Stony Brook wins over Omaha
OMAHA, Neb. -- Two hours after they landed here via charter flight from Long Island's MacArthur Airport on Wednesday afternoon, Joshua Mason, Michael Hubbard, Brandon McNitt and Zach Uher, all sophomore pitchers on the Stony Brook baseball team, set out from the Embassy Suites hotel in search of food.
They walked south along 10th Street about a mile, past the railroad museum and main post office to Cascio's Steakhouse, a 65-year Omaha institution.
It was closed, still an hour from opening for dinner, but they entered and found owner Alfie Cascio, who was happy to feed the hungry Seawolves. They inhaled onion rings and spinach dip and four shortcut sirloins.
The guys inquired about Rosenblatt Stadium, and Cascio pointed them toward the old home of the College World Series and then to Orsi's Italian Bakery on the way back for a batch of fresh cannolis.[+] EnlargeCrystal LoGiudice/US PresswireThe infatuation with Stony Brook began after it defeated LSU for the trip to Omaha.
"They thought they were at Disney World," Cascio said. "I can tell you that."
Welcome to Omaha.
Later that afternoon, the entire UCLA team visited the same restaurant for dinner and received a message of congratulations phoned in from Philadelphia Phillies All-Star and former Bruin Chase Utley.
But who needs Utley when you've got all of Omaha in your corner?
This city can't get enough of Stony Brook, champion of the America East Conference, winner of the NCAA regional in Coral Gables, Fla., the Baton Rouge super regional and the hearts of Omaha.
The Seawolves, from the North Shore of Long Island 50 miles from Manhattan, are the Cinderella of the 66th College World Series.
They lost 9-1 to UCLA in the opening game Friday at TD Ameritrade Park. Regardless, Stony Brook has earned a place in CWS lore.
It received an ovation when introduced and support throughout the game. Not since Nebraska last appeared at the CWS in 2005 has the hometown of this event so enthusiastically backed one participant.
"This is certainly something I've never experienced before," said Stony Brook coach Matt Senk, named Friday as the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association coach of the year. "We were forewarned that this might be the case, but the reaction has been beyond my wildest dreams."
The infatuation with Stony Brook began just as it secured the program's first CWS visit on Sunday with a 7-2 win over longtime Omaha favorite LSU. Even the LSU fans got involved, encouraging the Seawolves to take a lap around Alex Box Stadium.
Before Stony Brook left Louisiana, LSU, 15-time CWS visitors since 1986, spilled its secrets about how to best experience Omaha. And upon the team's arrival, three motorcycles, again courtesy of LSU's fan base, escorted the two team buses from the airport to the hotel.
Along the way, they rolled past the downtown ballpark. Senk missed the moment while answering a text message -- one of many dozens he received this week -- from an old friend.
The New York newspapers jumped on board Stony Brook's "Shock the World" bandwagon. Newsday displayed the Seawolves on its back cover on Friday, billed above Tiger Woods' strong start in the U.S. Open.
"New York pays attention to a winner," said Rob Emmerich, Stony Brook associate athletic director for external operations.
Alumni took notice nationally, with watch parties hurriedly organized in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere to support the upstart Seawolves.
Publicity generated from the baseball team, school administrators said, has serve as a huge boon to the university in general, which, in December, received a $150 million gift from hedge fund billionaire James Simons, the sixth-largest donation ever to an American public university.
This latest wave of attention, though, paled in comparison to what awaited the Stony Brook players and coaches in Omaha as they counted the hours to Friday afternoon.[+] EnlargeMitch Sherman/ESPNStony Brook's Travis Jankowski said people told him Omaha would surpass even lofty expectations.
"People told me I was going to expect a lot and then find out that it's so much more," Stony Brook center fielder Travis Jankowski said.
Stony Brook hats became a hot item two days before the Seawolves landed. Concern struck some vendors that the school -- without an apparel contract on par with the normal CWS participant -- might not produce an adequate supply.
Hats did arrive. And sold fast. By Friday, a few remained in one souvenir shop outside the ballpark. Stony Brook players out for dinner encountered a group of players from South Carolina, two-time defending national champions. They wanted to trade hats.
"We couldn't believe it," said Maxx Tissenbaum, junior second baseman for Stony Brook.
The stories continued. Fans traded the father of right fielder Sal Intagliata a set of parking passes on Friday for his Stony Brook hat.
"The people here are just insane," Frank Intagliata said. "I think for the players, this has got to be like a magic carpet ride."
Thursday at the pre-CWS autograph session, fans formed a line that stretched the length of the concourse behind third base. The Seawolves had to turn people away.
The scene amazed Senk.
Before all of this happened, Sal Intagliata, a senior pre-med student from Franklin Square, N.Y., who hit his second home run of the year in the super regional, hoped his career might end with a second visit to an NCAA regional.
Stony Brook had won one postseason game in three appearances before this month. As much as Omaha fell for the Seawolves, they bit hard, too.
"It's been like a dream," Intagliata said. "Being here is like the feeling I had when I was a little kid and went to a Yankees game for the first time."[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Eric FrancisStony Brook proved popular for autograph seekers.
The Stony Brook players, many from New York and other parts of the Northeast, were awestruck over meeting ESPN commentator Nomar Garciaparra at the opening ceremonies. They looked curiously at the names on press passes while they were interviewed Thursday after their practice session.
Tissenbaum, before curfew on Stony Brook's first night in Omaha, walked with a few teammates from the hotel to TD Ameritrade Park.
Security recognized them and ushered the players to the gates outside center field, where they stuck cell phones through the fence and snapped photos of the field. Tissenbaum caught a glimpse of the left-field bullpen, its wall adorned with the logos of the eight teams in Omaha.
Stony Brook hung between South Carolina and UCLA.
Tissenbaum noticed those logos last year on TV as he watched at the home of his host family in Orleans, Mass., while playing in the Cape Cod League.
"I remember thinking that was so cool," he said.
Senk, the 22nd-year coach who took over when Stony Brook played in Division III, said the Seawolves felt nothing like underdogs. After all, their 52 wins lead the nation. Still, he adopted a line from "Hoosiers" in discussing strategy before the game.
"The bases are still 90 feet," Senk said Thursday. "The pitcher rubber is still 60 feet, 6 inches."
Then, almost on cue, UCLA pounced on the Seawolves early, scoring five runs in the first inning. The Bruins struck on Jeff Gelalich's two-run single off ace pitcher Tyler Johnson and led 3-0 before he recorded an out. Johnson lasted 2 1/3 innings, his shortest outing of the season.
Stony Brook plays Sunday against Arizona or Florida State in a 5 p.m. ET elimination game.
For a team that bused this year nine hours to Maine and 10 hours to East Carolina, that's not too bad.
Omaha will remember the Seawolves. And the feeling is mutual.
"Unforgettable," said Jankowski, drafted 44th overall this month by the Padres. "I'll cherish every moment, because it'll never happen again."
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ROAD TO OMAHA