Hofstra’s John Rooney was a hidden gem until Saturday, when he pitched one.
A kid from upstate Melrose who spent his summers working as a waiter by day and pitching for a local men’s baseball team by night, helped make Hofstra history Saturday, pitching the first six innings of a combined no-hitter against Mount St. Mary’s. It was the second Hofstra no-hitter of the young season, the first coming off the arm of Seamus Brazill, who pitched the final three innings of Rooney’s gem.
“We didn’t have a no-hitter in school history and now we have two this season,” Hofstra coach John Russo said after the 11-0 win over MSM. “Our guys have been dominant.”
Rooney, who struck out eight on Saturday, uses a repertoire that includes a fastball that ranges from 91 to 94 miles per hour, a wicked slider and a newly-developed changeup that has garnered attention from major-league scouts. He’s expected to be taken in the top few rounds of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft in June.
Rooney was the classic hometown, two-sport high school star in basketball and baseball for the Hoosick Valley Indians. He was the state’s Class C Player of the Year in both sports as a junior and hoped to play baseball in college.
“I was never exposed to travel ball and all the recruiting that comes with it,” Rooney said. “I live in a rural area where everyone works to make ends meet. And I played ball with the 30-year olds in the men’s twilight league.”
Rooney, a hard-throwing lefty, was only 16 years old playing against men. And that’s when his life changed.
“I was pitching in a men’s tournament at Farmingdale State College and the Hofstra coach saw something in my ability and offered me a scholarship,” Rooney said. “I got lucky, right place, right time.”
Rooney is now a 6-5, 220-pound junior and has become the ace of the Pride’s pitching staff. In three starts, he’s thrown 20 scoreless innings, allowed nine hits and struck out 26 for a 2-0 record.
He’s also at the top of the Hofstra rotation which leads the NCAA Division I in earned run average. The Pride (7-2) is one of the top schools in the nation with a 1.78 ERA through nine games.
“We’ll never see anything like him again in our lifetime,” Russo said. “He was that diamond in the rough. He was a guy from what seemed like a two-block town in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing to it. With all the social media exposure and recruiting entities that are out there now, no one will ever be hidden like him again. It’s impossible. First time we saw him, we couldn’t believe what we were watching.”
It was love at first sight but there were growing pains.
“The biggest thing was I really didn’t know how to pitch, I was just a hard thrower,” Rooney said. “All I needed to do was throw fastballs in high school and blow batters away. But my mechanics were so screwed up.”
Rooney’s arrival also coincided with that of pitching coach John Habyan, a major-league veteran of 11 years.
“We’re in Year three of Habes as our pitching coach,” Russo said. “And we’re seeing results because of the Habyan factor. He has transformed Rooney into a major-league prospect.”
Rooney, who struggled in his first two years, learned to throw a back-door slider and a killer changeup.
“We play in the Colonial Athletic Conference and if you don’t learn to locate and mix it up, you get hammered,” Rooney said. “The batters just sit fastball and I learned the hard way.”
His relationship with Habyan grew as did his trust in the pitching coach’s philosophy. He led the CAA in pickoffs last year after Habyan modified his technique in the stretch.
“Rooney has a great pickoff move,” Habyan said. “He picked off three guys at Norfolk State.”
Rooney is not the only one benefiting from the ‘Habes factor.’ Brazill, a 6-9, 260-pound righty, threw Hofstra’s first no-hitter in school history in his first collegiate start in a 1-0 win over Lamar University two weeks ago.
“He locates well and mixes it up,” Habyan said of Brazill.
Russo said, “Habyan threw the no-hitter with Seamus every step of the way, calling the pitches.”
Habyan said he’s no psychiatrist, but believes his pitchers are mentally tough and haven’t gotten themselves in trouble by working from behind hitters or walking people.
“You have to get hits to beat us,” he said. “So far, so good.”
Senior Matt Weissheier (Kellenberg High School), a 6-6, 260-pound righty has also enjoyed a hot start. He’s thrown 12.3 innings with a 1.50 ERA.
Senior Teddy Cillis, a hard-throwing lefty, has only thrown three innings because of a strained lat muscle and he led the CAA in strikeouts with 96 last year. Freshman righty Brad Camarda (Hills West) opened the season with five shutout innings at Lamar.
Senior closer Chris Weiss (Longwood) struck out eight in three innings in a win over Norfolk State. He has a win and one save.
Rooney said everyone respects Habes. “The majority of our team will over-locate now and not try to overpower hitters,” Rooney said. “It’s a mindset you get comfortable with as you learn how to pitch. He lays down a different format for each guy according to their strengths. And it’s working.”