May 5, 2008
Dragon hitters have a blast
Capture the last of four SUNYAC titles for Cortland teams this weekend
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland first baseman Nick DeVito slugged a two-run homer during the Red Dragons’ 12-5 win over Brockport Sunday in the conference title game at Wallace Field.
Instead of celebrating what had just transpired over the past three days, SUNY Cortland baseball coach Joe Brown’s thoughts journeyed back to the second week of this past March.
“We were 4-3 in Arizona and wondering if we were going to have a good team this year,” recalls Brown of some early season concerns about his Red Dragons.
To progress from that anxious moment to where confident Cortland now stands — winners of a school record 32 straight games and in possession of another SUNY Athletic Conference playoff championship trophy — is something Brown simply referred to as being “remarkable.”
The top seed Red Dragons (36-3) applied the finishing touches to this year’s tournament by beating Brockport 12-5 in Sunday afternoon’s championship round contest at Wallace Field.
While knocking off fourth seed Plattsburgh, second seed Oneonta and finally third seed Brockport over three days of play in this double elimination affair, the Red Dragons crossed the plate 40 times and smacked 53 hits.
“In the playoffs every year we seem to step up our hitting a lot. We’re good in pressure situations,” noted Red Dragon senior shortstop Matt Vitalone. “It’s always good being the host for the SUNYACs. It’s a great time for us.”
As part of a 16-hit rampage against Brockport, Vitalone was 4-for-4 and drove in three runs and first baseman Nick DeVito launched a towering two-run homer over the fence in centerfield. That helped secure a conference title for the 16th time in the past 18 years for the Red Dragons.
Cortland will be headed to the NCAA Division III tournament — to be a regional host most likely on May 14-18 at Falcon Park in Auburn — for the 16th consecutive season. That’s the longest active streak of any Division III team in the nation.
Everyone up and down the line-up contributed to this run rampage, too. For example, senior second baseman Joey Russo went 7-for-9 with three doubles and a triple in the tournament from the No. 9 slot in the Red Dragon batting order.
“We play so well together, we’re a close-knit team,” said slugger DeVito. “We have a lot of seniors, and good coaching, of course, and we don’t get down on ourselves.”
AGAINST BROCKPORT the Red Dragons could have panicked after a nightmarish two-error third inning produced four runs for the visitors. The Golden Eagles were suddenly ahead 4-2, suddenly had hopes that this difficult task of having to beat the Red Dragons twice in one afternoon to claim the title was indeed a possibility.
The Cortland response to that adversity was almost immediate in the bottom of the third.
On the very first pitch of the inning catcher Mike Zaccardo drilled an opposite field double that one-hopped off the fence in left.
Vitalone then singled sharply on the very next pitch and the Red Dragons were on their way to a three-run rally to regain the lead. A four-pitch free pass to Andersen Gardner loaded the bases with no outs. All three Red Dragons would eventually score on a DeVito grounder, an Anthony Coromato sacrifice fly and a Steve Nickel single lined into right field.
An inning later, Vitalone delivered a two-run single and DeVito unloaded his two-run shot to center and this game was pretty much over. The 6-foot-6 DeVito pounced on a slider hung by the second of four Brockport pitchers used by rookie head coach Justin Beach, a side-winding junk-baller named Dan Ferraro.
“Those kinds (of pitchers) are the ones who usually give you trouble. I just had to sit back and be patient and drive the ball,” said DeVito.
Brockport would not score again until picking up an unearned ninth inning run, thanks to the relief work of Ryan Hooper. Though suffering through an injury-plagued senior season, Hooper looked sound after coming on for frosh southpaw starter Travis Ratliff in the fifth.
In 3 2/3 innings of work, Hooper struck out five and allowed four hits. He picked up the victory and received a rousing sendoff by the fans at Wallace Field when lifted in the ninth after Brockport leadoff man Jason Michaels singled.
“In my opinion, he changed the momentum of the game when he came in and pitched well,” said Brown, happy to have Hooper back in form for the NCAA tournament.
WITH HOOPER holding Brockport in check, Russo singled home a run in the fifth and Zaccardo — playing against his cousin, Brockport catcher Joe Zaccardo — added a two-run single in the seventh.
Cortland should have scored in the sixth, too, after getting runners to second and third with no outs. But Zaccardo was tagged out at the plate trying to score on a wild pitch and two groundouts ended that threat.
The only time Cortland went quietly was when Brockport turned a double play to finish off the eighth inning.
Cortland’s offense prowess and the ability to stay cool under pressure was the stuff of champions.
Of course, the pitching performance of left-hander Matt Tone in a 13-4 win over Oneonta on Saturday was pretty impressive, too.
The sophomore struck on 13 batters, matching his career high, in just 6 2/3 innings. That strikeout total was a tournament record.
Russo was 3-for-3 with a triple and a double in that offensive show, while Mike Avery and Khyle Diminio had two hits apiece from the top of the Dragon batting order. Six of the 17 hits collected by Cortland went for extra-bases.
Tone (7-0) did give up a two-run homer to Oneonta’s Steve Gauck in the fourth inning.
Cortland will host Hamilton College in a non-league tune-up on Wednesday before the NCAA announces its post-season plans.
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