Over the last few years Seton Hall’s baseball program has been like the Rodney Dangerfield of the Big East Conference … they got no respect.

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The Pirates have been perennially picked no higher than ninth in the league’s preseason polls throughout the last four seasons, including a No. 11 ranking heading into this year following a 19-30-1 finish in 2010.

This year, however, they have a chance to change some minds. Seton Hall has reached the College Station Regional hosted by top-seeded Texas A&M.  The No. 3 Pirates (33-23) will face second-seeded Arizona on June 3 at 12:35 p.m. CT to open regional play.

The reaction on the team to the sudden burst of success? Joy and relief.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve always been picked to finish at the bottom of the conference,” senior first baseman Sean Gusrang said.  “It’s hard to swallow sometimes not getting respect as a university and not producing as a team like we should year in and year out.  This program has great tradition and you don’t want to disappoint any of the guys who played before you.”

The program had been a regular participant in the NCAA tournament in the 1970s and 1980s, and even made back-to-back appearances in 2000-01. Since then, with the exception of a fifth-place finish in the Big East standings to qualify for the league tournament in 2008, the Pirates have ended each year in the bottom four of the conference standings and out of postseason play.

The squad, especially the seniors, had enough of the low expectations, and set out to change the attitude of the team this year.

“In the beginning of the season our hitting coach Jim Duffy, he had each of the position players write down our goals for the year – what we wanted to accomplish individually and as a team,” said Gusrang.  “I’m almost positive that every single one of us wrote down that we not only wanted to get to the Big East Championship, but we wanted to win it.  There are a lot of people who probably thought it was a long shot for us to win this whole thing.”

“I know every team wants to get into the conference tournament and win a conference championship and go on to a regional when they start the season, but these guys were very hungry,” head coach Rob Sheppard said.  “We’ve spoken about it since we made our team goals in September.”

But as late as May 1, it was not looking like things had changed for the Pirates.  SHU was 20-21 overall, and 7-11 in Big East play, and while there were flashes of solid play during the season – a win at North Carolina and a series victory at Florida Atlantic – the Pirates could never get on a roll.

“There were points throughout the season we showed we could compete with anybody … it was just a matter of being more consistent,” Sheppard said.

And then, something clicked.

After shutting out St. Peter’s College on May 3, the Pirates hosted Louisville and swept the Cardinals, and the pendulum started swinging in their favor.

“As the season progressed, we were able to [be more consistent],” Sheppard said.  “We had a couple sweeps against Louisville and Georgetown that proved to be the deciding factor of getting into the conference tournament.  We’ve started to play our most consistent baseball over the last three weeks.”

The Pirates have been impressive down the stretch, winning 13 of their last 15 games.  The late run earned Seton Hall a No. 5 seed in the Big East Tournament, and the Pirates went on to post a 4-0 record in the championship to win their first league title and NCAA tournament berth since 2001.  The run included two victories against top-seeded Connecticut, and a 4-2 defeat of second-seeded St. John’s in the title game. 

SHU scored in double-digits in two of the contests.

“It made us feel great as an offense, because our pitching has kept us in every single game this year,” Gusrang said.  “At times, we have let our pitching down. Winning those first three games in the tournament, offensively, we felt great. We came together and showed tremendous heart and desire [in the championship game] – everyone was in it for the same thing.  We all believed in ourselves and wanted some respect.”

Over the past 15 games, the Pirates are hitting .256 and scoring 5.2 runs per game – 10 points and a run better than in their first 41 contests.

“We’ve been a lot more consistent,” Sheppard said.  “We have to hit as a lineup to have success.  There’s not one guy in the lineup that is going to stand out from a numbers standpoint.  There have been different points in the season where each guy may have shouldered more of the load, but as a whole lately, our guys have passed the baton … everybody is contributing more consistently.”

And, while the Pirates’ pitching and defense has been solid all season, in the last 15 games the team has compiled a 1.66 ERA and .975 fielding percentage.  SHU currently ranks eighth in the nation with a 2.61 ERA led by senior right-hander Joe DiRocco’s 8-1 record and 1.68 ERA.

“This year is something special,” Gusrang said.  “There’s been a different feeling since the fall.  We wanted to be different and wanted to prove something.”