still, like every player experiences, the struggles of the game can come out of nowhere.
Last week in the Lions’ final regular-season series versus Penn and in the one-game playoff those two teams played to decide the Gehrig Division champion, Falcone found himself scuffling. He went 4-for-18 with eight strikeouts in those five games. But not to worry, when struggles come Falcone knows who to turn to: his father.
“I was amped that we won that play-in game but I was very upset,” Falcone said. “I called my father and I said, ‘Dad, what’s going on? I feel bad for how I played.’ He said, ‘Joseph, do you realize you didn’t swing at one single strike today? You’re swinging like a jerk up there. Stop swinging like a jerk.’ And that helped focus me again for this weekend.”
And what a weekend it was for Falcone. There wasn’t an official MVP voting for the Ivy League playoffs, but if there had been it would no doubt have gone to the big lefty DH. In the two wins that clinched the title, Falcone went 4-for-5 with three RBIs, hitting for the short cycle in a 7-2 Game 2 win on Saturday and then 3-for-5 with two home runs and five RBIs in the 10-7 Game 3 win on Sunday.
While the pitching has improved over the course of the season for the Lions, Boretti admits the versatile offense is the difference in this team and the past two that he’s taken to the Big Dance.
“We are much more offensive than we’ve been the past few years,” Boretti said after the Sunday win over Dartmouth. “We knew the pitching would take a while to come around, but we have the bats up and down the lineup to go toe to toe with any offense out there.”
The numbers bear him out, as the Lions hit .293 and plastered 45 home runs and 90 doubles in 41 games this season. They also managed to steal 60 bases to keep the pressure on opposing pitchers. After scoring just three runs in 18 innings of last year’s NCAA tournament appearance, the Lions are hoping the hot bats they showed this past weekend will emerge again in a few weeks.
“We want to take advantage of our situation,” Falcone said. “Last year down in Miami we lost by one run in each game. I think the bad stuff happened there so that we’ll be fired up this time to where that bad stuff won’t happen again.”
See StitchHeads, we are already in mid-May. So that means every game starts to take on bigger and bigger meaning. Not that every mid-week game is of utmost importance, but here is the best and worst of what happened in our sport.
Check out the goods and bads of college baseball today…
Yes! It’s also time for teams to start getting fitted for tuxedos and trips to the Big Dance.
As you StitchHeads might recall, I was in New York City this weekend for the Ivy League Playoffs which were hosted by Columbia for the third straight season. And for the third time in as many tries, the Lions beat Rolfe Division champion Dartmouth in the best-of-three to earn the first NCAA tournament bid of the 2015 college baseball season.