Last year, the Sea Gulls said goodbye to 12 different seniors at the end of the season. But only one of those seniors, Scott Ardoin, had been with the team for all four years.
Fast forward to today, and what was once looked at as a power recruiting class for Salisbury University’s baseball team is face-to-face with its final season.
Eight total seniors who have spent their entire careers in the maroon and gold. Eight players who have joined the long list of Sea Gulls that have advanced to the NCAA Tournament each year of their collegiate career.
This class that has been together since their first days at SU, who have been crowned champions of the Capital Athletic Conference at the end of every season throughout their career thus far.
The one thing this group of seniors has been without: a trip to the World Series.
The last time that head coach Troy Brohawn advanced beyond regionals was in 2015, a year that saw the Sea Gulls post a 33-6-1 while also finding themselves at No. 1 in the nation for three consecutive weeks.
It’s the final piece that has been missing in their four-year careers here at SU.
“I’m looking to win, I want to win a World Series that’s my main goal that’s my only goal,” senior first baseman Jay Perry said. “Whatever we can do for the team to get a World Series that’s what I want to do.”
Perry is one of the key offensive returners for this Sea Gull squad, a .283 hitter last season and a guy who has proved his power in the past.
Perry only settled into a big role his sophomore year when he put up 40 RBIs with nine home runs, and while his number trended downwards last year, he’s ready for the same workload. Last season saw career-highs in runs scored at 34 and doubles with 10.
Alongside Perry in this senior class are SU’s two top hitters from last season, now-outfielder Jack Decker and infielder Jack Barry. Both Decker and Barry have seen position switches for this season, as Decker has begun the season in left field to put more solid bats in the lineup.
Decker had a career year last season hitting .367 with 20-plus runs scored and RBIs, collecting a handful of clutch hits and a couple of walk offs last season.
Though listed as a catcher, Decker spent a majority of his time last season at the designated hitter spot focusing on pushing the Sea Gulls forward offensively. This season, he’ll get his opportunity back in the field to help out with the defense.
Jack Decker frames a strike behind the plate against Catholic. March 14.
As for Barry, he made the switch over to second base, making room for junior transfer Brandon Bonesteel at third.
A pivotal member of the Gulls offense, Barry has been listed as honorable mention for the preseason All-American list by d3baseball.com after his best year yet. His .413 average last season led the team and was the second-best average in the CAC.
Barry added 47 runs scored, 23 extra-base-hits and 33 RBIs to his resume as well. After missing a chunk of games in the beginning of the season because of injury, Barry returned and immediately heated up at the plate with a 10-game and nine-game hitting streak coming in the middle and end of the season.
Much like the rest of the seniors after solid years, Barry agreed that his off-season preparation and regular season approach have stayed relatively the same.
“I’d like to cut down on strikeouts a little bit, put the ball in play more with runners on,” Barry said. “Nothing really changes … just make the best of your at-bats, win every pitch win every at-bat.”
Then you have seniors Ron Villone and Will Gutekunst.
Villone was a big-time situational player for the Sea Gulls last season. He started just seven games but appeared in 29, rotating in and out for defensive switches in games and also stepping up at the plate hitting .324 when called on.
Villone became one of the guys that when Brohawn needed situational hitting he could trust, he called on number nine.
Gutekunst settled into a starting role about a month into the season after freshman Jimmy Adkins struggled at the plate. He hit .358 to start out his starting role and became a go-to hitter in the lineup for big moments in the middle of conference play in the season.
His season had a downwards trend, ending with a .282 average while contributing 23 runs and 20 RBIs.
Senior catchers Tyler Mayo and Andrew Mace round out the seniors on offense, creating a solid catching group along with junior Matt Padeway.
Mayo last season saw some time behind Padeway late in games and hit .250 in 12 at-bats, but was mostly used as a defensive substitution.
“We’ve got a great senior bunch of leaders … you talk about guys that play, maybe don’t play as much, but you’ve got really good leaders out there that lead by example,” Brohawn said. “[They] don’t have to talk a whole lot other than ‘do my job, look how I do it this is how we do it here.’”
With such a strong group leading the charge, Brohawn sees the importance of the older veterans rubbing off on some of the younger players on the team. With a large group of seniors set to walk out the door, there needs to be a way to prepare new players to pick up the torch next season.
The offense has been a focal point for SU, but through the past couple years, has seen slumps in untimely situations.
Back-to-back exits in the NCAA Regionals have Brohawn focusing more and more on consistency. With references to standout pitching performances, namely starter Austin Heenan from last season in their 1-0 loss to the University of Southern Maine, Brohawn wants to see the offense close out those close games.
Austin Heenan kicks and delivers against Cortland State last season. Feb. 17.
