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May 29, 2012As the Black Knights dog-piled at the pitcher's mound last Tuesday, this year's Army team solidified their position as one of the best to ever pass through the program and the Patriot League. With a school and league record 41 wins to their credit, the team and players have racked up a grocery cart full of accolades.
But then again, this is nothing new for the Army baseball team. The list of achievements over the past decade is nothing short of extraordinary for an Academy team. In that time frame, Army has made 4 NCAA appearances, beaten Navy 9 straight years, won the regular season crown 5 times, had 7 players drafted, won their first three NCAA tournament games in the program's history, advanced to the regional finals for the first time and the list goes on.
But the story started before the dominance began in the spring of 2004. It actually began in the spring of 2001. With the dismissal of the previous head coach, Joe Sottolano was elevated to the head coaching position for the remainder of the season. A gritty group, the 2001 team fought their way back in the standings and earned a berth in the 2001 Patriot League Championships. In Annapolis, Army upset the top-ranked Mids, earning the first of many NCAA appearances for Sottolano. Despite bowing out early in the regionals, the stage was set for a culture change at Doubleday Field.
The 2002 team was a mix of seasoned veterans and a talented group of freshmen, very similar to this year's team. Army struggled out of the gates that year, but as the freshmen matured, the light came on and Army made a blistering run at the playoffs. Despite winning their last 8 Patriot League contests, the 11-9 record was good for fourth place, one win shy of qualifying for the postseason in the old format. The Black Knights won 12 of their final 13 games, and began to emerge as a dangerous threat in the Patriot League.
The 2003 had a very different makeup than the 2002 squad, but found itself in a very similar situation. With just one senior and one junior on the squad, the 2003 team took a while to find their legs as the plebes on the roster struggled to adjust to the college game. And again, they would come up just one win shy of qualifying for the postseason.
And then, just like that, it happened
2004 saw the arrival of yet another strong Sottolano recruiting class. Although many thought they were a year away from dominance, Army wasted little time in proving the critics wrong. The Black Knights ended #12 Florida's school record 17-game winning streak with a 9-5 upset of the Gators, and then proceeded to hand Big Ten member Iowa a 6-2 loss three days later.
After dropping the Patriot League opener to Lehigh, Army rattled off 16 consecutive wins, upping their conference record to 12-1 before dropping one game at Holy Cross. Army responded by winning 8 of their next 9, securing the #1 seed in the tournament that year. Leaving little to doubt, Army swept Lafayette out of the tournament with a decisive 15-3 win in the second and final game of the series. After dropping an opening round game 9-0 to LSU in the regionals, Army suffered a heart-breaking 2-1 loss to the College of Charleston in the second round to end the season.
2005 was more of the same for Army's opponents, as the Black Knights lost just one player from the 2004 championship squad and added yet another strong recruiting class. Unanimously picked to advance to the NCAAs for the second straight year, Army shrugged off an early 1-5 record and picked up 10 straight victories. Taking just two games from the league opener against Lehigh, Army again bore down and picked up 25 wins in their next 28 games, including a 15 game winning streak that again secured them a #1 seed in the conference tournament. This year's victim was Lehigh, which Army swept out of Doubleday with two decisive wins and punched the Black Knights' second straight ticket to the NCAAs. Drawing Florida State in the first round, Army was dedicated to proving they belonged on the national stage. Sophomore Nick Hill twirled a gem for Army, but an errant pickoff attempt in the late innings gave Florida State the go-ahead run en route to a 3-2 defeat of Army. Army would make history the next afternoon, picking up the school's first ever NCAA win with an 8-5 defeat of South Alabama. The magic was up the next day, as Army bowed out to Auburn 12-3.
Although the 2006 team picked up 30 wins for the third time in school history, the squad again finished one game out of the postseason. The 2007 team was loaded with talent, but fell in the conference championship to Lafayette. The 2008 team also fell in the conference tournament, but 2009 was the year Army would re-emerge on the scene.
