Fever pitch: Upset-minded Blackbirds look to knock off national champs
By John Torenli
Having captured a Northeast Conference championship in half of his 18 years on the job at LIU-Brooklyn, head women’s softball coach Roy Kortmann has a wealth of motivational tools at his disposal.
Fresh off his team’s thrilling weekend sweep of the NEC Tournament in Moon Township, Pa., Kortmann is using licorice — of all things — to get his players pumped up for Friday night’s NCAA Regional opener against defending national champion Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.
Or at least to brainwash them into thinking the Sun Devils are just another team on the schedule.
“ASU is a very good softball team,” Kortmann told the Eagle on Wednesday as his team prepared in 106-degree heat for the double-elimination opening round, which also features Long Beach State and Syracuse in the four-team bracket. “They’ve won two national championships in the last [four] years. But every team we play, all the teams we play, we call them Twizzler State.”
Calling the powerhouse Sun Devils (46-7) by another name certainly won’t be enough to send ASU packing this weekend, but LIU has proven it has the power and pitching to contend with virtually any opponent, as evidenced by its performance at last weekend’s NEC Championships.
Sophomore Cassie Vondrak went 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA and senior shortstop Sterling Hoham, the tournament MVP, batted a sizzling .545 with a homer and four RBIs as the Blackbirds posted three straight wins by a combined score of 16-5, including two over Quinnipiac.
Vondrak, who tossed two complete-game shutouts in the tourney, will get the ball against ASU in the Regional opener.
“She certainly stepped up in the NECs,” Kortmann said of his staff ace, who went 12-6 with a 4.15 ERA in 28 appearances, including 16 starts this season, going the distance on seven occasions.
Hoham will lead a starting nine that combined to belt 34 homers and 63 doubles in 58 games this season, giving the Blackbirds the “thump” factor that can break open any given game.
“One through nine, our lineup can swing the bat,” noted Kortmann, who has only three seniors on a youth-infused, 19-player roster looking to avenge a season-ending 9-1 loss to ASU in the 2010 Regionals at Amherst, Mass.
“We’re a really young team,” he added. “Our experience level is low on the totem pole, but defensively we’re outstanding. I think we have an opportunity to grow up even more this weekend.”
The Blackbirds did post a pair of victories over the University of Massachusetts and Boston University in their last trip to the NCAAs two years ago, but the Sun Devils edged them 3-2 before sending them back to Brooklyn the next day.
Regardless of how the weekend turns out, Kortmann has a special place in his heart for this year’s team, which only figures to bloom over the next several seasons under his sage tutelage.
“This one’s special,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun for me. To watch these kids mature in front of my eyes. The kids’ approach to learning has been terrific. They kept working at it.”
Kortmann will try to continue working his mojo as well. He implored his players not to “touch the money” during their late-season drive to the NEC title, and isn’t about to stop using the motivational mantra now.
“We’re not buying into things that we haven’t accomplished yet,” he insisted. “That’s Kryptonite to us. We’re just trying to stay in the moment.”
The St. Francis College men’s basketball team will usher in the holidays at the Barclays Center on Dec. 15.
The Terriers announced Wednesday that they will participate in this year’s inaugural Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Downtown’s “75 percent complete” state-of-the-art arena, moving its annual rivalry game with St. John’s into the Flatbush Avenue venue.
“Brooklyn finally has a great arena to call its own and we anticipate Barclays Center will boost excitement in local college basketball,” said St. Francis head coach Glenn Braica, who guided the Terriers to a solid 15-15 campaign in 2011-12 before a first-round loss to Quinnipiac in the NEC Tournament.
“Our program now has a chance to compete in a world-class arena and host national and local teams just a short walk from our school,” added Braica. “Barclays Center will lead to many memorable moments and thrilling college basketball in the coming years.”
The Terriers will play in a six-team field at the festival, with Michigan taking on West Virginia and Fordham meeting Princeton in the other two games slated for that evening.
LIU-Brooklyn is already slated to play four games at the new arena after capturing its second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament in March.
It probably won’t be long before the annual two-game Battle for Brooklyn series between the Blackbirds and Terriers winds up being played a stone’s throw from either campus.
