Seniors looking to go out in style
The "Big Four" are the winningest senior class in school history
It’s tough not to argue that Manhattan has been the best team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference during the last four seasons, but unfortunately the Jaspers do not have the hardware to back up that statement – something they are looking to change in the near future.
After winning the MAAC regular season title in 2008 and 2009, the Jaspers went on to be eliminated in the conference tournament. Last season, the Jaspers were seeded fourth in the four-team tournament, and again, did not win the trophy or the NCAA Tournament automatic bid that comes with it.
A solid group of senior position players have been a major part of the success over the past four years, becoming Manhattan’s winningest senior class in school history at 125-75 (.625), and that group will be looking to obtain that elusive league title over the next week.
“It’s been their goal since they got here,” Manhattan head coach Kevin Leighton said. “This year, it is more of a goal, but a little bit of pressure, too. It’s something we’re trying to downplay as much as possible. It’s tough … you have to be lucky. It’s not always about who is the best player in that conference tournament.”
While the Jaspers’ 28-17 overall mark, and stellar 17-2 record in MAAC play, have been a team effort, four seniors – Mark Onorati, Mike McCann, Chad Salem and Austin Sheffield – have played integral parts every year.
“They are our engine,” Leighton said. “They make us go offensively. They’re all very good defenders as well. They’re the glue that keeps us together right now.”
The “Big Four” – as they have dubbed themselves – are all equally outstanding players, but as a unit, they are much stronger. The “Big Four” were attracted to come to Manhattan – a small, private college in Riverdale, N.Y. – as they saw Leighton’s first two teams has some success as Jaspers began to build their reputation as a rising baseball program.
“They had just come off a great season, losing in the MAAC Championship game (in 2007), and the year before that they made it to NCAA Regionals and beat (current New York Yankee pitcher) Joba Chamberlin and Nebraska,” said Onorati.
That success brought those four position players to the program, and over the years the group has helped rewrite the record books at Manhattan. The foursome has each posted over 200 hits, combining for 974 during their careers.
Onorati, a centerfielder from Williston Park, N.Y., is the school’s all-time leaders in hits (281), doubles (68) and runs scored (23) after being a starter in all four years for the Jaspers. But as much as solid as those accomplishments are, the fact Onorati is the toughest player to strikeout in NCAA Division I is his biggest claim to fame. He has whiffed just three times in 172 this season, and only 11 times in his last 374 at bats during the last two seasons.
“I have a little secret about that,” Onorati laughed. “I just look to put the ball in play every time. One thing I hate the most in baseball is striking out … I try not to do it. When there are two strikes on me, I look to battle and do what I can to hit the ball.”
McCann, a right fielder from Belle Harbor, N.Y., was not highly recruited out of high school, and saw limited action as a freshman, but since an incredible sophomore year that the set school mark for hits (85) and earned him All-MAAC honors, he has been in the lineup every day. McCann leads the Jaspers and the MAAC with a .381 batting average.
Salem, a third baseman from Rye, N.Y., is the squad’s power hitter, and is the school’s all-time leader in home runs (41) and RBI (212). He is a three-time All-MAAC selection and is a candidate for the league’s Player of the Year with 48 RBI, eight homers, 17 doubles and 34 runs scored.
Rounding out the group is first baseman Austin Sheffield, who hails from Augusta, Ga. As a freshman, he committed just one error with a .996 fielding percentage, and every season he has improved offensively while still providing a solid defense. He is currently batting .313 with 25 RBI.
“We just want to win and play hard every day, and try to keep the team morale high,” Onorati said.
It’s not very often that four players will have such a huge role in a program’s success during a four-year period, and McCann believes their off-the-field connection is a big part of it. Plus, they will all graduate with their undergraduate degrees on Sunday.
“I think for us coming into together and living together for the last four years has given us a really close bond,” McCann said. “We’ve been lucky enough to all have a ton of playing time coming into this year, so we have a lot of veteran leadership in this group.”
While the Jaspers have three regular season MAAC games remaining at Iona, they have locked up the regular season title and No. 1 seed in this year’s league tournament. The “Big Four” are hoping they can overcome the past, and have learned what it takes to get to the next level.
“We have definitely learned that pitching and defense are what counts in the playoffs,” McCann said. “Over the last few years, we’ve had some great offensive performances and they just fell short to the better pitching that we see in the tournament. This year, I think we have the best pitching team since I’ve been here, so we’re really excited about our chances.”
“The ‘Big Four’ are looking to win it this year,” Onorati said. “It’s been tough in the past going into the playoffs and doing poorly. It is hard to accept having such good teams in the past and coming up short. This year, hopefully we’ll bring home a championship.”
The Jaspers have won five of their last seven games, and look to keep rolling at Iona and then in the MAAC Championship.
“We’ve gotten better and better each week and I think that’s a tribute to our seniors,” Leighton said. “In the tough times, they’ve kept our guys focused on the real goal and pushed our younger guys”.
The MAAC Baseball Championship will take place May 26-28 at Waterfront Park in Trenton, N.J. The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Rider University, which qualified for the MAAC Championship, won the title last year.