Cinderella Stony Brook ready to crash party at College World Series

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STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- In the old days coach Matt Senk would try to avoid showing recruits the baseball field. Among the quirks of Stony Brook's home diamond was a small slope down the rightfield line that meant players sitting in the dugout could only see above the uniform letters of the rightfielder. First basemen chasing foul pop-ups with their heads turned toward the ball would often trip on the unexpected downhill.

Stony Brook assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Joe Pennucci would offer spin, saying "but it plays well," which sounds like a sales clerk telling a customer that misfit clothing was actually a new style or that a sleeve would ride up with wear.

Nowadays, however, the park the Seawolves call home is the one-year-old Joe Nathan Field, a gorgeous new park -- flat and FieldTurf-laden -- named for its primary benefactor and the school's only major league alumnus. "Now it looks great and plays well," Pennucci said with a smile.

It's just the most obvious and most glaring example of a burgeoning baseball program that has gone from Division III to this year's College World Series in less than two decades.

"We've come very far, very fast," Senk said.

Stony Brook University, located in the eponymous northern Long Island town, will be Omaha's Cinderella darling (though Kent State isn't far behind), having gone from athletic anonymity to beating storied LSU at Alex Box Stadium in an NCAA super regional where they played in front of daily crowds of some 10,600, which nearly doubled Stony Brook's season attendance.

Yet there were the Seawolves trending nationally on Twitter Sunday night. Nathan's Rangers replicated the team's hand signature -- three raised fingers for the goals of winning the conference, regional and super regional, with an 'O' made by the index finger and thumb for the trip to Omaha -- while watching the game on their team charter. Such New York sports luminaries as Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Giants coach Tom Coughlin placed supportive phone calls to Senk.

Stony Brook is the latest overnight sports sensation. But perhaps it shouldn't be.

"I don't want to call it an upset," Nathan said. "I truly felt like these guys could come in and do something special."

Though Stony Brook was a No. 4 seed (the lowest) in its first-weekend regional -- and now is only the second No. 4 seed to reach Omaha, after Fresno State, which won the title in 2008 -- the school has won 95 games over the past two years. Last year seven Seawolves played in the prestigious Cape Cod League, and that group helped the school gain acclaim, even if it did take most of the summer.

The Seawolves shared dugouts with college baseball's elite from the likes of the ACC, SEC and Pac-10, whose players would ask, "Where's Stony Brook? Are you Division II?" Centerfielder Travis Jankowski said he'd always have to add "from Long Island." Eventually, the repetition of public-address announcers introducing each of the players from Stony Brook helped, as did their play. Three players -- Jankowski, catcher Pat Cantwell and righthanded pitcher Tyler Johnson -- were All-Stars, while Jankowski was also named league MVP.

"By the end of the summer we left there with our heads held high," Cantwell said. "At least everyone who we played knew who Stony Brook was."

So impressive were the Seawolves that one of Johnson's Brewster teammates even predicted that Stony Brook would reach this year's College World Series.

While playing a stiff non-conference schedule and a less challenging America East slate, Stony Brook racked up impressive numbers: This spring it was the only team to rank in the top dozen nationally in batting average (.335), earned-run average (2.99) and fielding percentage (.978).

Individually, Jankowski ranks first in hits (109), fifth in average (.422), tied for sixth in steals (36) and 15th in on-base percentage (.485); third baseman William Carmona, the 2011 America East Player of the Year, is fourth in slugging (.702), tied for fifth in RBIs (72) and 12th in average (.399); Johnson is tied for first in wins (12) and 14th in ERA (1.93).

Seven players were drafted earlier this month: Jankwoski (supplemental first round, 44th overall, to the Padres), Cantwell (third round to the Rangers), second baseman Maxx Tissenbaum (11th round to the Padres), Carmona (11th round to the Phillies), reliever James Campbell (12th round to the Dodgers), reliever Jasvir Rakkar (26th round to the Cubs) and Johnson (33rd round to the Athletics).