“The Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival will provide the schools with a brand new state-of-the-art venue that is specifically built for basketball,” Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark said. “As our college hoops schedule continues to grow with teams such as NCAA Tournament champion Kentucky, Maryland, Indiana, Notre Dame, Georgetown, UCLA, LIU, Fordham and St. John’s, not to mention the Atlantic 10 Tournament, we’re proud to deliver perennially powerful programs and rising local schools to Brooklyn.”
Tickets for the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival are currently on sale and can be purchased through Ticketmaster by visiting www.barclayscenter.com or www.ticketmaster.com, or by calling 800-745-3000.
In other Terriers hoops news, junior guard Ben Mockford revealed this week that he has been invited to try out for his native Great Britain’s Under-23 Development Team after leading St. Francis in scoring this past season.
“There is nothing like representing your country,” said Mockford, who averaged 11.8 points per game and knocked down an NEC-best 2.7 3-pointers per contest during his first season on Remsen Street after transferring from Iona.
“For me it’s the best,” added the sharpshooting 6-foot-2 Shoreham-by-Sea native. “There’s pride on every team you play for, but there’s just something about playing for your country that takes it to another level. All I need is a chance or an opportunity to rise and I will go after it with everything I’ve got. But yeah, pride is the main thing.”
Earlier this week, St. Francis announced that the school’s all-time leading scorer, Ricky Cadell, had signed a professional contract with FC Porto of the Portuguese Basketball League.
Mockford’s participation for England is well deserved, according to Braica.
“This is a great opportunity for Ben to play for his country,” the coach said. “He’s been working extremely hard on his game since the end of the season and I think he’s put himself in the best possible position to make the team. We wish him the best of luck.”
After a smashing first season on the links, LIU-Brooklyn freshman Obe Ayton this week was named the Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year.
Ayton and junior Josh Waters also earned Second Team All-NEC accolades as the league handed out its postseason awards.
Ayton was a model of consistency for the Blackbirds, finishing in the top 10 in six of the 10 events he participated in.
The Englishman started off his college career with a fourth-place finish at the Joe Agee Invitational, tied for 10th at the Connecticut Cup and rounded out the fall season with a share of fifth place at the Barnabas Health Intercollegiate.
Ayton tied for second at the Homewood Suites Invite after carding scores of 74-72. He completed his freshman campaign with two ninth-place finishes at the Manor Intercollegiate and Navy Spring Invitational.
Joining Ayton on the second team is Waters, who performed well at the NEC Championship. The Londoner earned a tie for third place, which included an even-par 72 on day two. Waters also earned a pair of fifth-place finishes early in the spring after carding scores of 153 and 149 at the Lonnie Barton and Homewood Suites invitationals, respectively.
As a team, LIU received a pair of top-10 finishes to close in second place at the 2012 NEC Men’s Golf Championships in Florida. The women’s team captured the NEC title under first-year coach and LIU alum Natalie Desjardins.
Though they fell short in their quest to reach the NEC Baseball Championships, three of the LIU-Brooklyn team were honored this week when the league’s coaches unveiled their postseason awards.
Senior Tyler Jones and sophomore Pete Leonello were named to the All-NEC First Team while senior Brad Greve took home All-NEC Second Team honors.
Jones, a serious pro prospect who could hear his name called during next month’s Major League Amateur Draft, started all 55 games for the Blackbirds, batting .312 to rank 13th in the NEC.
The New Jersey native slugged .492 to rank seventh in the NEC. He drove in a team-high 34 runs for the Blackbirds and scored 34, finishing the season with 10 doubles and 20 walks while being hit by a pitch 19 times. Jones earned All-NEC First Team recognition for the second straight season.
Leonello led the league with 71 hits, falling only one shy of the Blackbirds’ single-season record. The center fielder tied for the league lead with 41 runs and ranked third with 28 walks.
Greve tied for seventh in the NEC with 37 runs scored. A strong defensive second baseman, he eclipsed his own LIU single-season assists mark with 178 this season. Greve batted .299 with 10 doubles and a triple, adding 13 RBIs.
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