After a last-place finish in the Patriot League standings last season, Navy’s baseball squad was set on not going through another disappointing year.
Although the Midshipmen put together a 30-21 overall record, with a 7-13 mark in conference play, they did not qualify for the four-team tournament, and their season ended on May 12.
Ten seniors from last season’s team had graduated, but they made sure their message stayed with the current players.
“We were really good friends with that senior class,” senior pitcher Wes Olson said. “They told us, ‘find a way to do something different … find a way to not go out like we did because this was terrible.’ We decided we weren’t going to go out that way. With a little more off-the-field dedication and taking a little more ownership on the field about what Coach (Paul Kostacopoulos) was saying, and showing that the seniors were on the same page with Coach, the rest of the team followed suit.”
This year, the Midshipmen turned it around, finishing in first place in the Patriot League standings with a 12-8 record, and then becoming the first top-seeded team to win the championship since 2007.
“The determination of this year’s group has really been the difference. I can’t say that, ‘wow, we’re so much better,’” Kostacopoulos said. “But the determination has come from our senior class. They have turned the disappointment from last year into sheer determination.”
After losing a 16-inning contest to Bucknell in the first game of the league’s semifinal series, Navy came back with two wins to advance to the championship series. In the deciding game, the Midshipmen rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the sixth inning to earn an eventual 5-3 victory against rival Army, and their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002.
While Navy is winning at the right times this season, it was a slow start for the Midshipmen after losing their first five games.
“We just stayed tough,” Olson said. “We knew there that just weren’t working for us, but if we kept at and kept practicing, sometimes the game of baseball will turnaround for you. Balls that were being caught were finally dropping, balls hit right at people finally would find a gap … things just started working for us. We never gave in.”
“Overall, the thing that stands out the most is that we lost our first series of the year, and we got beat pretty good,” Kostacopoulos said. “Then, for the next 12 or 13 series, we either won or tied and didn’t lose a doubleheader all year. It just shows that no matter what, we’re going to come ready to go. We don’t have too many pitfalls.”
Kostacopoulos says the biggest improvement has been the pitching staff this season.
“I think we started off slowly in the sense that we did not command the strike zone, we pitched behind everybody and we couldn’t finish any hitters off,” Kostacopoulos said. “We gradually got better, and that’s what you like to see. A lot of the credit goes to our pitching coach Ryan Mau. He stayed with the package he wanted to put in and demanded we keep working at it. We finally got to a point where we kept improving, and at the end of the year, it’s definitely been our strength.”
The pitching staff has allowed four or fewer runs in 11 of the last 15 games, lowering the staff ERA from 5.47 to 4.94 during that stretch. In the Patriot League Tournament, Navy pitchers compiled a 1.95 ERA and a .208 opponent batting average, while combining for 50 strikeouts and only 15 walks in six games. The team also set a school season record for strikeouts with 414.
“We are finally able to apply what Coach Mau has been trying to instill in us from the beginning,” Olson said. “He’s been telling us when you get ahead you can throw a couple pitches for a strike anytime you want, in any count.”
Navy will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time, and for the first time during Kostacopoulos’ six-year tenure. The Midshipmen own a 3-13 record in their seven previous NCAA appearances.
“We’re a little unique,” Kostacopoulos said. “Our guys don’t play in the summer because they go off into the fleet. It’s a double-goal that we’re going to enjoy ourselves, and we’re going to play hard.”
“We know the ride isn’t over,” Olson said. “We’re going to try to upset some people and just play our game. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing … we just need to worry about our game, and we’ll go from there.”
Navy awaits its regional assignment for the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The 64-team bracket announcement will be televised live on ESPN at 12:30 p.m. ET on Monday.