Photos courtesy of Seton Hall University
One day after Seton Hall University dedicated its newly refurbished baseball stadium in the name of Mike Sheppard, Sr., the Pirates went out and did something even more meaningful to their head coach, Rob Sheppard.
The Pirates defeated Fairleigh Dickinson, 13-3, in the very first game played at Mike Sheppard, Sr. Stadium at Owen T. Carroll Field on Wednesday. The beautiful new stadium was filled with fans donning Seton Hall blue and they had plenty to cheer about.
The Pirates knocked out 11 hits in the game and jumped out to a 12-0 lead after five innings all the while getting outstanding efforts in the two areas their coach considers most critical, pitching and defense.
Longtime Seton Hall University baseball coach Mike Sheppard, Sr. died less than a year ago, on April 6, 2019, leaving behind an unparalleled baseball coaching progeny. Appropriately, Shep’s wife, Phyllis, and brother-in-law Ted Fiore, another legendary New Jersey coach, each delivered a first pitch prior to the game.
“It was a special day,” said Rob Sheppard, “and bittersweet. “Shep would have loved to be here to see this stadium. He would have gotten a big kick out of it. This would have been a treat for him.”
Seton Hall played its home games last year at St. John’s University while Owen T. Carroll field was being refurbished.
Rob Sheppard first served as an assistant under his dad before taking the Seton Hall head coaching reins in 2003. The senior Sheppard amassed a 998-540-11 record over 31 seasons (1973-’03) at Seton Hall, guiding the Pirates to 15 Big East Tournament appearances and 12 trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Mike Sheppard, Sr.’s teams reached the College World Series in 1974 and ’75 and won a Big East title in 1987 with future major leaguers Craig Biggio, Mo Vaughn and John Valentin. Sheppard, Sr.’s son John Sheppard was the shortstop on that powerhouse 1987 team. All three of Sheppard’s sons, Mike, Jr., the Seton Hall Prep coach, John, the Morristown Beard coach, and Rob, played for their dad at Seton Hall. Daughters Susan and Kathy also were graduated from Seton Hall University. All of the Sheppard children were present on Tuesday to see the Pirates break in their new stadium with a flourish.
Rob Sheppard wears No. 40 today in honor of his father, who wore the number early in his career before switching to No. 17.
“It was very cathartic,” said Rob Sheppard of the stadium-opening victory. “My dad made a lot of memories right here on this field. Today was great to share with my family. Everyone was here.”
Sheppard, Sr. would have enjoyed the team’s performance on Wednesday. The Pirates received an outstanding start from junior lefthander Tyler Burnham (photo at top of page), a pair of fine defensive plays by center fielder Tyler Shedler-McAvoy and clutch hits by Casey Dana, Connor Hood, Thomas Holdorf and Steve Grober.
And freshman Devin Hack contributed mightily from the No. 9 spot in the batting order.
The Fairleigh Dickinson starting pitcher, righthander Bobby Pigozzi, issued five walks in the first inning while Dana’s two-run double and an RBI single by Shedler-McAvoy broke the inning open. Seton Hall sent 11 batters to the plate in the first inning and nine more to bat in the second when it tacked on four more runs. Holdorf and Grober delivered back-to-back RBI doubles and Hack followed with a run-scoring single in the second inning rally.
Hack, groomed as a youth at Diamond Nation in Flemington and at Somerville High School, has had a nice start to his college career and chipped in with two walks to go with his RBI single. He also lined out hard to center field in his final at bat.
“It was great to win the first game at our new field,” said Hack. “We played the kind of game coach Sheppard deserved.”
Hack was pleased with his swings after having worked with assistant coach Mark Pappas to fine tune some issue of late. “I was pulling off the ball,” said Hack. “I worked in the cage with coach Pap’ and was able to carry that over to the game. It paid off with that RBI.”
Coach Sheppard concurred: “We knew Devin was an impact guy when we recruited him. “He’s the type of player who fits us well. And he can play multiple positions.”
Missing from the middle of the Seton Hall lineup was first baseman Matt Toke, who injured a groin muscle stretching for a throw in the second game of a doubleheader against St. Mary of California last Friday. Toke, a senior, has batted third in the Pirates lineup much of his career.
“It felt a lot worse at the time than it turned out to be,” said Toke, like Hack, a longtime Diamond Jack out of Diamond Nation. “But it’s responded real well to rehab and a cortisone shot. At first we were thinking I’d be down 2-3 weeks. Now I feel like I can get back by the middle of next week.”
Seton Hall (6-8) had entered its first home game of the season having lost two games in a row and seven out of nine, taking some lumps on its trip to California. It did boast victories over USC and St. Mary’s but lost a few close ones that could have turned the trip around.
“Obviously we needed a win but I always feel we need a win,” said Sheppard. “We learned a lot from our California trip. Today we had good pitching and good defense. If we can do that, we’ll find enough offense to win. A lot of guys swung the bat well today.”
NOTES: Burnham was terrific after permitting a leadoff single to Justin Sierra and hitting Nate Brodsky with a pitch in the top of the first inning. The East Brunswick grad retired the next nine batters in order. He struck out the side in the second inning and finished his three-inning shutout performance with five strikeouts. … Seton Hall used eight pitchers in all and permitted just three runs, two of which were earned, on five hits, striking out six and walking three. … Seton Hall sophomore righthander Alex Nicolosi was removed from the game immediately after a Sierra lined drive hit his throwing hand. Sheppard said Nicolosi was headed for x-rays.
… Hood was 2-for-3 and scored three runs, Holdorf went 2-for-4, drove in two runs and scored, sophomore David Haberman was 1-for-2, drove in a run, drew two walks and scored three runs. … Sierra had two singles and an RBI for FDU (3-9) and was robbed of another hit when Shedler-McAvoy made a diving grab in shallow right-center field in the third inning. … Seton Hall turned two double plays and FDU turned one.
… There was a heck of a lot of coaching wins at Mike Sheppard, Sr. Stadium on Wednesday. The Sheppard boys and uncle Ted Fiore have combined for thousands of coaching victories on the high school and college level. Mike, Sr.’s spirit and 998 victories at Seton Hall University were omnipresent at the home opener. The victory by the Pirates gave Rob Sheppard his 448th career win. Brother Mike, Jr. boasts 790 wins at Seton Hall Prep. Brother John has more than 400 wins at Morristown-Beard. Ted Fiore, the former St. Peter’s College and Montclair State basketball coach, plus a baseball coach at Our Lady of the Valley (Orange) and Cedar Grove high schools, boasts at least 894 total career victories. That’s more than 3,500 wins for the family. And cousin Tim Byron wasn’t in the house with his 500-plus baseball victories at Old Tappan High School.