Kean University coach Neil Ioviero has the Cougars clawing for titles again.
The unwavering success of the Kean University baseball program under head coach Neil Ioviero continues unabated as the much-anticipated 2021 season thankfully creeps closer.
Kean has been tabbed the No. 4 team in Collegiate Baseball’s Division 3 Preseason Top 40. The Cougars were 8-2 last spring before the NCAA shut down the sport at all levels as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic The team brings back a heck of cast.
“We don’t shy away from it,” said Ioviero about the gaudy ranking. “There’s almost 400 teams nationally so it’s an accomplishment and nice to be recognized early. We are looking strong and almost everyone is returning.”
All NCAA players retained their 2020 year of eligibility after the season was canceled.
Kean was ranked No. 5 in the nation in one poll and No. 8 in another before the plug was pulled on the 2020 season. “Like everyone else, that was tremendously disappointing,” said Ioviero, “especially considering we felt we could accomplish something special. We are looking to pick up where we left off.”
Part of that returning Kean cast includes a pair of former Diamond Jacks, junior second baseman Connor DeForge and freshman catcher Vince Mele. DeForge, who played scholastically for Immaculata High School, has been a steady contributor since his freshman season in 2018. Mele, a Somerville grad, played two of Kean’s 10 games in 2020 and went 1-for-2 in his two plate appearances before suffering an arm injury. Mele would have surgery to repair the damage but returned in time for fall ball.
DeForge batted .333 in six 2020 games, five of which were starts. He proved productive in every facet as he stole eight bases, drove in four runs and ripped a double and triple in his abbreviated junior season. The Bound Brook native played in 35 games as a sophomore at Kean and 29 games as a freshman.
“Connor is valuable,” says Ioviero. “We batted him late in the order but he tends to get big hits and was one of our RBI leaders. We were able to play him at shortstop, second and third base. He has a very good attitude and a short memory. He’s able to forget mistakes and bounce back.”
Mele appears fully healthy and ready to go after his surgery and rehab.
“We’re very high on him,” said Ioviero. “He has a high baseball IQ.”
One of Kean’s leaders is Hunterdon Central grad Mike Perone. The third baseman is in his second year of grad school.
“Mike is our heart and soul and a coach on the field,” said Ioviero. “He’s a five tool player with crazy range and a cannon arm. Mike’s gone through two surgeries, so, on top of all that, he’s a true testament to perseverance. He stepped in two years ago and saved us when we made a run to the regional final. He makes our team go.”
Kean’s high national ranking falls in behind No. 1 Cal. Lutheran, No. 2 Chapman (Calif.) and No. 3 Webster (MO). Rowan University is ranked No. 36 and two other New Jersey schools, College of New Jersey and Rutgers-Newark, received votes in the poll despite falling outside of the Top 40.
The pandemic remains very real and potentially disruptive to the 2021 season, particularly the pre-season and the early part of the regular season.
“Our first practice should be around Jan. 20 or 22,” said Ioviero, “but a lot is up in the air right now. We have a lot of out of state games at the start, too, so we’ll have to see what the league decides. As a coach you have to be patient. Things are changing day-to-day. But we feel confident we’ll be playing.”
Kean won the Division 3 national championship in 2007 under Ioviero’s direction, a campaign that earned him the Division 3 National Coach of the Year award. Ioviero’s first win in 2021 will give him career victory No. 700. He stands at 699-299-2 over his 23 seasons at Kean. That’s a remarkable .700 winning percentage.
Ioviero’s teams have won four New Jersey Athletic Conference championships, earned 14 regional tournament berths and played in six Division 3 NCAA World Series. Kean reached the World Series most recently in 2013. Ioviero is a six-time NJAC Coach of the Year, the most recent honor coming in 2019.