EJ Cumbo sprayed line drives all over the outfield’s green turf. Some one-hopped the outfield fence, others left scorched earth on their way to the gaps. The hottest hitter in the Northeast Region was putting on a show on the eve of the baseball program’s first postseason appearance in six years.
Cumbo, a redshirt freshman outfielder for the New York Institute of Technology, entered the postseason with a .460 average, the second highest in the nation. He also had five homers and 35 RBIs. He is a role modelt and a prime example on a team that has embraced the philosophy of first-year coach Frank Catalanotto, a 14-year major-leaguer, and his coaching staff.
The once-proud NYIT baseball program, with a 30-year winning tradition through the late 1970s, '80s and '90s, again is finding its rhythm. Cumbo, of East Meadow, who returned from a season-ending hamstring injury last year, said the staff has turned the program in the right direction.
“I was out of here, transferring. It was such a negative atmosphere,” Cumbo said. “Practices were terrible. And the mindset was to see how fast we could get practice over with. Coach comes in with a fantastic group of coaches that love to teach the game and we get right into it. Now everyone looks forward to practice and what we’re doing next. The camaraderie and team chemistry are off the charts.”
The Bears, who struggled in Division I from 2012-17, endured final records of 5-46, 10-47, 4-46, 14-30, 17-26 and 5-36-1 before dropping into Division II in 2018. The difference in competition changed nothing. The Bears suffered through a 13-25-1 record in 2018.
“I was a freshman when we won only five games, and that was tough to handle,” said junior Ben McNeill, a three-year starter at shortstop. “I came from a high school program in Commack where winning was expected. And I expected so much more in college. But we were down before the games started and expected to lose. And then we dropped into Division II and continued to lose.
“This new coaching staff was like a complete culture change. They’re so prepared and they motivate and teach. It’s really exciting. You just can’t wait to get to the field.”
Catalanotto, who played for Smithtown East and had a .291/.357/.445 slash line in a major-league career that ended in 2010 with the Mets, has guided the Bears to a 32-14 record. They reached the losers' bracket final as the No. 2 seed in the East Coast Conference playoffs before being eliminated by Bridgeport on Friday night and still hope to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II championships.
“We’re asked by our coaches every day, ‘What did we do better today that will make us better tomorrow?’ ” said McNeill, who is hitting .320 with 25 RBIs. “And you can see the passion in practice. The expectation is to keep climbing and never be satisfied.”
Catalanotto watched the Bears' final practice before they hosted Thursday’s playoff game against Bridgeport.
“First day, we sat in the office to figure out a practice plan,” he said with a laugh. “And instead of telling them what to do, we let them do what they would normally do. We wanted to see what practice looked like out of curiosity. And the hitting was just awful. They were pulling balls into the dugouts. We knew we had our work cut out for us.”
The next day, Catalanotto and his staff addressed the team. "We told them it was the last time we’d have a BP like that.”
The Bears' team batting average was .260 in 2018 and rose to .320 this year.
Practices have taken on new meaning. They look like this: Pitching coach Chris Rojas works drills in one area of the field while infield and hitting instructor Jimmy Goelz works the middle infield. Assistant Frank Battaglia throws BP and assistant Angelo Coscia hits grounders in between pitches.
“There’s no time wasted to maximize field work, get one-on-one work, everything,” Rojas said. “The players have set their own standard and set the tone for the program.”
Rojas and Goelz came over from St. Dominic High School to join Catalanotto, who also added former major- leaguer Ray Giannelli to the staff, which now has 48 years of professional playing experience. Rojas, Goelz and Giannelli are all NYIT graduates.
“I didn’t know what to expect with the older players in college,” said Goelz, who played seven years of pro ball with four teams. “But they’re eager to learn and we find ourselves holding court after practice just talking and giving them information. They’re baseball junkies. We saw a huge difference after the five weeks of the fall season.”
Junior centerfielder John LaRocca (Plainview), a transfer from Monmouth University who is hitting .377 with four home runs and 35 RBIs, tracked balls during outfield drills while starting pitchers Joe Murphy (Wantagh) and DJ Masuck (Tampa) got in some running.
“Everyone has a job and needs to be prepared,” said Rojas, who played 10 years professionally. “It gets easier after we put down a foundation.”
Catalanotto reflected on Wednesday’s practice and smiled.
“Our batting practice is a thing of beauty,” he said. “I’m impressed. They’ve totally bought into our system and they’re applying what we’re teaching. It’s a pro-style batting practice. Guys are staying inside the ball and using the gaps.”
And his first year of coaching could not have gone any better.
“It’s been a great experience as a first-year head coach,” Catalanotto said. “Look at my staff. We all see things the same way with the mechanics of hitting, the mental approach, and we’re all teachers. It’s rewarding to see our progress and I’m having a blast.”