Playing baseball in the northeast has its challenges, mainly in regard to weather. Add a pandemic to the equation and it’s understandable why college players and coaches have been forced to become quite creative.
Safety restrictions placed on respective schools since September have prevented some college teams from practicing as a unit. And a rugged, snowy stretch has complicated that challenge the past month and a half.
In fact, when Lafayette College took the field against Wagner College at Diamond Nation on Saturday, it was the first time the Leopards played a game under new coach Tim Reilly.
Reilly had been hired last March 25, not long after COVID-19 had stopped the 2020 season cold and much-admired 21-year Lafayette mentor Joe Kinney had resigned. Kinney’s retirement was expected and Reilly’s lightning quick hiring was not surprising. The Lafayette administration had acted quickly and stayed in-house. Reilly was in his third season as an assistant at Lafayette and had spent the six prior seasons as an assistant at Rutgers. There was little question Reilly was ready for a head coaching job.
Reilly knew the obvious coaching challenges that lay ahead but the pandemic threw one curveball after another at the new head coach, not the least of which was paralyzing in-person recruiting restrictions by the NCAA. Come fall and the subsequent pre-season which begins with turn of the calendar to January, COVID-19 restrictions and precautions layed one roadblock after another in front of Reilly.
“When we got back (from Christmas break) we were quarantined for a week then, once we were cleared, we had to practice in separate pods,” said Reilly. “We were indoors and there were occupancy limits in the buildings. We had very few opportunities to be together as a team.”
That first, true opportunity came on Saturday when Lafayette faced Wagner in a season-opening twinbill for both, 40 minutes from the Leopards’ campus in Easton, Pa. Lafayette’s home field is still healing from the brutal winter, so Reilly and his men convened with Wagner (Staten Island) at Diamond Nation in Flemington, N.J.
Reilly, a catcher during his undergraduate days at Rutgers, is certainly familiar with those opening day feelings players have and didn’t feel much different as a head coach.
“It’s the same butterflies,” says Reilly. “You’re not human if you don’t get that nervous energy and butterflies floating around. It was our first game in a year, too, so there was a lot of nervous excitement.”
Reilly’s Lafayette charges didn’t hesitate one bit in getting their rookie coach his first collegiate victory, edging Wagner, 5-3, in the opener on a sunny but bitterly cold 35-degree day.
“It was a good start,” said Reilly. “Wagner is a big challenge and Jimmy (Carone) does a good job with his program. They were prepared as always.”
Righthander Jordan Yoder, a sophomore from Allen, TX, limited Wagner to two runs on five hits over six innings, striking out eight and walking one on the way to earning the victory. Yoder was named the Patriot League’s Pitcher of the Week. Leadoff hitter Justin Grech delivered the key hit, a two run single in the fourth inning that staked Lafayette to a 4-2 lead.
Grech, a freshman center fielder, would in fact go 5-for-8 in the doubleheader, score five runs and drive in three. He led off the first game, in his first college at bat, with a triple. He then led off the second game with a home run. He was named the Patriot League’s Rookie of the Week.
“I’m impressed how our players have handled everything,” said Reilly, “with the snow, the pandemic, practicing separately, practicing on a field hockey field. Our opener was our first time together on a baseball field.”
Wagner, of course, faced the same dilemma since last March and would receive some pandemic recompense of their own in a wild 14-12 victory in the second game. The Seahawks came out hacking and ripped four home runs, three by Seton Hall Prep grad Tyler Sanfilippo, who went 3-for-5 with 7 RBI.
Wagner took a 10-3 lead in the fifth, but Lafayette didn’t flinch, striking for two runs in the bottom of the fifth and five runs in the sixth to draw within 12-10.
“We fought hard that second game and battled to make it tight at the end,” said Reilly. “There were a lot of positives, no doubt. We are playing a lot of young guys in key positions and our sophomores are really freshmen.”
One of those sophomores is Pete Ciuffreda, a Hunterdon Central grad who grew up in the Diamond Jacks program at Diamond Nation. Ciuffreda started both games in right field for the Leopards and delivered four RBI in the second game, including a two-run double in the eighth that shaved the deficit to 14-12.
“It was amazing playing my first college game with my teammates at Diamond Nation,” said Ciuffreda. “After all the adversity we had the past year, I relished the opportunity to play at Diamond Nation.” Ciuffreda estimates he’s played 200 games at the all-turf facility since he was 13 years old. “It’s been a home to me for many years, a place that made me the player I am today.”
Ciuffreda has a large personality and searing passion for baseball and he is quickly making his mark at Lafayette.
“Pete’s been one of our leaders and he’s on our leadership council,” said Reilly. “He’s the best. He’s a team guy and a hard worker. It’s good to see him get going.”
Ciuffreda and his teammates, and Reilly and his staff for that matter, have had to learn new ways to train and prepare on the fly.
“If we’ve learned anything it’s how to be durable and adjust,” says Reilly. “We threw as much at our guys as we could. They lost a year of baseball and this year has been so different. For 18-21 year-olds to handle all of that as well as they have is impressive.”
The Patriot League schedule this season has been beefed up in the interest of limiting travel and overnight stays in hotels. Lafayette players and staff receive COVID tests three days before games. Almost all of Lafayette’s games are on weekends. Testing protocols are specific to each school.
Lafayette has a home-and-home series with Army this weekend. The first two games are scheduled for Diamond Nation on Saturday and Sunday’s single game is set for West Point, N.Y.
“We are hungry for competition and ready to make some noise in the Patriot League,” says Ciuffreda.
NOTES: North Hunterdon grad Justin Johnson, a junior, is Lafayette’s starting shortstop for the third straight season. Johnson led the Leopards with 55 hits his freshman season in 2019. He went 2-for-6, drew two walks, scored five runs and drove in two runs in the doubleheader.