Hofstra's baseball team is in it to win it.
With a school-record 31 victories and hopes of making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the Pride has distanced itself from decades of defeats by simply concentrating on this season.
Hofstra (31-19, 18-9 Colonial Athletic Association) is in second place with three conference games left before next week's CAA Tournament at James Madison. "Our goal is to win it," senior third baseman T.J. Thomas, of Hicksville, said of the automatic bid. "We believe we can do it."
Hofstra entered this season with an average record of 22-31 since the program's inception in 1938. The last winning season (24-20) was in 1999.
"The thing is, we weren't here when the other teams weren't successful," sophomore relief pitcher Bryan Verbitsky of Levittown said. "We really wanted to show we have a new regime and show everybody what Hofstra is about."
The season started with some flux. In January, coach Patrick Anderson decided to accept a job with a minor-league affiliate of the Washington Nationals. His assistant, John Russo, was named interim coach. On May 6, just after the Pride surpassed the program record of 27 wins, Russo was summoned by Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz.
"John, I guess my first question to you is why are you winning?" Russo recalled the president asking him. "I said, 'Excuse me?' He said, 'Everybody always told me a northern team in a southern conference in baseball just couldn't win here, so I kind of accepted it even though I'm a big baseball fan. Here you are having a great year.' "
Russo's response: "I said, 'Sir, the history of Hofstra baseball wasn't my problem.' "
Russo left Rabinowitz's office with the interim title removed. "He took over the team in a very difficult situation, with a coach leaving right before the season," Rabinowitz said this week. "[Russo] was responsible for the recruitment of the players, he broke the record for the most wins in Hofstra baseball history, which really relieved a lot of frustration on my part. And the student-athletes love him. When you do something like that, yes, he got a vote of confidence from me."
As the recruiting coordinator under Anderson, Russo's biggest find, albeit by accident, turned out to be senior outfielder Danny Poma, who is second in the nation with a .450 batting average. Poma played two junior college seasons at Cuesta, Calif. He broke a bone in his hand in his second year of JC ball and received no Division I offers. Poma said he emailed dozens of schools and Russo, who knew Poma's junior college coach, responded with a scholarship at Hofstra.
Two seasons later, Russo compares Poma to the Arizona Diamondback's A.J. Pollock, who was coached by Russo in a summer league. Russo thinks Poma will be drafted next month. "I just want an opportunity," Poma said. "I don't care what round. I'll make the most of it, like I did here at Hofstra."
Poma knew he had a place to play, but was unsure of what to expect beyond that. "Coming in, I knew the history. I could feel it around campus," he said. "We really didn't have any respect."
Then, something happened: Hofstra started winning. "We played more of southern type baseball, with the running game playing at a high confidence level, not being so robotic," Russo said. "My first speech in February, everything was there for us to win."
Sweeping three games early in the season against VCU, Russo said, "convinced us that we could really pull this off and put it together."
Poma added, "The main thing, we started believing in ourselves."
As Poma continued to hit and hug the plate, he found himself getting hit by opposing pitchers, 14 times and presumably counting. "They want to put me on base, I'll steal bases and I'll score," said Poma, who is tied with Dalton Rouleau for the team lead with 25 steals. Austin Nyman has 22, Matt Ford 17.
As they create positive history, the players are mindful of those who came before them. "Any athlete's No. 1 goal is to win," Thomas said. "There's a bunch of great alumni. This is just a reward for all of them."