Fall Ball Report: Bryant Baseball on the cusp of national attention behind Steve Owens
Anyone associated with college baseball in the Northeast knows the name Steve Owens. Ever since 1992, at the age of 25, when he took over the D3 Cortland State Red Dragons in upstate New York, he's simply won everywhere he's been.
Prior to his arrival, Cortland had made one post season appearance (1981) in its history. Just one.
Over his 8 seasons, the Red Dragons won the SUNYAC title 7 times, appeared in 7 straight regionals and advanced to the CWS in four of Owens last 5 seasons. In total, he posted a 245-82-1 record.
Owens top assistant, Joe Brown, succeeded him at the helm and has continued the programs dominance, appearing in 18 straight regionals, making 25 in a row for Cortland.
Cortland State. The D3 Dynasty Owens Built.
Owens then jumped to LeMoyne of the MAAC and guided the Dolphins into D1 status, earning Regional bids in 2003, '04 and '07. At that point, the MAAC instituted by-laws requiring all member institutions to compete at the D1 level. After failing to land in another D1 conference, the program was dropped to D2. Owens was ready to move on after posting a 342-217 record.
Meanwhile, the Bryant program was moving in the other direction
In 2010, the programs first at the D1 level, the Bulldogs under head coach Jamie Pinzino blitzed the NEC with 25-7 record. A new era was born. These were exciting times in Smithfield, RI.
However, shortly thereafter Pinzino was involved in an off-field incident and subsequently resigned.
Timing is everything.
Bryant was looking for strong leadership. Owens wanted to stay in the northeast at the D1 level.
On July 14th, 2010, Bryant hired Owens to lead the Bulldog program.
It didn't take long.
Bryant earned an NCAA regional bid in 2013, its first year of eligibility, as a #3 seed and promptly beat Arkansas in game one. They finished that season with an RPI of 43.
In 2014 the Bulldogs earned a spot in the Baton Rouge regional, losing two one-run games and closing the season with a 49 RPI ranking.
The 2016 team went 47-12, led the nation in run differential and earned a #2 seed in the Charlottesville regional. Their RPI ranking climbed to 35.
The 2017 season was a bit bumpy, not unexpected given heavy losses from the 2016 team, but still managed to post a 20-6 NEC record.
Spend a little time with Coach Owens, as I did recently while at a Bulldog scrimmage, and you immediately feel his boundless energy and laser focus. He knows what matters. He gets the right things done right. And he believes the best is still ahead for the Bulldog program.
The 2018 squad appears formidable.
This past summer the switch-hitting Gaspar earned the New England Top Prospect Award in The Cape while leading the Brewster Whitecaps to a Cape League title. In the spring he slashed .342/.470/.528 with 7 homers and 53 RBI. Couple that power with elite bat control (42 BB vs. just 18 K) and it's no wonder Owens calls Gaspar "the best hitter I've ever coached in my 27 years".
Gaspar underwent labrum surgery in his freshman year and is currently participating in a long toss program to further strengthen the shoulder. If his catch-and-throw skills improve just a bit he'll be one of the top overall catchers on the east coast.
All-NEC first-teamer Angelini is a gazelle who patrols the spacious outfield at Conaty Park with effortless grace. He slashed .318/.419/.512 last season, swiped 19 bags, belted 6 homers and showed good plate discipline (34/37 BB/K ratio).
Sophomore Titus may have the highest upside as a physical 6'1", 198lb infielder with juice in his bat (he blasted a mammoth homer in his first scrimmage at bat) . Owens showed supreme confidence in him last year, placing him in the 3-hole to start the year. While there were growing pains, he came on late, hitting .296 (.380 in the NEC) with 26 extra-base hits in winning NEC Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
To compliment his impressive bat, Owens is now looking for Titus to step up and become a defensive leader at shortstop.
Junior Tyler Panno, who'll likely move to 3B from LF, showed flashes last year and could emerge big in '18. The lefty swinging 6'3", 205 Panno has surprising athleticism, evidenced by lacing 8 triples last year. Look for him to improve on the one homer he hit last year.
Redshirt freshman OF Ryan Ward returns after starting the first 10 games in '17 before breaking his wrist attempting a diving catch. The stout, sweet-swinging lefty flashes legitimate power.
Two-way player and sophomore Chris Wright really stood out. With a projectable 6'1' , 190lb body the left-handed Wright showed an easy delivery with fastball movement and downward breaking stuff.
However, it's with the stick where Wright opened eyes. In the scrimmage he smoked a deep homer to the pull side, then drilling a sharp opposite field liner for a double. Last year Wright posted solid numbers at the dish, especially a 30/34 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Owens is waiting for one of three 2B candidates to emerge, each possessing a different skill set, enabling some lineup flexibility.
The pitching staff loses stud RHP James Karinchak, a worthy Friday matchup for any program in the country. He's moved on as a 9th round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians.
Several of the key Bulldog pitchers are being held out of Fall Ball.
Headlining the staff is junior LHP Steve Theetge. The 6'3", 205 pounder went 7-0 over 43.1 innings with an 2.08 ERA.in conference play, earning NEC Pitcher-of-the-Year honors. He'll be counted on to set the weekend tone as the Friday guy.
Yet another sophomore LHP Vito Morgese looks the part at 6'2" and 200lb. He made 8 starts and tossed 53.1 innings as a freshman and will look to improve a 1.63 WHIP.
Owens has a bonafide closer in 6'6", 244lb RHP Nathan Wrighter who made 26 appearances a year ago while posting a 1.80 ERA while walking only 13 in 40 innings of work.
Senior 6'4", 233 pounder RHP Ross Weiner pitches to contact with a easy, athletic delivery. If he can improve his command and miss a few more bats, Weiner could be a valuable innings eater.
Owens believes two freshman will contribute immediately.
One is uber-athletic 6'4", 216lb RHP Tyler Mattison, who showed a good feel for his secondary offerings and a high-potential fastball. He was a standout soccer and basketball player in high school and has the look of a weekend starter, perhaps sooner than later.
The other freshman is the powerfully built OF Shane Kelly from Deptford Township High School . He was held out of most scrimmage action.
2018 Outlook: The offense should be even better than the '17 unit that led the NEC with a .305 average and astounding 1.19 walk-to-strikeout ratio, returning just about everyone except 2B Cole Fabio. Sophomores Wright and Ward look ready to bust out. Gaspar, the returning NEC Player-of-the-Year, Angelini and Titus are the best at their positions in the conference. If 3B Panno further taps into his considerable talent, this could be Owens best offense yet.
Although a big loss, only Karinchak departs from a staff that led the NEC with a 3.52 team ERA. Theetge will slide right in on Fridays. Morgese is the logical choice for Saturday. It's a Sunday starter that remains uncertain, although there are plenty of options.
Owens believes the '18 NEC will be the strongest he's seen. However, the Bulldogs have immense firepower, plenty of pitching and will be a heavy favorite to win the conference and advance to their 4th Regional in 6 years of eligibility.
Finally, it should be noted that Bryant now has some of the best baseball facilities in the northeast. In just the last three years, the sparkling $5M Bulldog Strength and Conditioning Center opened (2015), followed by the $11M state-of-the-art Conaty Indoor Athletic Center (2016) and expansion of the Sports Medicine and Training Center.
Coupled with beautiful Conaty Park, and Owens has everything he needs to compete at the highest level of D1 college baseball.
Given his amazing track record, unrelenting energy and pursuit of excellence, don't be shocked if one day Bryant baseball is mentioned in the same breath as Coastal Carolina