“When we’re hot, look out, we’re going to put 10 to 15 on ya, but when we’re cold, buddy it’s frigid,” Brohawn said. “I think we have depth enough that if somebody doesn’t do it, their tail is going to be over here with me and somebody else will get out there and do it.”
The roster is scattered with strong junior talent, including centerfielder Justin Meekins and Padeway behind the plate as well, but now is complemented by a new group of youth.
“I think some of the veterans take note of that … each year you have to earn your spot and they know right now that there’s somebody on my heels,” Brohawn said. “It creates competition at practice which I think is good for a team.”
With so many returners in the field, the eyes for a second straight year return to the mound. Just a year after having questions about a pitching staff after losing starters Pete Grasso, Jeff Oster and Micah Wells, those questions are back again.
What was arguably an equally talented if not improved three-man rotation is now gone as Heenan, Connor Reeves and Wes Whitlock leave another hole at the front end of the bullpen. Only two full-time pitchers return from last season, both of them combined for five innings pitched.
The lone senior in the bullpen AJ Korczynski and sophomore Andrew Rosso join a staff loaded with new faces ready to contribute.
“It’s added a lot of energy to the team, these guys have come in and not only shown they have talent to pitch here but they’ve come in with the mentality of ‘I belong here,’” Brohawn said. “Not being arrogant, not being cocky but they got that mental toughness that’s, to be honest, hard to recruit.”
Junior transfer Clayton Dwyer is one of the main pitchers that has taken the spotlight as a starter for the rotation. Joining Dwyer are fellow juniors Jason McDonough and Zach Amisano, who come in as potential starting candidates.
Six new freshmen come in ready to eat up innings, but when referencing new players he’s excited about, Brohawn could hardly limit the list.
“I’m excited that we have a more rounded staff that you don’t have to depend on three guys to get you to where you want to go,” Brohawn said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to put either one of those guys in the game, and we haven’t had that from top to bottom since I’ve been here.”
Through five games there have already been multiple freshmen that have seen their collegiate debuts come to fruition, including Daniel Frake, Corey Burton, Matt Grogan and Xavier Marmol. Brohawn has taken the stance of getting players experience early after losing over 60 percent of his innings thrown last year following the departure of seniors.
The pressure will be on handfuls of players looking to make a name for themselves in the maroon and gold, with veterans in front of them that have their goals at the very top.
“We’ve never won a regional, no one here has won one, no one’s been to the World Series,” Decker said.
Boasting a 3-1-1 record and finding itself at No. 22 in the nation in the current polls, SU rolls into the loaded part of its early schedule with multiple ranked matchups on the horizon.
A tactic that Brohawn has utilized as a way to test his team early is having the ability to learn about his lineup in high-pressure games.
“There’s a lot of teams that like to sugarcoat their early season and jump out to nine, 10, 11-0. Does it look good? Yeah it looks great but what does it tell you about your team?” Brohawn said. “It gives you a feel for where you are with your team … it prepares you for a tough conference schedule.”
The familiar Oswego matchups will bring a ranked face-off into Salisbury before the Sea Gulls move closer into conference play in mid-March.
The dugout comes out to celebrate a Brandon Bonesteel solo homerun in their season opener against Gwynedd Mercy. Feb. 10.
After a 6-0 loss and a 3-3 draw against Cortland State, SU is shooting for a better showing against those top-ranked teams.
The Sea Gulls will have another new test this season. The CAC has implemented new schedules, including a three-game series during conference play, a schedule setup that SU has been primed for the past two seasons with two of the better three-man rotations for back-to-back years.
However, this year, some of those games look to be a bullpen battle, but with the confidence Brohawn has in his staff, it seems that the Gulls will find a way to compete.
But coach isn’t the only one who has noticed the standout performances on the mound throughout the fall and preseason.
While the team knows only four returners had seen time on the mound for SU, Barry sees no reason for the offense to have to overcompensate.
“They’ve sort of taken that pressure off of [the offense] just in the preseason … they’ve thrown extremely well,” Barry said. “Coach Brohawn preaches that to us, we’re going to pitch and play defense and the offense is going to come around.”
Looking for the rare “four-peat” and to make a run throughout the NCAA Tournament will be a bigger test this year than in years past, with multiple CAC opponents bringing back stacked rosters, highlighted by No. 13 Christopher Newport University.
But as Barry said, with an offense that will come around eventually, it’s only a matter of time before the Sea Gulls get hot. The only question is when.
By CHASE GORSKI
Featured photo: (Pictured left to right) Brandon Bonesteel, Jimmy Adkins, Jack Barry and Nate Yoder wait behind the mound during a pitching change against Gwynedd Mercy. Feb. 10 (Emma Reider images).