The Bombers baseball squad has secured its second consecutive Empire 8 title — and that win was especially sweet because it came to one of their biggest rivals.
Last season, the St. John Fisher Cardinals accounted for three of the team’s four conference losses and finished 2nd in the conference behind the Bombers. Ithaca Hitting Coach Frank Fazio said the longtime success of both programs has forged the rivalry.
“We’re almost always the two top seeds in the Empire 8, so we really don’t like losing to them, and they don’t like losing to us either,” Fazio said.
In their four-game series at Freeman Field last weekend, the Bombers defeated the Cardinals three times. Each contest was settled by a margin of less than two runs, and two of the Blue and Gold’s three wins came by way of a walk-off hit.
Senior Corey Caswell said beating St. John Fisher is crucial not only for the team’s pride but also for their regional record, which is important come playoff time.
“Basically this rivalry means everything to this team, because if we can beat these guys, it’s a huge victory for us,” Caswell said. “It’s also an ego boost for us throughout the Empire 8 and throughout the New York state region.”
The Empire 8 does not have an automatic qualifier bid into the NCAA tournament, therefore the champion is not guaranteed a playoff spot. Because both teams are ranked in the top four teams in the New York region, beating each other becomes even more important.
Head Coach George Valesente said the competition for an NCAA playoff berth makes the rivalry between the two teams even more tenacious.
“It’s developed into a strong rivalry, because we are both independent teams, so when it comes time for the NCAA tournament bid, we are going to be going against each other for that, so beating them is important in that respect,” Valesente said. “We know a lot of their players, and they know a lot of our guys, and it’s very competitive, very hard-nosed baseball.”
Junior David Jasukonis, who pitched three and 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in the Bombers’ second win, said the intensity of the games was higher than in any other game.
“It’s always a battle when we come out against [St. John Fisher],” Jasukonis said. “They’re having a good year, and it’s always a grind.”
Jasukonis and junior Matt Colbert were the only two relief pitchers that the Bombers’ utilized all weekend. Senior Pat Lemmo and sophomore John Prendergast both threw complete games, and senior Jasper Adams put in seven innings of work before the game went into extra innings.
The Cardinals also had two pitchers throw complete games: juniors Justin D’Amato and Mike Rynerson. The amount of innings pitched by starters is a testament to the close scores of the games.
Adams also discussed the benefits of Ithaca’s home-field advantage. Last year, the Cardinals beat the Bombers all three times at Fisher’s Dugan Yard. The four-game series last weekend was played out at Freeman Field, where the Blue and Gold were previously undefeated. Out of the Bombers’ 25 wins this season, 14 have come on their home field.
“Luckily, we were at home this year,” Adams said. “It’s a big rivalry and a high-intensity matchup.”
Another key for the Bombers last weekend was the offensive efficiency. Though the Blue and Gold only had a total of 25 hits over the weekend, Fazio said the team got hits when they needed them and that their total amount of hits does not reflect the success of the weekend.
“If you only get one hit, make it count,” Fazio said. “If you go 3 for 4 and we win by a bunch of runs, that’s great, but when you can get those big hits, that’s what’s important.”
Caswell said the intensity of the weekend was a typical matchup between the two teams. He said during games against St. John Fisher, previous records don’t matter, and it’s anyone’s game.
“The rivalry is always good, always chippy,” Caswell said. “They bring their game and we bring ours. It really doesn’t matter who is on top [of the conference] at the time, it matters how they finish their game and we finish ours.”