A simple but conspicuous sign has hung in LIU Brooklyn’s dugout the entire season.
Printed on a sheet of paper is the Northeast Conference preseason baseball coaches’ poll, the one in which the Blackbirds were ominously picked in February to finish fifth out of seven teams. It has served as a source of motivation, a symbol of disrespect — and a reminder of how far this program has come in just a few months.
“No one really believed in us,” senior outfielder Dom Paiotti said, “except for us.”
Under second-year coach Dan Pirillo, LIU Brooklyn (31-24) won the NEC Tournament for the first time in school history last weekend to earn the program’s second NCAA Tournament appearance — and first since 1972.
“Whenever your school doesn’t do something for 46 years, it’s pretty impressive to go out and do it,” Paiotti said. “At first, we thought it was 1992 the last time the school went to a regional, but then we found out it was 1972. We were amazed. I mean, 46 years is a long time.”
It sure is. And this confident bunch of Blackbirds is far from satisfied. Even if they’re considered underdogs in the 64-team tournament.
“We know what we’re capable of,” senior first baseman Andrew Turner said. “We’re playing without pressure and we’re out there having fun. Everybody in our locker room knows, hey, we’re only five wins away from Omaha, so it’s very much a possibility.”
LIU Brooklyn, which has already set a school record for victories, is in Conway, South Carolina, to play in the four-team, double-elimination regional as the No. 4 seed. The Blackbirds will take on host and top seed Coastal Carolina (42-17) on Friday night, with UConn (35-20-1) and Washington (30-23) playing in the other bracket.
The winners of the 16 regionals advance to eight best-of-three super regionals, with those winners playing in the College World Series.
“We play with a chip on our shoulder,” Turner said. “We play baseball in downtown Brooklyn. There’s no grass anywhere. We have limited facilities. We lift in a basement that we call ‘The Dungeon.’ We have one batting cage outside and nothing inside. We’ve overcome those obstacles being a baseball team in New York City.
“We see these facilities down here and we’re like, ‘We’re just as good as you guys, if not better. We work twice as hard because we don’t have what you guys have.’ So, yeah, we play with a chip on our shoulder for that reason, and if you combine that chip with the heart that we play with, it’s a scary combination.”
Turner, Paiotti and fellow senior Baylor LaPointe have been preaching the Law of Attraction — a belief that positive or negative experiences can be brought about by corresponding thoughts — to their teammates since September.
“A lot of guys on our team, it’s funny,” Turner said, “they say, ‘I can’t believe it actually worked. You talked about that for nine months and you guys said we were going to do it and I can’t believe it actually happened.'”
Pirillo was once one of those Blackbirds players with big-time dreams, trying to lead the program back to the NCAA Tournament.
He played four seasons as an infielder from 2005-08, but never participated in the postseason. Pirillo then served as an assistant coach for three years and, after stints as an assistant at Georgia College (2012) and Chicago State (2013-16), returned to LIU Brooklyn to skipper his alma mater’s club. Assistant coaches John Ziznewski and Anthony Capo also played college ball for the Blackbirds.
Now, they’ve finally gotten LIU Brooklyn to where so many others over the last several decades have only imagined.
“I don’t know if it’s even hit me yet, how big of a moment or how big of a milestone this is,” the 32-year-old Pirillo said. “I mean, it’s pretty tremendous just knowing how far this program has come. You can’t even fathom how much of a moment this is. I think it’ll start to settle in for me when we get to the first pitch (Friday). That’s when it’ll be like, ‘OK, this is it. The cameras are on, there’s 6,000 people yelling at you.’ I’ll try to soak up those first couple of pitches and give Coastal our best shot.”
He has heard from several of his former teammates throughout the season, as well as many alumni who have frequently attended home games at LIU Field.
“It does feel a little like there’s been some magic around us this season,” Pirillo said. “It’s been special, it really has.”
The Blackbirds have relied on solid pitching (4.70 team ERA and school-record 427 strikeouts) and sparkling infield defense. Their hitting has picked up lately, too, particularly during a seven-game winning streak that boosted them through the end of the regular season and the NEC Tournament.
Sophomore lefty Patrick Clyne (5-4, 4.39 ERA) has been the team’s Friday starter all season, and junior right-hander Zach Pederson (6-4, 3.82) has given the Blackbirds a solid 1-2 punch. The bullpen has been terrific, with closer Mike Kreiger (4-2, 1.73, seven saves) and sophomore righty Rob Griswold (1-1, 1.27, two saves) leading the way.
Turner tops the team with a .344 average and has hit five home runs with 19 RBIs. LIU Brooklyn’s regular lineup also includes Paiotti (.265, 5, 39) and six juniors in outfielder Andrew Smith (.296, 5, 34), third baseman Alex Briggs (.282, 8, 43), second baseman Anthony Warneke (.276, 3, 34), catcher Edward Modica (.295, 4, 29), shortstop Luis Arias (.273, 3, 24 and 16 stolen bases) and outfielder Gregory Vaughn Jr. (.247, 3, 23 and team-leading 17 stolen bases) — the son of former big league slugger Greg Vaughn.
“We’re a tough team and we’ve put in our dues,” Pirillo said. “We’ve worked hard, played this game the right way and it’s paid off and hopefully we’ll keep it rolling.”
And as far as the Blackbirds are concerned, there’s no reason to think they won’t.
“We all have a saying: ‘Get off the tracks. LIU’s coming,'” Turner said. “I don’t care who we’re playing right now. It’s not good to be on the other team. We don’t care if you’re a No. 1 seed or the host of the regional or what. We’re confident. We have good players in this locker room and you don’t want to be on the tracks right now.”
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