The Herkimer College baseball team was at-large and in charge.
Led by several local players, the Generals recently won their first NJCAA Division III World Series in Greenville, Tennessee. They did so as the only at-large squad in the eight-team field, after losing its regional final to Niagara Community College.
Because of Herkimer’s strength of schedule, the players and head coach Jason Rathbun felt confident about getting the lone at-large bid.
“We took the weekend to regroup, and the selection show was on a Monday,” Shaker graduate and freshman Jovanni Wiggs said. “As soon as we saw the draw, we were, like, ‘OK.’ We knew we could beat Northern Essex, which was in the tournament, because we split with them in Florida.”
“We were pretty confident we had a good chance of getting it,” said freshman pitcher Joel Hayner, of Halfmoon. “We felt we were more than good enough to play with those teams. We knew if we had a good draw, we could do some damage.”
“I was really confident with the strength of schedule we had. We had played Rowan College at Gloucester County about the weekend before regionals and we took two of three and nearly all three, and they were in, so I knew we could play with those teams,” Rathbun said.
Herkimer began the tournament with a 10-0, seven-inning shutout of Northern Essex, in which Schenectady High School graduate and University of Louisville commit Greg Farone struck out 15. The next day it beat Oakton 9-8, thanks to a game-winning RBI from Albany Academy graduate Ethan Duda.
“Our second game was more nerve-wracking, our closest game,” Hayner said. “We had a pretty good lead in the beginning, but it was 8-8 going into the ninth. I was warming up to possibly come in. But we got a guy on second and Ethan came through.”
“Honestly, on the walk-off I was actually very confident,” Duda said. “Coach said, ‘If you get a first-pitch fastball, just crush it.’ I saw it and hit it pretty hard.”
“That third game was huge because if you win that, you get your ace back for the fourth game and we could feel confident,” Wiggs said.
That third game, a 9-3 win over Dallas College-Eastfield, was where both coach and player agreed that Hayner stepped into the spotlight.
“Coming into this year, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Hayner said. “I had been a two-way guy, but my teammates helped me on the mound. By that third game of the championship, that was when I felt I really became a pitcher. That was the game where the light clicked on for me.”
“It’s almost like we sensed something and came together as a team,” Rathbun said. “I mean, having Greg Farone and Ryan Packard as a 1-2 punch is fantastic, but the question mark – it seems like for any team – is always the third starter. At that moment, I think a lot of people considered Dallas-Eastfield as the top team. But we did the legwork on scouting them, including Joel’s father, and Joel stepped up big-time. I think all the question marks got answered for Joel that game.”
Hayner pitched eight innings in that game, allowed just four hits, three runs (none earned), walked two and struck out four.
Hayner and Rathbun are equally excited that Hayner has been able to carry that forward. His first outing for the Oneonta Outlaws of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League was a good one.
Also in that game, Wiggs had a sacrifice fly that broke a 3-3 tie.
In the championship, Farone pitched six innings in relief, allowed three runs, three hits, struck out 10 and walked three.
Farone was named most valuable player of the tournament, striking out 25 and allowing only five hits in 13 innings. Hayner and Duda were named to the all-tournament team. Duda hit .428 with three RBIs and three runs.
Rathbun said it never would have happened without the Capital District players’ contributions. Other Herkimer players from the area include Ballston Spa’s Chance Checca, Mohonasen graduates Drew Coelho and Luke Pusz, Guilderland’s Ben Gilbert, Cobleskill-Richmondville graduate Derek Hotzler and Shaker graduate Troy Hunt.
“The Capital District has some of the best baseball teams and players in New York. The Capital District understands what we do for kids, which is why I recruit there,” said Rathbun, who is spending this summer as pitching coach for the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod League.
“Jovanni and Chance Checca were basically the only two freshmen consistently in our lineup, and both ended up putting up really good numbers,” Rathbun said. “Ethan, his first year we saw flashes of his talent, this year he developed it. He’s a toolsy player, lightning-fast. His speed and power combination was something.
“And Greg is a tone-setter for a program,” Rathbun added, of Farone. “His impact at Herkimer will be forever. To start a first game and throw a 15-strikeout performance, then to excel in relief to win the school’s first World Series. He’s not your typical JUCO kid. He went from throwing 82 miles per hour to 94 miles per hour and being a World Series MVP.”
On Tuesday, Farone was named an NJCAA Division III All-American. A second-team All-American last year, this season he finished with a school-record 139 strikeouts, or 77.2% of the batters he faced.
Now, everyone associated with the Series win has a treasure trove worth of memories.
“A once in a lifetime thing,” Hayner said.
“I thought the season was amazing,” Wiggs said. “I’m really glad I [came here].”
“A lifelong amount of work for a goal that we finally achieved,” Rathbun said.