WEST WINDSOR, N.J. -- An improbable turn of events snatched the East Coast Conference baseball title from UMBC, so the Retrievers will spend an anxious week hoping for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
On Sunday night, coach John Jancuska's fence-busters were 3-0 in the double-elimination tournament, one win away from becoming the first team to represent UMBC in an NCAA championship since the Retrievers moved up to Division I in 1986. Rider, however, rose up to take two straight from UMBC, earning its sixth ECC title in the past 10 years with yesterday's 5-4 victory at Mercer County Park.
UMBC came into the tournament with the second-best team batting average in Division I, .359. On Sunday night, in a 2-1 loss to Rider, it was held to one hit by Brian Bernhard, who entered with a 7.77 ERA. Yesterday the Retrievers left 13 on base, two in each of the last three innings.
"We felt very confident after beating Towson State [8-1] Sunday," UMBC junior catcher Bob Mumma said. "Rider had two great pitching performances and got the key hits, and we didn't."
Fourth-seeded Rider (18-33), which was 0-16 before a March 29 win at UMBC, gained the NCAA berth in what probably was the last function of the lame-duck ECC. Broncs coach Sonny Pittaro, one of nine men on the NCAA selection committee, said he will be politicking to get the Retrievers (37-11) into the 48-team field that will be announced Monday.
"They have a better record than we did did a year ago," said Pittaro, referring to Rider's receiving an at-large bid in 1991 after losing the conference title to Towson State. "They're a great team and they've got balance."
The Retrievers, who had six ECC all-stars compared with none for Rider, fell short in several areas yesterday. Rider starter Jim Schlotter issued seven walks in 7 1/3 innings, but UMBC only could reach him for single runs in the third, fourth, seventh and eighth innings.
Sophomore first baseman Shawn Shugars' home run to right cut Rider's lead to 4-3 in the seventh. The Broncs got a 5-3 lead and what proved to be the winning run in the bottom of the seventh, when tournament MVP Shawn Brown scored an unearned run off freshman left-hander Kevin Loewe. He came on in the fifth for starter Craig Grasser, who gave up a two-run homer to Mike Reenock in the fourth.
Dan Sexton, UMBC's No. 9 hitter, got his second RBI single in the eighth, but the Retrievers squandered two-on, one-out situations in that inning and the ninth, as Rider's nondescript pitching held on.
"We had our opportunities, but we didn't capitalize," Jancuska said. "Our strength all year has been that we score runs, but you can't wait for them to come; you have to make them happen. This doesn't detract from a great season, and politics is the only reason we shouldn't go to the NCAAs."