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New coach has Manhattan College in thick of MAAC race

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As the calendar flipped to May, and with the finish line of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season in sight, there weren’t many who expected to see Manhattan in shouting distance of first place in the conference.

Certainly not the other 10 coaches in the conference who placed the Jaspers 10th in the MAAC preseason poll. And maybe even some Jaspers players, who slogged their way through a forgettable 18-35 season last year. 

But first-year head coach Mike Cole doesn’t put a lot of stock in polls and past performance. Instead, his “Why not us?” mentality has permeated the Jaspers program since he took over last fall. 

So count Cole among those who are not at all surprised to see the Jaspers tied for fourth place in the MAAC, a mere two games behind front-running Quinnipiac.

“From being in the league the last couple of years, I knew what was here from a talent standpoint,” said Cole, who was the associate head coach at MAAC-rival Fairfield the past five seasons. “Some guys have surprised me and have been better than I thought they would be. But I thought we could do what we’re doing, especially after the fall practice. So I kind of expected to be where we are.”

The biggest hurdle since coming to Riverdale, Cole said, was to convince a team that lost twice as many games as it won last year that they did indeed have talent.

“The biggest thing for me and the rest of the coaching staff was we had to make these guys understand that they are pretty good and that they could compete with anybody in our conference,” Cole said. 

“And I think they bought into that, and that’s a big reason why we are where we are.”

Where they are is sitting with a 9-6 mark in the MAAC, tied for fourth place with Monmouth. The Jaspers currently trail third-place Marist by one game and second-place Canisius by a game and a half. 

The series loss to Monmouth last weekend was Manhattan’s first in conference play this season after the Jaspers won four straight series against St. Peter’s, Siena, Fairfield and Rider. It’s that kind of gritty play that Cole says has changed the way his players approach the game now.

“When they step on the field, our guys expect to win,” Cole said. “We’re playing with confidence. We have some older guys that have been through it and understand that baseball is a long season. There’s going to be some ups and there are going to be some downs. So from a confidence standpoint, I think all of them expect to compete for a MAAC championship at the end of the year.”

Cole knew what to expect from some of his players coming in. Guys like Brendan Bisset, who is tied for the team lead with 48 hits. Matt Forlow, who is tops on the team with 15 doubles and 34 RBIs. And Fabian Peña, who leads the team with five homers, and is second with 29 RBIs. 

But there have been some surprises as well with junior Richie Barrella tying Bisset for the team lead in hits, while freshman Matt Padre is second on the team with three homers and 19 RBIs.

But the biggest surprise has been how effective the Jaspers pitching staff has been this season with three players in particular who Cole believes have helped solidify the group.

“Our pitching staff is better than what people thought it was going to be with guys like Matt Simonetti, Joey Jacques and T.J. Stuart,” Cole said. “Matt has been great for us. At one point, he went about 30 innings without giving up a run. 

“And then there’s T.J. Stuart, who is arguably the MAAC pitcher of the year. He’s got seven saves and five wins, and an ERA right around 2.00. And Jacques is one of the top three or four pitchers in the league.”

Simonetti is currently 4-4 with a 3.55 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings. Stuart is 5-1 and is limiting opposing hitters to a .152 average, while Jacques boasts a 1.64 ERA with 25 punchouts in 22 innings.

“The guys have really worked hard,” Cole said. 

“We have 38 kids in the program right now, and I think we have 38 guys going in the same direction.“

With a pair of three-game series coming up versus Marist this weekend and Canisius the next, followed by the regular-season finale series at Niagara beginning May 17, there are still ample opportunities for the Jaspers to pull off what many thought was not possible — winning the regular-season title, and grabbing the top seed in the MAAC tournament.

Who’d a thunk it?

“We talked about that from Day One,” Cole said. “I’m not going to hide behind anything. We’re not trying to come in seventh place. Our guys believe that we can do something special this year.”

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