LIU-Brooklyn baseball ends NEC Tournament drought
Blackbirds ready for first conference championship bid since 2013
The Long Island University Brooklyn baseball team has waited five long years for a shot at an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Blackbirds finally punched their ticket back to the Northeast Conference Tournament last Friday afternoon, capping a regular season-ending four-game winning streak with a doubleheader sweep of Fairleigh Dickinson at LIU Field.
With a 10-5 victory in the opener of the twin-bill, head coach Dan Pirillo’s third-seeded squad earned the right to take on No. 2 Wagner Thursday afternoon in Norwich, Connecticut, marking the Blackbirds first NEC Tournament game since 2013.
Buoyed by First Team All-NEC selections Andrew Turner and Alex Briggs, along with Second Team standouts Mike Kreiger, Andrew Smith and Patrick Clyne, the Blackbirds have already matched the school record for wins this year with 28, six more than they managed last season.
But according to Pirillo, his squad is eager to do more than just end an NEC Tournament drought.
These Blackbirds are headed to the double-elimination tourney at Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium looking to grab an automatic bid to the NCAA Baseball Championships, better known as the Road to Omaha, where the College World Series is played each year.
“We are looking to compete for a championship this weekend,” Pirillo told the Brooklyn Eagle via email Thursday morning in advance of the Blackbirds’ tourney opener.
“The team is hungry for a championship and are looking to bring it back to Brooklyn.”
The Blackbirds haven’t won an NEC crown since 1990, but that title didn’t come with a bid to the NCAAs.
If LIU can avoid suffering two losses before advancing through the weekend round-robin, it will become the first Blackbird team to reach the national championship tournament in the program’s history.
“I am very proud of the season thus far,” added Pirillo, who has racked up 50 wins in his two seasons at the helm in Downtown Brooklyn and was an assistant coach on LIU’s 2011 entry in the NEC Tournament.
“We set out to get back to the NEC tournament and we were able to accomplish that goal along with tying the school record in wins. It’s been a special season so far and we are looking to continue playing good baseball through the playoffs.”
Pirillo certainly appears to have the squad to do just that this weekend.
Turner, a senior, ranks 14th in the entire nation in on-base percentage at .492 and junior infielder Briggs has provided eye-popping power with five homers, including three grand slams, and 21 RBIs in his last 10 games.
Sophomore southpaw Clyne spearheads a pitching staff that has already accumulated a program-record 410 strikeouts, fanning a league season-high 14 at FDU on March 29.
Back-end-of-the-bullpen studs like converted infielder Rob Griswold (1.21 ERA) and Krieger, the team’s shut-down closer who is averaging 12 strikeouts per nine innings, have been adept at holding on to leads in the late innings.
That’s something the Blackbirds will need to do if they hope to topple Wagner, No. 4 Mount St. Mary’s and top-seeded Bryant in Norwich this weekend.
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Over on Remsen Street, the St. Francis Brooklyn women’s basketball program began a new chapter in its history Monday, naming Linda Cimino as the Terriers’ new head coach following the retirement of John Thurston.
Thurston, the Terriers’ all-time leader in coaching wins and leader of the only SFC basketball team to ever reach the NCAA Tournament in 2015, hands over the reins to an accomplished coach in her own right.
Cimino is coming off a very successful four-season head-coaching stint at SUNY-Binghamton, where she orchestrated an impressive turnaround, taking the Bearcats from four wins in her initial campaign to 20 last year.
“I’m very excited,” she said following her introductory press conference. “I love the city and I love the small community. I’m very excited to get started with these student athletes — it’s a great day and I’m really happy to be back down here.”
Cimino will have third-year playmaker Jade Johnson back to be her eyes and ears on the court after the native of Australia led the Terriers to 13 wins last year by averaging a team-high 14.7 points per game.
“They have a lot of the pieces: a great point guard, a great shooter, a great inside presence I’m really excited to build on,” Cimino said of the Terriers.
“The players play really hard and they’re smart players. Part of coaching is wanting to be around kids that have a high basketball IQ and that want to be in the gym.”
The Adelphi University alum also noted the influence of SFC Athletic Director Irma Garcia as a factor in her decision to coach here in Brooklyn Heights.
“I’ve been blessed with some great mentors and people that have helped me along the way. I’ve just always looked up to her as a strong female; a Latin female,” Cimino said of Garcia, who made history by becoming the first-ever Latina to head a Division I athletic department back in 2007.
“She’s a basketball player and coach from previously,” Cimino added. “In our world, she’s a hero to us. She’s somebody who you aspire to be like. She’s so warm and friendly and every time you see her she just makes you feel good. You want to do the same for people and Irma has that effect.”