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Wayne Cavadi | | May 25, 2019

How the NYIT Bears went from a 13-win team to the DII baseball championship finals

DII Baseball: 2019 Selection Show

The NYIT Bears baseball team is having a season of historic proportions. Fresh off the East Region Super Regional win over Southern New Hampshire — the reigning East Region champs that made it to the national semifinals a year ago — NYIT is heading to the 2019 DII baseball championship finals in Cary, North Carolina. 

2019 DII BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP: Follow Super Regional action all weekend | Buy tickets

To say this is unexpected is an understatement. “I’d be lying if I told you that I thought we’d be here already,” rookie head coach Frank Catalanotto said. Yes, that Frank Catalanotto, the former big leaguer who played 14 stellar seasons primarily for the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, and Toronto Blue Jays. 

Now, he’s at the helm of the second largest turnaround in DII baseball this century. He’s taken a 13-win cellar dweller to a 37-win contender heading to the finals of the DII baseball championship in his first year as a head coach at any level. 

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So, how’d we get here?

Landing Coach Catalanotto at NYIT

The Bears were not long ago playing college baseball at the Division I level. Though they were a strong team in the 1970s and 80s and some of the 90s, the 2000s had not been so kind. After a 5-win season in their 2017 DI finale, the Bears returned to the East Coast Conference in 2018 to a 13-win season.

Along the way, former New York Mets beat writer Adam Rubin became the Bears' SID. Rubin, who befriended Catalanotto in his final season with the Mets, thought he could be the guy to right this ship. Though Catalanotto was slow to come around, he finally realized the opportunity could work out perfectly for this life of “retirement” he’d been living. 

“Being able to stay home and around my family made it worth giving a shot,” Catalanotto said. “Baseball is in my blood, it’s what I’ve done my whole life. There was something missing. I was lucky enough to have my best friend [now assistant coach] Jimmy Goelz, who’s an alumnus [at NYIT] agree to do it with me. It’s gone great, I love working with these guys.”

So, here he was, skipper of NYIT Bears, a deer in the proverbial headlights. His resume to date? Catalanotto served as the first base coach for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic and was an assistant for his 15-year-old daughter’s softball team. There was work to be done, both by the players and this new-look coaching staff.

“Nothing,” Catalanotto — who was drafted right out of high school — said laughing. “I knew nothing about college baseball at all. Everything was new to me. I was lucky enough to have a coaching staff that all played college baseball, three of them played right here. [Assistant coach] Frank Battaglia has taught me a lot.”

That’s not a completely fair assessment. Much like other MLB players who enjoy long playing careers, they transition from ballplayer to sage, seemingly becoming an assistant coach on the bench.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Catalanotto said. “Towards the end of my career, I was more of a mentor to the new guys. I enjoyed that role. When you play for that long, you do start to feel a lot more like a teacher or coach.”

Catalanotto and his staff went to work. And as much as it was changing the losing culture it was instituting a whole new philosophy, which was no easy task. Catalanotto only recruited a couple of players, and only lured in four or five transfers. He had to reach a bunch of players that weren’t “his guys”.

“When I got the job, that was my biggest worry,” Catalanotto said. “It might be more difficult for these guys to make the adjustments. When I’m recruiting, I’m looking for a certain type of player. But these guys were great.”

What needed to be done? Simply put, everything.

“Early on in the fall, we recognized that these guys had a lot of work to do in every part of the game,” Catalanotto said. “We instituted more of a hitting philosophy to get the ball up the middle or go the other way and not really pulling it while trying to see pitches and get better at-bats. They responded right away. This group was very, very good at making adjustments.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH: EJ Cumbo highlights DII baseball impact players

Redshirt-freshman EJ Cumbo was coming off an injury-shortened debut, but he noticed a quick change for the coming season.

“The moment we heard Coach Frank got hired,” Cumbo said, “our team just blew up. We were so excited to get started from Day 1.”

The NYIT Bears monumental turnaround

The Bears opened Coach Catalanotto’s career on the right foot, defeating Concordia (NY) 7-6. Then they won another. And another. And another. Before the calendar turned to April, the Bears had eclipsed their 2018 win total. 

