A historic and magical season for the Stags was completed with a strong outing in the 2021 National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Baseball Championship tournament, falling just short by one game that would have solidified their spot into the Super Regionals.
With an extremely impressive record of 33-1 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference , the Stags were grabbing the attention of national media and were ranked in the top 25 in the country according to Baseball America.
Even though Fairfield was getting some recognition pre-tournament, there were still skeptics questioning whether or not the Stags could compete in this tournament.
With their pool consisting of Arizona State, Southern University and the University of Texas at Austin, the Stags were sure to be tested and challenged during this regional and would need to answer the call of doubters. With fans backing them at home, the Stags did not disappoint.
Although the Stags were high on confidence during the season, they did receive two major blows a week before leaving for Austin, TX.
The first blow was losing the MAAC Championship to Rider on May 28, which was a disappointing defeat for a team that had done so well in conference play, with just a single loss against MAAC competition. The second was the huge loss of senior catcher Mike Caruso ‘21, who was injured in a warm up during a practice a day before Regionals.
“Mike being out was a huge loss not only for the team but also himself,” said Coach Bill Currier. “We certainly missed his leadership and the role he played for us. He kind of runs the pitching staff out there on the field calling his own game and really takes charge out there. We had to rally behind Mike.”
The Stags did rally behind Caruso, especially his teammate, Matt Venuto ‘23, who stepped in and filled the role of his senior leader. Replacing the reigning MAAC player of the year was not an easy task for Venuto, but the Massachusetts native did not shy away from the challenge, as he was rewarded with a selection to the Austin Regional All-Tournament team.
Venuto began contributing to the second game of the Regionals, where the Stags faced elimination and a long trip home back to Fairfield. After losing a very close opening game to Arizona State 6-7, the Stags had to show resilience and toughness against Southern University.
Southern took an early 1-0 lead against the Stags, which was quickly erased in the second after Venuto hit an RBI single to score Mike Bechetti ‘23 and Charlie Pagliarini ‘23. From there on, Fairfield punished Southern, putting four more runs on the board in the next three innings.
The Stags pitching and defense was their usual self that afternoon, keeping Southern tame after the first inning. Pitcher Jake Noviello ‘22 tossed five innings with only one earned run, receiving his ninth win on the season to set an Individual Stag Record and secure Fairfield’s first regional win in program history winning 6-2.
After their first win in a Regional tournament, the Stags only needed one more to advance to the Championship game. Standing in their way was #21 Arizona State, who stole a win from the Stags in their first contest.
Looking for revenge, the Stags were ready to showcase their talent to the country and prove that they belong at this tournament. Filled with momentum and confidence, the Stags were quickly humbled as the Sun Devils took a quick 5-0 lead in three and a half innings.
Like many games this season, the Stags had to dig down deep and show true grit to get out of the massive hole they dug themselves in. The comeback started with a two run blast from graduate student Sean Cullen that was taken straight over dead center over 400 feet.
The Sun Devils fired back with a run over their own in the fourth, increasing their lead to 4 and starting to add pressure on the Stags. What wasn’t surprising to Fairfield faithful’s is that the Stags kept fighting and adding runs, chipping towards the Arizona State lead.
After Austin All-tournament player Mike Handal’s ‘22 two run double in the same inning, the Stags were only trailing by two runs and were closing in quickly. In the very next inning, Ryan Strollo ‘23 stinged a first-pitch fastball, scoring two big RBI’s and tying the game at 6-6.
Similar to the innings prior, the Sun Devils responded accordingly and added their own run in the top half of the sixth inning, once again giving them a narrow lead of 7-6. This was the last runner they would score, as Michael Sansone ‘22 and graduate student John Signore closed the last 3 innings confidently and with perfection.
What was needed was offense and the Stags delivered. Yet again, in the same inning Arizona State scored in, Fairfield answered with a Justin Guerrero ‘22 three run homer that would solidify their place in the Austin Regional Final, beating ASU 9-7 in one of the programs most historic wins.
The Stags advanced, meaning they would have to take down host and Big-12 regular season champs University of Texas, another top 25 team in the country. In a sold-out crowd, Fairfield fans across the map watched in anticipation, so close to adding more accolade to the resume of this historic season.
Unlike the Arizona State game, the Stags found themselves down quickly in the early innings but instead of 5-0 in three and a half innings like against the Sun Devils, it was 10-0 against the Longhorns. What seemed to be the strongest and most reliable part of Fairfield baseball program, the pitching, was completely out of sorts and pitchers struggled to get outs.
Along with this, the Texas pitcher Pete Hansen had a dominating performance, pitching 6.2 innings and 13 strikeouts. This matchup seemed overwhelmingly too powerful for a team that wasn’t as deep in roster-depth or experience.
The Stags were defeated 12-2, but still played the game with pride and integrality, showcasing and representing the Fairfield University community.
Although the Stags were so close to advancing to the Super Regionals, the fans and coaches were proud and fortunate enough to experience the historic rise and fall of this baseball team.
The Stags historic season rescripted the program’s records, as they set a new program record with 39 wins and earned the MAAC first-ever At-Large bid.
Their magical campaign was the best regular season in NCAA Division I history, with an incredible 35-1 record. The Stags also set a program and conference record with 28-straight wins, a true display of consistency and teamwork.
With only their center fielder and first basemen leaving next year, the Stags will look to have another strong season and make it back to the regionals.
“We’re optimistic about next year and, and we think we have some good transfers coming in, good freshmen coming in to add to our depth and add to our ability,” said Coach Currier. “We think we’re going to play a lot of big teams early which we weren’t allowed to this year, so we are very excited.”
With elite defense and the possibility of having the same starting rotation as this year, the Stags will be a hard team for opponents to score against. Matched with strong bats and speedy runners, they have the leadership and talent to reach the same heights as they did last year.
They may not have another historic 28-0 run in the season but believe me when I say Fairfield University baseball is on the map and ready to keep moving forward.
The success of this season was not enough for the Stags, as a total of 21 members of the team will continue their 2021 season by competing in various collegiate summer leagues around the Northeast region.
This will involve the strong pitching trio of Sansone, Noviello, and Trey McLoughlin ‘21 who will participate in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League. This is a collegiate summer league that has produced over 1000 major league players.
The starting trio combined for a 20-2 record and a 2.46 ERA, both very impressive stats that helped Fairfield land the second best pitching staff in the nation statistically.
Along with the trio, Stags will feature in the: New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL), Hudson Valley Collegiate Baseball League (HVCBL), Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League (ACBL), and New York City Baseball League (NYCBL).
This provides a crucial continuation of their experience against the top players in the country, strengthening their skills and making them a better player when they come back in the fall. Fairfield baseball players have earned their right to be in these summer leagues and surely will not disappoint.
This season will go down in the history books as one of the best and weirdest baseball seasons the Stags have experienced. Next year, when we begin to return to some sense of normalcy, the Stags are poised to elevate their program even further!
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