Barry Davis called it “the worst season in my 30-year career” as a collegiate baseball coach.
In 2018, Davis’s Rider University baseball team went 12-35, and the record was the least of its problems. Once things went south on the field, the Broncs’ players brought a negative attitude to practices, if they came at all.
But the entire disaster, the bad record, the negative attitude and the lack of commitment, turned out to be exactly what Davis and his program needed.
At 13-22, this year’s Broncs have already won more games than last year’s club, and that’s with 19 games still to go in the regular season. More importantly though, the Broncs have committed to the program and remained positive even through losses.
“Last year it was, ‘I’m doing this for me’ or ‘I don’t want this guy to succeed,'” said Rider senior first baseman Riley Mihalik. “This year we want the guys next to us to succeed.”
Davis, who is in his 15th season leading the Broncs, has had a solid career at the Division 1 program. Rider won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s regular season title in 2013 and 2015.
But last spring, Rider lost 12 games by one run and five other contests by two runs.
“So 17 losses by a combined 22 runs,” Davis said. “If your attitude is good, you win nine or 10 of those games and make the (MAAC) tournament.”
As the losses piled up, the players lost interest and the apathy festered.
“I did not handle it well last year either,” Davis said. “If I’m in charge, I’m the one that’s got to fix it.”
So in the offseason, Davis gathered his coaching staff and had an intervention.
“We basically went in a room for eight hours and went over every aspect of the program, starting with each other,” Davis said. “The first word that came out was, ‘attitude.’ Then ‘consistency.'”
Davis’s players agreed that they slacked in 2018, and that they had to enter the new season with a better, more consistent mindset. The coaches also added a host of new players, eight freshmen, four junior college transfers and a fifth year graduate school transfer, who were known to be high character guys.
The old and new Broncs came into 2019 ready to restore respectability to the program. They started from the first practice in January and never stopped.
“The attitude has been exceptional,” Davis said. “This year’s team is focused.”
“This year we clearly defined our goals, made a plan and are trying to execute it,” Mihalik added.
Their goals are to get back to the MAAC Tournament and win it. The six-team double elimination tournament will take place on Memorial Day Weekend, May 22-25, at Richmond County Bank Ballpark in Staten Island.
Rider is in seventh place in the conference standings with about a month left in the regular season. The Broncs are very much within striking distance of qualifying for the tournament.
“When you get in any tournament, you got a chance,” Davis said.
The Broncs will have a chance because they are a strong offensive team.
Mihalik, a potential Major League Baseball draft pick, has a .412 on-base percentage, eight home runs and 56 runs created (30 runs batted in, 26 runs scored). Catcher Mike Ionta, the grad student, and catcher Chris Roan, a junior, also have on-base percentages above .350.
Outfielder Sebastian Williamson, outfielder Jack Peterson, infielder Kyle Johnson and outfielder Joe Simone, all juniors, and shortstop Richie Tecco, a senior, have each produced 28 runs or more.
With this deep, balanced lineup, Davis just has to get decent pitching. That’s what the Broncs are working on as the season enters its home stretch. Only junior Pete Soporowski and sophomore Joe Papeo have earned run averages under 4.00.
“Our depth isn’t there on the mound,” Davis said. “But as young guys get better, we could be hard to handle.”
But no matter how far the Broncs get, their program is strong again. High school players will no longer look at Rider and see a doormat.
It could have gone that way after last season, but Davis and his players prevented that.
“We’ve made a culture,” Tecco said. “Accountability and competitiveness.”
“Everyone has bought in,” added Soporowski. “And you can see we’re doing the little things correct.”