It's a far cry from when Senk took over the then-Division III program 22 years ago. Baseball coach wasn't a full-time job at the time, so he ran camps, taught P.E. classes and worked odd jobs within the athletic department to support himself.

Nathan, who admitted he "wasn't very heavily recruited," played shortstop at the end of the D-III days before becoming a sixth-round draft pick of the Giants in 1995; he was Stony Brook's second drafted player and remains its only major leaguer. (Righthanded pitcher Tom Koehler, a 2008 draft pick, might be next; he's on the Marlins' 40-man roster and pitches for their Triple A team.)

The school, which was only founded in 1957, has advanced quickly, brandishing its reputation, in part, through sports. The athletic department moved to Division II in 1995 and then to Division I in 2000. A new athletic director, Jim Fiore, a Long Island native who played football at Hofstra, took over in 2003 after working as senior associate director of athletics at Princeton. Fiore has been at the helm of major capital projects and huge success in competition: Stony Brook had won one D-I conference title before 2003 but has won 33 since.

Fiore also sought to reconnect with Nathan, flying to see the Twins play the Royals in Kansas City back in 2004. The two have grown friendly, with Fiore nowadays texting Nathan inning-by-inning and sometimes pitch-by-pitch updates of Stony Brook baseball. The school retired Nathan's jersey in 2006. In 2008 the pitcher gave his alma mater a $500,000 gift for a new baseball field, though even Nathan didn't see the program ascending so rapidly.

"I'd like to say I [did]," Nathan said, "but I didn't see it happening this quick, by any means. Recruits are going to see that you don't have to go to the South or to the West to play in top schools."

Fortunate happenstance never hurts either.

John Novak, a promoter of baseball showcases, cold-called a number of college coaches to invite them to a workout being sponsored by ex-major leaguer Gabe Kapler in Moorpark, Calif. The only out of state school to show up was Stony Brook, where Pennucci discovered Johnson, who only happened to develop into the program's alltime wins leader.

That same promoter also ran another event at the Tampa Bay Rays' home of Tropicana Field. Pennucci went there, too, where the roster of recruiters was "really big schools and Stony Brook." One prospect had blazing speed but an underdeveloped bat. That was Jankowski.

"Coach Pennucci was the only coach who addressed me after the showcase," Jankowski said. Two weeks later, he went on a recruiting trip, and Senk offered him a scholarship. "It was the only one, so it was an easy choice."

The roster is still predominantly populated with New Yorkers -- 15 of the 28 players hail from the Empire State -- but there are four from both California and Canada, two each from Connecticut and Pennsylvania and one from Florida. Many players didn't know much about Stony Brook before their recruitments, just as few college baseball fans could place the school on a map -- about 60 miles east of New York City -- before the recent run to Omaha.

Even fewer could probably explain the nickname of the Seawolves, which is so common a question that there are t-shirts printed with, "What's a Seawolf? I'm a Seawolf." It's such a reflexive response that two athletic department staff members independently replied, "I'm a Seawolf," when asked what the nickname was. (It's purportedly a mythical creature who brings good luck to those who see it.)

Many were wearing those t-shirts on Monday, when the baseball team returned to campus after a 12-day road trip during which it won its first regional and super regional. The magnitude of this accomplishment sank in with Senk Sunday night, when he returned to his Baton Rouge hotel room after Stony Brook eliminated LSU. He turned on the TV and his team -- the Division III program he took over 22 years ago with a paltry budget and misshapen field -- was the lead story on SportsCenter.

Asked to reflect on Senk's journey, Fiore praises his coach's values and willingness to sacrifice his time and efforts on behalf of Stony Brook baseball.

"He belongs here," Fiore said. "It should be Matt Senk Stadium at Joe Nathan Field. That's how much I feel for the guy. I believe in him."

Surely that would be a homefield worth showing off.