It's Regionals week here at Frogs O'War, and as part of our due diligence, we are previewing each team in the Fort Worth bracket. I drew Sacred Heart, so let's dig a little deeper in to the Northeast Conference Champs...
WHO: Sacred Heart University
WHERE: Fairfield, Connecticut
WAIT, WHO?: The Sacred Heart Pioneeers play in the Northeast Conference, which is comprised of 10 schools from the... well... Northeast, including TWO named Saint Francis. You've probably never heard of any of these schools, but they are sponsored in part by Hersey Park, so they must be doing something right.
TELL ME ABOUT THIS FAIRFIELD PLACE: Approximately 59,000 people live in the small community, that was rated "the best place to live in the Northeast", and ninth best place in America to call home. Fairfield was a big player during the Revolutionary War and First World War, where it's status as a munitions factory brought people in droves. It's now the corporate headquarters for General Electric. It's also the home of Fairfield University, a MAAC school best known for holding a halftime lead over UNC in the 1997 NCAA Basketball Tournament.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS A SACRED HEART IF IT'S NOT A HOSPITAL?: Founded in 1963, the Catholic University quickly became the second largest of it's kind in New England, behind Boston College. With 4,232 undergrads and a prime location (just 50 miles north of NYC and 150 south of Boston), it has become an attractive destination for for both in and out of state students. TCU students can relate in one area - the 67% female student body.
FAMOUS ALUMNI: Sadly, this list does not include the staff of Sacred Heart Memorial, so that means no JD, no Turk, no Janitor. But, they do actually have a pretty solid cast of characters of their own, including John Ratzenberger of Cheers fame (there's a ticket waiting for him at will call, should he want to support his alma mater this weekend), Kevin Nealon of SNL, and three MLB guys - one of which I have actually heard of. Though not an alumni, their Athletic Director is also a well-known name - especially in DFW - former Rangers and Mets skipper Bobby Valentine.
HOW DID THEY GET HERE: The Pioneers got off to one of the worst starts possible, dropping their first ten games of the season and falling to 1-14 to open the season, then lost 9 of 11 late in the season before getting hot in the conference tournament. The NEC hosts a four team tournament, and SHU came in as the three seed. They beat Wagner 3-1 to open tourney play, crushed Farleigh Dickinson 10-0 in game two, dropped game three to Bryant 5-2, before beating that same team in the championship game 5-4. While this season's run may have been improbable, it's not all that out of character for the program as a whole; SHU has made the 64 team field three of the past five seasons, though they are 0-6 in regional play over that period.
WHO YA GOT, PIONEERS?: The Frogs will likely face Sacred Heart ace and redshirt junior James Cooksey Friday night, former reliever turned starter who's story reads a little like a Disney Channel movie. Sitting out in 2012, barely making the team in 2013, he became an all-conference reliever in 2014 and has risen to the role of ace in 2015. He is 7-2 with a 3.50 ERA, and has 45 strikeouts against only 15 walks in 72 innings this year. He will throw strikes, but pitches a little like that old old guy playing pickup ball in the gym in rec specs - it ain't pretty, but it's effective. Their primary reliever is senior Dan Wertz, who has pitched 50.2 innings across 31 appearances, with two saves, 31 strikeouts, and only nine walks allowed. One of the interesting things for a team with a sub .500 record, they've amassed only six saves as a pitching staff. Hertz leads the group with all of two.
On the offensive side of the plate, the Pioneers aren't going to blow you away, scoring only 4.33 runs per game on a .246 team batting average. They have proven opportunistic - 20 home runs, 69 doubles, and 169 walks have led to some big innings and a handful of games where they have broken double digits. SHU is led by junior Jayson Sullivan and sophomore Zach Short, who bat .296 and .302 respectively. Short is the big stick in the lineup with nine dingers 14 doubles on the year. Sacred Heart has only 59 steals as a team on the season, so they aren't going to burn you much on the bases, and it's Sullivan and Short that do the most damage there as well with 13 and 12 a piece. To put all this is perspective, SHU doesn't rank in the top 100 nationally in any offensive category.
Defensively, the Pioneers collectively field at a .968 clip, with 66 errors on the season. First baseman Victor Sorrento is a very steady glove at the corner infield positions, as is sophomore Jake Friar behind the plate. The aforementioned short leads the team in errors with 14, and fellow infielder Ted Shaw is close behind him with 13.
WHATCHA GONNA DO?: If past performance is any indication, the answer is probably "not much". As previously stated, this is a team that gets to the dance, then stands in the corner by the punch bowl during all the good songs. But, if you believe the madness of March is capable of bleeding over in to the Mayhem of May, there may not be a team in the tourney that can wear Cinderella's slipper better than the Pioneers. From worst to first, they embody the spirit of playing with absolutely nothing to lose, and could be just the kind of headache the Frogs don't need with their Big 12 Tournament hangover still fresh. That being said... this is a sub .500 team, with sub average pitching and sub par offense. It's a very tough draw for them in Fort Worth, facing an angry and motivated TCU team that is playing with a chip on their shoulders and something to prove. I do think the Pioneers break through for their first post-season win... on Saturday. ;)