The Hofstra baseball team mounting a run to the NCAA Tournament evokes memories of some of the great teams, athletes and coaching figures in school history.
There’s flashes of the football team at the peak of the Joe Gardi era…reminders of the championship-building skills of Bill Edwards, Fran Kalafer, Richard Nuttall and Simon Riddiough and how any of them could coach anywhere but took pride in building softball, volleyball and soccer powerhouses in their backyard…and even, with an NCAA Tournament berth-clinching win over Northeastern and subsequent few days in the national spotlight, faint echoes of the unforgettable and unfortunately short-lived euphoria of Mar. 10, 2020.
But as well-intentioned as it is to try and put this feat into the context of its predecessors, it also diminishes, even in an unintentional manner, the unprecedented nature of an accomplishment that ranks as the greatest sports story in Hofstra history.
“What I was told when I got here, from people all around the baseball world and even some people here at Hofstra, was baseball can’t win because you’re playing teams down south that are out on the field earlier than you guys are and got a lot of practice,” first-year head coach Frank Catalanotto said Monday, minutes after the Flying Dutchmen learned they’d play North Carolina in their NCAA Tournament opener this afternoon at 2 PM (ESPN+).
“And that didn’t sit well with me, because I didn’t want to come in here and say ‘OK, well, that’s fine, I got a job here but we’re not going to be able to win.’”
Even with Catalanotto’s determination and track record — before he coached New York Tech to the Division II World Series in his lone full season as head coach in 2019, the Smithtown native hit .291 while playing in 1,265 major league games from 1997 through 2010 — history suggested he was embarking upon the biggest challenge of his career.
The Hofstra baseball team entered this season with an all-time record of 1,051-1,467, including 1-10 in conference tournament play since the spring of 1996, when the Dutchmen lost their two North Atlantic Conference tourney games by a combined margin of 39-4. The Dutchmen went 17-22 last season and were picked to finish last in the CAA’s preseason poll this spring.
“The first thing we did — and both ADs that I’ve worked for kind of stressed this — is changing the culture,” Catalanotto said. “That’s the first thing. You have to get everyone to buy in, to believe, to know that they’re going to be held to a high standard. And once you have that, then it’s the practice and the teaching. And sometimes it comes sooner than later.”
There were no such short- and long-term histories to be overcome, even with once-vibrant programs that benefited from quick yet thorough and sustained rebuilds, a la men’s soccer when Nuttall arrived in 1989, softball when Edwards was hired in 1990 and men’s basketball when Joe Mihalich took over in 2013.
Before becoming women’s soccer head coach in 2006, Riddiough spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach, a span in which the Flying Dutchwomen never finished under .500. The women’s volleyball program was 55 games over .500 in its first five seasons when Kalafer was named head coach prior to the 1981 season.
When Gardi, a longtime Long Island resident armed with decades of coaching in the professional ranks, arrived at Hofstra following the 1989 season, the Dutchmen were a perennial Division III power. As magical as it was when the Dutchmen surged into the Division I-AA top 25 and nearly made the playoffs as an independent in 1994, that run came in the program’s fourth season at the higher level.
There’s no comparing anything to this — a one-season worst-to-first turnaround and an unbeaten run in the CAA Tournament for a program that had never officially advanced to the NCAA Tournament despite being the second-longest tenured sport on campus. (The 1960 team earned a bid to an NCAA regional in Connecticut but declined to participate because the tournament conflicted with final exams)
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, because it’s so fresh, but you’ve got to take it in, you know what I mean?” catcher Kevin Bruggeman said. “We’re the first to ever do it at this place.”
It’s a singular achievement that should stand alone yet also remind us of the thick sporting tapestry that is woven at Hofstra. I’m as guilty as anyone of getting so caught up in the national stage of the men’s basketball version of March Madness that we don’t bestow the same attention on other sports, even those some of us may have covered extensively in college.
We all swore we’d never allow some sports teams to become part of the fabric — friends we always promise to visit but rarely do — after the football program was eliminated in December 2009. There are new reasons to lapse into old habits — parenthood, careers and all the accompanying combinations thereof — but they’re just excuses that serve to accidentally minimize these teams and their accomplishments.
We need to view the greatest sports story in Hofstra history as a standalone tale marrying the past with the present and offering glimpses of the future, one which begins today when the Flying Dutchmen baseball team — the Flying Dutchmen baseball team! — begins play in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve heard a hundred people yesterday when we were on the bus tell me ‘Frank, do you realize what you just did here?’” Catalanotto said Monday. “And I haven’t really grasped it. At some point, I will."
“So I’m going to enjoy it. But at some point I’ll realize what a special thing this is.”