After falling one game short of the Division III College World Series in 2022, the No. 19 ranked Ithaca College baseball team made its return to the diamond Feb. 24 with a 16–8 win over Immaculata University.
Last season, the Bombers finished with an overall record of 34–14, winning their first Liberty League Championship since joining the conference in 2020. The team also advanced to the Super Regional Championship for the first time since 2013, which the team hosted May 27 and 28, 2022. In the end, the Bombers came within one win of the World Series, falling to the Catholic University Cardinals two games to one at the Ithaca Super Regional on May 29.
Head coach David Valesente said the team will look to create momentum off last year’s historic season, looking to maintain its composure and control upon returning to the postseason.
“We need to build off of the successful season last year while still holding that high expectation and standard of winning,” Valesente said. “We want to compete at a high level nationally and have fun while also representing the college in a professional way.”
Valesente said the team will be challenged with a tough schedule early on — with six games against ranked teams before March 18 — especially once the Liberty League portion of the schedule rolls around.
“It’s certainly exciting being back and competing in the Liberty League again,” Valesente said. “We’re playing a really competitive schedule. We’re really excited about our early season Florida trip and hopefully, the weather holds up so we can get four to six games in before the trip.”
Senior outfielder Matt Fabian said helping out the team by utilizing his positional skills around the diamond is one of his biggest goals for this season.
“Being able to play all four positions; first, third, center field and right field at the highest level is a big goal of mine,” Fabian said. “Being flexible and able to bounce around when needed to help the team is important to me.”
Fabian said that focusing on plate discipline is another huge goal in mind, both individually and as a team, trying to improve the offensive statistics. In 2022, Fabian had an improved batting average of .359 in 44 games, up from .197 in 2021. Fabian also hit four home runs and drove in 39 runs on 55 hits in 153 at bats in his 2022 season.
“We want to have a team batting average of .330 or higher as that will do us a lot of good on the offensive side of the ball,” Fabian said. “Trying to limit the strikeouts and making hard contact to see some growth.”
Sophomore pitcher Colin Leyner said he is looking to provide an impact on the mound to boost the starting rotation.
“I’m looking to have significant innings on the mound contributing to wins more,” Leyner said. “Improving on my stats from last year, lowering my ERA and minimizing the walks to help secure more wins for the team.”
In his rookie season in 2022, Leyner finished with 14 appearances, posting an impressive 7–1 record with a 3.68 earned run average, 55 strikeouts and 22 walks in 63.2 innings pitched, allowing 51 hits and pitching one complete game.
Leyner said that coming up a game short of the World Series was tough, but that this team has what it takes to repeat as Liberty League champions and make it back to the big stage.
“We just have to be ourselves and let our games speak for itself,” Leyner said. “We can’t be too overconfident coming off of last year, we can’t take anyone lightly, really just staying focused every game. As long as we’re doing what we need to do to win, there’s no game that we shouldn’t lose and there should be no reason we shouldn’t win another Liberty League Championship.”
As a team in 2022, the Bombers showed some versatility offensively. The team led the Liberty League with a .322 batting average and tallied 530 hits, scoring a total of 382 runs with 28 home runs and 766 total bases.
As for the pitching staff, the South Hill squad posted a 4.95 earned run average, second in the Liberty League behind the University of Rochester. The team allowed 406 hits in 409 total innings pitched, also pitching five complete games. The starting rotation will be anchored by returning senior Kyle Lambert, returning for one last season.
Valesente said he is looking forward to seeing several players step up into bigger roles this season, after posting strong stat lines in 2022.
“I’m excited about all of our guys in terms of their roles last year,” Valesente said. “Offensively, we have the reigning Liberty League Rookie of the Year [sophomore infielder] Connor Pederson, we also have [junior outfielder/infielder] Louis Fabbo, Matt Fabian and several other guys. Defensively, our starting catcher senior Gil Merod is back, several of our pitchers, including Liberty League Pitcher of the Year Kyle Lambert returning for one more season, Colin Leyner as well as a couple of new additions and relievers we are excited about stepping up.”
Fabian is one of those players stepping into a new role. As an upperclassman on the team, Fabian said he is looking to provide a new level of leadership and increased intensity both on and off the field.
“I have a unique level of intensity on the field and I’m very passionate about the game,” Fabian said. “I hold myself to an extremely high standard, playing both a verbal and personal leadership role and I really value having personal relationships with each of the guys. Being passionate, leading in a fearless and confident way as confidence is everything in this game.”
Valesente said the team is putting 2022 in the rearview mirror, focusing on this season one game at a time.
“We’re not really worried about last year as it’s done and in the past,” Valesente said. “We’re trying to go practice to practice and game to game. Our expectations are to play at a high level and compete nationally and everything else will take care of itself.”
Fabian said the team should stick to what they do best in order to play up to their expectations.
“We don’t have to do anything outside of what we’re capable of doing,” Fabian said. “The team, the coaches and culture we have created is us and we need to keep being team guys. Being short-minded, not letting the lows get too low while also celebrating the highs. Understanding the success of baseball is rich, as well as not overthinking the failure side of the game.”