“We knew we had the talent to do it, we just had to figure out how to put all together,” Cumbo said. “We needed that one factor, I guess that’s why we needed these coaches. But we’re not done yet.

“It’s a desire to play. Once the losing started rolling on [last year] it was just a bad energy and vibe the whole time. This year, even the guys on the bench have bought into this winning culture and it’s showing.”

NYIT Athletics EJ Cumbo of NYIT baseball.

Cumbo is a major part of this turnaround. He’s heading to Cary hitting .452 with 72 hits, 43 runs scored, 44 RBI, and 21 stolen bases, and his seventh home run of the season in the first inning of the East Region clincher propelled the Bears to victory. That injury-shortened 2018 fueled the fire for Cumbo to show what he had.

“It was miserable standing there watching 40 games,” Cumbo said. “I just took in all the information. I was watching and learning what to do. Coming into this year, it motivated me so much to show that I belong here.”

The coaching staff sees much more than a gifted athlete. Cumbo is leading this offense with his head as much as his bat.

“EJ is a tiny guy,” Catalanotto said. “He’s strong as can be, but he’s probably 5’6. Even when he makes an out, he always puts the barrel of the bat on the baseball. You know he’s going to have a good at-bat and give you a chance. He’s very fast, steals a lot of bases. But I’ve seen him grow as a hitter in the quality of at-bats he’s having. He has a good idea what the pitcher is trying to do with him.”

So along with NYIT having a season to remember, Cumbo has racked up the hardware, winner of the ECC player of the year award.

“I’m not going to lie; it feels pretty cool to have,” Cumbo said. “But it won’t mean anything unless we win. That’s the main goal. They’re just a trophy on the wall. I won’t remember that in five years, I’ll remember the team and the wins.”

NYIT Athletics Frank Catalanotto is head coach of NYIT Bears baseball.

Next stop: The DII baseball Super Regionals

Here we are. The NYIT Bears have surpassed Eastern New Mexico for the second-largest win turnaround in a season, are one win away from moving up that list closer to the 2010 North Greenville 31-win improvement. 

“They are playing with that nothing to lose attitude,” Catalanotto said. “That’s what I saw this past weekend. I didn’t see kids that were nervous. I just need to tell them no one expected us to be where we are at. Let’s play loose and leave it all out on the field.”

Catalanotto and Rubin saw the pitching staff set up nicely for the three-game series which is big considering Southern New Hampshire’s pitching staff owns the second-best ERA in DII baseball. Now, they need this staff to come through on the biggest stage yet. 

“We have DJ Masuck, who’s 11-1, we have Joseph Murphy, and we got Chris Mott,” Catalanotto said. “They pound the strike zone. All three of them are bulldogs, they want the ball, and they are pitching really well as of late.”

All this winning, a former ESPN writer in the press box, and a former big-leaguer as head coach has, perhaps not so unexpectedly, garnered quite the bit of attention for these NYIT Bears. It’s not something many DII baseball program’s get to experience. Gameday coverage by Newsday, highlights on ESPN, an article on Yahoo, and visits from former all-stars like David Wright and Hideki Matsui are not commonplace in DII baseball dugouts.

“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Cumbo said. “If you would have told me last year that this would have been going on, we would have been like, ‘no way.’ It’s amazing how each and every guy, it just seems like we were brought together for this now.”

“It’s great,” Catalanotto said. “They haven’t won. I’m really happy for the seniors. One told me the other day that he’s won more this year than he had his previous three years. They got used to losing. We had to change that culture. Now, this team really believes we can win every time we go out there.”

NYIT Athletics NYIT baseball EJ Cumbo on television.

So after all this, what did Cumbo project for the young Bears in the East Super Regional?

“A win,” Cumbo said. “Two back-to-back wins and a trip to the DII baseball championship.”

Along with DII baseball superstar, you can add soothsayer to his portfolio. 

HISTORY: Most titles in DII baseball | Complete list of winners