By Mike Zhe firstname.lastname@example.org May 28, 2019 at 5:40 PM
It was a nervous summer for Jake Lebel.Sure, there were moments. The former Marshwood High School standout and South Berwick, Maine, native was productive for the Nashua Silver Knights in the Futures League, leading the team in home runs (five) and RBIs (23), and winning the Home Run Derby at the league’s All-Star Game.
But with his senior season at the New York Institute of Technology approaching, uncertainty loomed. NYIT hired a new manager, former big-leaguer Frank Catalanotto, in June.
Lebel, a rising senior first baseman, knew that new managers often lean heavily on younger players to reset the team’s foundation. He knew one of the incoming freshmen, Trey Moran, was highly-touted coming out of La Salle Academy in Rhode Island and played his position.
“I was extremely nervous,” said Lebel. “The same thing happened in high school when coach (Eric) Fernandes left. It was kind of the same feeling.”
And the feeling now? Like nothing Lebel has experienced before.
Two years after hitting rock bottom in the program’s final season in Division I, and one year after beginning a tenure in D-II with an underwhelming 13-25-1 mark, Lebel and the Bears are sitting on 37 wins and heading to the eight-team College World Series, which opens on Saturday in Cary, N.C.
They won three straight games to capture their NCAA Regional, then swept Southern New Hampshire over the weekend to win their Super Regional in Manchester.
“We really felt like it was going to be a couple of years before we started winning a lot,” said Catalanotto, who played 14 seasons in the majors. “To be where we are right now — one of eight teams in the whole country — it’s unbelievable.”
The Bears (37-14) will open the double-elimination tournament Saturday (7 p.m.) against Colorado Mesa (50-10), the top-seeded team in the CWS.
The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Lebel, who is batting .365 and is tied for the team lead with seven home runs, homered during each of NYIT’s first two regional wins, which were the program’s first NCAA games in 36 years. He has 50 hits and 34 RBIs and is slashing .365/.435/.642 despite missing a fifth of the season after straining a calf muscle.
“This year’s been great,” he said. “The numbers kind of speak for themselves.”
To appreciate the rarefied air NYIT is breathing, consider what they were inhaling just two years ago.
Lebel played on winners at Marshwood, both in baseball, which reached a pair of Class A South finals, and football, which won state championships with him playing tight end/defensive line as a junior and senior. He came up through the USA Mavericks program, eventually suiting up for its Futures League team.
So after a freshman spring that saw him struggle to adjust to Division I pitching (a .144 batting average in 36 games) things got even worse the next year when the team went 5-36-1 in its D-I exit season. Thirteen of the losses came by eight runs or more; the team was getting pounded.
“It was definitely the low point of my career,” said Lebel. “At Marshwood we were always a force to be reckoned with. The year I played with the (Seacoast) Mavericks with Ben (Bizier) we were good.
“It was hard on me. I had conversations with my parents about giving up baseball. I had trouble with losing every single day and dealing with the pain of losing.”
Now, he’s glad he stuck it out. He said he’s made memories and friends that he feels will last forever. He graduated last weekend with a degree in business administration, with a focus on management. If more baseball is a possibility, either through next week’s draft or in independent ball, he wants to jump on it.
“I’m hoping baseball can still be an option,” he said. “I’ve talked to some scouts here and there.”
And his summer concerns about what a new manager would mean to NYIT were erased quickly in the fall. “Coach Cat” is big on the mental aspect of baseball, from hitters going up to the plate with a plan in place to players moving on quickly from failures.
“He brings a big-league mentality to the practices and games,” said Lebel. “I remember watching him on TV playing against David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez. He just brings the mentality that he played with.”
The Bears will be the underdogs at CWS and opening against one of the best programs in Division II. Chris Hanks has built Colorado Mesa into a power, the team winning at least 40 games in each of the last six seasons and finishing as the NCAA runner-up in 2014.
Colorado Mesa’s nickname? The Mavericks.
“We know these are the best eight teams in the country, so there won’t be any easy games,” Catalanotto said. “But the way we’ve been playing lately we feel like we can beat anyone.”
NYIT has some firepower, too, averaging 7.6 runs a game. Redshirt freshman EJ Cumbo (.453, seven homers, 44 RBIs) was named Player of the Year in the East Coast Conference. He was joined on the first team by outfielder John LaRocca (.362-4-40) and pitcher DJ Masuck (12-1, 2.49 ERA). Lebel was picked for the second team for the second year in a row.
In Saturday’s clincher at SNHU, Lebel made the putouts on the first two plays in the ninth, his team holding a 6-3 lead. When the last batter popped up to shortstop Ben McNeill, the Bears unleashed a celebration years in the making.
“I’m still a little shocked,” said Lebel, a few days later, “but it’s starting to set in that we’re going to the College World Series, that we’re one of the eight best teams.”