After a 1-5 start to the Patriot League schedule, Army raced back into contention with a series win over Navy and a sweep of Lehigh. Another series win over Lafayette put Army in the postseason, where they dispatched of Holy Cross and Lafayette to earn yet another NCAA appearance. After dropping a hard-fought 3-1 decision to Texas, Army posted victories against Texas State and Boston College to earn their way to the school's first ever regional final. Leading the #1 national seed Texas Longhorns 10-6 in the bottom of the 9th, the Army bullpen faltered, giving up the lead before a Texas grand slam abruptly ended Army's party.
The 2010 and 2011 Army teams had talent to burn, but never really found their way in the conference tournament. Despite capturing the league title, Bucknell bounced the 2010 squad with a 2-1 series win in the first round, and Navy ended Army's 2011 season with a 2-1 series win in the Championship Series.
And then, 2012 happened
With a plethora of freshmen thrust into the college game, Army was picked to finish third in this year's standings. With a season opening date at Navy looming, some fans wondered if the Navy streak would end at eight. The young Knights went to Annapolis and swept the Mids, and proceeded to repeat the feat against Lehigh, Lafayette, and Bucknell each of the next three weekends. During that span, Army was ranked nationally for the first time in program history, and splitting the final series with Holy Cross earned this year's team the distinction of the best Patriot League record in conference history. After a quick dispatching of Lafayette in the opening round of the playoffs, Army then battled through a tough Holy Cross team to earn their 5th NCAA appearance in the last 11 years.
It was announced Monday that Army would travel to Charlottesville, Virginia to take on the Cavaliers of UVA. While the ultimate outcome for this year's team is uncertain, one thing is certain: Army will remain a perennial contender to win the Patriot League crown every year under Joe Sottolano.
With another strong recruiting class heading to Army next month, the program will look to replace a talented senior class with a group of hungry freshmen eager to take their place in the winning tradition at Doubleday Field. The bar has been set high, but the best is yet to come for Army Baseball.
What The Captains Are Saying
For senior captain and catcher JT Watkins, his final year has presented him with two emotional highs ... heading to the regional and graduation. How is the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) native handling the roller coaster ride? "Right now, I'm really focused on the Regionals and I'm ready to get down there and play ball," says Watkins, who became a West Point graduate just three days prior.
"The graduation was great and everything. Obviously I worked hard for it for four years, but I've also worked to get to the regional every single year since I've been here. It's been my ultimate team goal and I'm really looking forward to getting down there and playing, competing against good teams."
As the Black Knights get ready to open up against University of Virginia on Friday night, Watkins and fellow teammates have begun to put the regular season behind them and focus on taking on their
"This season has been great so far ... we've had a lot of guys step up and we've had some great individuals efforts," he adds. "I think we had everyone pulling the same direction and that's been great to see. I think that has been the biggest reason for our success so far this year."
For those who have followed Army through the 2012 campaign or perhaps seeing them play for the first time, don't mention the word "underdog" ... it's not part of this team's mindset or temperament. "We try to see every game like it's a championship game, so it's really no different for us," offers the catcher. "It's just another baseball game and it would be no different had we scheduled UVA in the regular season. So really, we are just looking forward to getting down there and playing what we have been practicing all along."
"Like I said, it's always our goals to make the tournament, which is awesome," shares captain Zach Price. "But our first goal is to win that conference championship (Patriot League) every year, but that championship is in the past. So we got to where we wanted to be, which is in a position to win the NCAA tournament. So we treat it like any other game."
Like Watkins, Price has had to effectively manage the heighten emotions swirling in the winds around West Point. "It's an exciting time," says the senior from Cantonment (Fla.), when discussing the emotions surrounding his recent graduation from West Point and the team making the NCAA Regionals. "Sometimes is a little bit tough, because it's such an emotional week. Obviously working towards the regionals, but it's an exciting time .... makes it hard to focus some times. However, I think we've done a good job just because of all of the emotions. When it's time to get on the field ... it's time to go."
"It's something (Regionals) you look forward to, something you play for and it is one of our goals to make NCAA tournament. So it's awesome to be able to graduate and also be able to keep practicing for the NCAA's," says Price, who like Watkins or anyone surrounding this program ... they reinforce that just being in the tournament is not enough.
UVA is a very fundamentally sound ball club. They will take advantage of the mistakes their opponents make.
Ironically, their style of play is very much like the Black Knights, who pride themselves on doing all those little things. It should be a competitive match up.
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