Manhattan College's baseball team knew the next step would be far from easy.
No matter where they were going to be sent for the NCAA tournament, the Jaspers expected to draw a tough opening-round opponent.
"We were talking about it Sunday night and we thought we'd be one of the lower seeds so we'd get one of the top national seeds,'' senior pitcher Taylor Sewitt said. "But one of our assistant coaches, Rene Ruiz, was like, `Oh, I want to go to South Carolina.' I think he was kind of kidding around.''
Well, here's no laughing matter: The Jaspers (33-25) are indeed headed to South Carolina, where they will take on the two-time defending College World Series champion Gamecocks (40-17) on Friday. Talk about a tough draw - but it's been that type of season for the resilient Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament champs.
"We wanted to raise the bar with Manhattan baseball,'' first-year coach Jim Duffy said. "Now our goal is to not just go to a regional and have little, old Manhattan show up in Columbia, S.C., but to go down there and compete with the big boys and win some games.
"That's our focus.''
A year after playing in a regional with three Florida-based schools, Manhattan is in one that includes Coastal Carolina (41-17) and Clemson (33-26) - three South Carolina-based schools and a bunch of guys from Riverdale, N.Y., in the northwest corner of the Bronx who started out 1-14 and whose home field is a public park that requires the players to maintain it themselves.
"We're definitely the odd man out, but our program has gotten a lot better the last few years and I feel like we're not as much of a no-name team,'' said Sewitt, a submarine-throwing right-hander. "I'm pretty sure those other teams know about us and don't want to play us.''
Opponents probably have at least heard about Sewitt by now. He made national headlines last weekend by winning three games in the MAAC tournament, including throwing 11 scoreless innings of relief in the title game against Canisius. He finished with 22 scoreless innings and 296 pitches thrown. Not bad for a guy who only started pitching regularly midway through last season when Ruiz suggested Sewitt - a former infielder - drop down and throw submarine-style. Sewitt only broke into the Jaspers' rotation last month after starting out as a reliever.
"Man, it was just a week for him,'' Duffy said. "He created a memory.''
Manhattan has a formidable 1-2 punch on the mound with Sewitt (11-1, 2.40 ERA) and fellow righty John Soldinger (6-5, 3.43 with six complete games), and Jacob Marchus (1-1, 1.31, 8 saves) closing out games.
The lineup has some terrific talent, too, with center fielder Anthony Vega (.336, 5 HRs, 31 RBIs, 32 SBs), second baseman Nick Camastro (.319, 28 RBIs), shortstop Yoandry Galan (.293, 22 RBIs) and catcher Ramon Ortega (.274, 7, 51).
After Kevin Leighton left the program to become the coach at Fordham, Duffy took over a team that had some success a year ago, including that regional appearance - in which Manhattan lost to Florida and Jacksonville. But a handful of key players were gone, and things certainly didn't look good when the Jaspers opened 1-14 before a 3-3 stretch put them at 4-17 after a loss to Fairleigh Dickinson on March 27.
"We're a 30-plus win team, but nothing's really come that easy for us this year,'' Duffy said. "We just worked really hard, strung together some wins and battled back and figured out what worked.''
Manhattan went 29-8 the rest of the way to win the MAAC regular-season title and then the conference tournament - which had its share of nerve-racking moments.
The Jaspers lost the opener to Rider and then had to work their way out of the elimination bracket, winning one-run games against Fairfield, Rider and Canisius to set up one of college baseball's most eye-popping pitching performances. After Canisius loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning of the championship game, Duffy pulled starter Matt Jordan and put in Sewitt, who had already won two games in the tournament.
Sewitt gave up a two-run single and then piled up scoreless inning after scoreless inning until Manhattan won 3-2 in the 11th for its second straight MAAC title. The Jaspers also earned the distinction of being the first team to lose the conference tournament opener and win it all, thanks in large part to Sewitt.
Duffy and his staff took some criticism, however, for allowing their pitcher to pile on the pitches.
"They weren't forcing me to do anything,'' Sewitt said. "I mean, they were ready to pull me after every inning and I kept telling them I was going back out there. I don't like that people were bashing them.''
Added Duffy: "We kept checking on him. If I thought there was anything wrong physically with the kid, he would be out of there.''
The way Sewitt figures, his submarine-style delivery puts less stress on his arm, so 100 pitches are like 40-45 pitches from normal pitching motions. His nearly 300 pitches? More like 120 or so.
"It's not as bad as it looks on paper,'' he said with a laugh. "Look, it was the tournament championship. If I lost, that would've been my college baseball career. I've got the rest of my life to rest my arm.''
Manhattan was the only Division I school to go unbeaten at home this season, with the Jaspers posting an 18-0 mark at Van Cortlandt Park. Since it's a public park, the team takes care of all the maintenance of the field to make it playable. Camastro and Galan put the chalk lines on the field, including the batter's box, before every game. The rest of the players drag the infield, set up the sound system and even put up the outfield fence.
"It's funny because if you're an outside person and looking at it, you might be like, `That's crazy. Who'd ever want to go to college and do that?''' Sewitt said. "But we take so much pride in that field. It's almost like our baby. After all that work we do just to get the field ready, we have to win those games. We won't lose.''
That's the approach the team has used during this run, and the Jaspers plan to continue to do so starting Friday against South Carolina.
"Last year was the first time we were in the NCAAs since 2006, so nobody on the team had ever been there before,'' Sewitt said. "So it was more like shock and awe, and just a happy to be here type of thing. This year, we really want to compete and think we can win some games there. We're just one of those teams that honestly never gives up.''
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