Eleven months later, the University of Rhode Island baseball team will be riding a familiar route this weekend.
And the Rams hope to be on the same path in more ways than one.
It was on a March day last year, on the bus ride to Delaware, when the Rams found out their next series was canceled due the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic. They turned around. By the time they got off the bus, the foundations of the sports world were shaking. Their season was canceled soon after.
While they’ll never get that promising season back, the Rams are eager to pick up where they left off when they travel south again, this time to East Carolina for the season’s opening weekend.
“It was one of the best starts we’ve ever had,” Cerrato said of last season. “A lot of times, we don’t have a lot of wins early because we’re playing such a tough schedule. We had some good wins, had a win every weekend. We felt really good about the team. It was super disappointing, but quite a few guys came back. Guys who were graduating and decided they wanted to come back, getting a second major or a minor, things like that. We return some key guys that we didn’t expect to have this season. That’s exciting.”
URI lost only two big contributors from last season. Leading hitter Jackson Coutts signed a free agent deal with the Washington Nationals and closer Tyler Brosius departed. The NCAA offered an extra year of eligibility to spring athletes as a result of the cancellation, and a host of Rams jumped at the chance. Among the veterans back in the fold are catcher Sonny Ulliana, infielder Josh Brodeur, outfielders Greg Cavaliere and Max Mircovich, and pitchers Nick Robinson and Vitaly Jangols.
“It’s really a deep, veteran team,” Cerrato said. “Even the couple of freshmen who played quite a bit last year, they’re coming back as freshmen. Everyone has experience, whether it’s last year or two or three years.”
The Rams certainly had it working last year. They won non-conference games over Lamar and Maryland, took two from perennial mid-major powerhouse Central Michigan and knocked off No. 25 Arizona. They were riding a four-game win streak and batting .288 as a team when the season ended.
The veteran offense is ready to carry the torch again, and it’s flanked by a potentially deeper pitching staff.
Coutts is a big loss from the middle of the order. He was batting .451 when the season was stopped. But the rest of the hot-hitting lineup is back. Austin White was batting .378 atop the order, Brodeur was at .365, and Xavier Vargas was hitting .283 with four home runs and a team-best 16 RBI. Ulliana is back with nine career home runs to his name, while Cavaliere has been a steady presence for his entire career. Alex Ramirez and Tino Salgado – two freshmen who started last year – return alongside juniors Joe Fortin and Mark Coley. Mircovich, Jordan Laske and Thomas Summers have also seen significant time. Big things are expected of Addison Kopack, who made a splash in the Newport Collegiate League last summer.
Rhode Island College transfer Mike Webb is primed to take the league by storm as the surprise leader of the URI pitching staff. The Pawtucket native and Bishop Hendricken grad stands just 5-foot-8 but has added significant velocity since becoming a pitcher full-time. He was up to 95 miles per hour in Newport last summer. His pitching coach at RIC, Matt Murphy, is a former Ram who had a similar journey to the mound.
“He’s legit,” Cerrato said. “He’s really good. If they had a full season and a regular draft last year, he probably would have gotten picked up.”
Junior Ryan Twitchell, who had a strong freshman year before a tough start last season, is slated to get the ball in the season opener. Redshirt junior Justin Cherry had a terrific 2019 season and will return to the weekend rotation, though he may miss the first few weeks of the season as he works back from an injury. Last year, Jangols was in the midst of recapturing the form that made him a weekend starter early in his career, sporting a 3.00 ERA in four starts. Robinson, Zach Fernandez and Jon Morrison have experience as starters. Returning bullpen arms include Dom Picone and South Kingstown native Bo Brutti. Another former Rebel, Broc French, transferred in from Trinity and has been a pleasant surprise.
“It’s a good staff,” Cerrato said. “On paper, I don’t know if we have that Tyler Wilson to go out there and win 12 or 13 games. But in terms of pure depth, it’s a really good staff. Now they’ve got to go and do it. On paper and throwing bullpens is one thing. You’ve got to go out there and get it done.”
The schedule looks a bit different, with fewer early-season trips and more regional games. The Rams will go to East Carolina and Old Dominion before opening their home slate March 6 against UMass-Lowell. They also have home-and-home arrangements with Bryant, Connecticut and Northeastern. URI will make a long trip later in the season for a three-game set at Arizona State. Atlantic 10 series will be four games instead of the usual three.
Based on how things have gone in NCAA football and basketball season, changes and adjustments are almost guaranteed. The Rams have already been through a 10-day pause before preseason practices even began due to positive COVID tests in the program.
But you won’t catch the Rams complaining, even on a long bus ride. They still remember their last one.
“Missing that much baseball, you can just see the guys are so happy to be out there,” Cerrato said. “We’re still wearing masks, we’re not practicing with our entire team at the same time. We’re going to have hiccups, but they know what the deal is – they just want to play. There’s no complaining about inconveniences. They’re just glad to be back out there.”