The 2015 Lehigh Mountain Hawks baseball team achieved what hadn’t been done at Lehigh since 2006 when they won a Patriot League Championship over No. 1 seeded Navy.
The process to winning the championship started years before the 2015 season, said then-senior pitcher Nick Macaione, ‘15.
As the players learned from those who came before them, developing a tight bond is a vital part of a championship season. The combination of chemistry and experience provided the team with the necessary grit and mindset it needed to take on the new season and opportunity.
“I think it started before 2014, even around 2012 for us,” Macaione said. “We had some good leadership above us and really started putting the pieces together on and off the field. (In 2013), we were pretty successful — even more so (in 2014). Watching that progression of talent and focus over those few years set us up for a good season in 2015.”
The team came into the season high with confidence after a runner-up finish the previous season. They knew they had what it took to come out with a title.
Then-junior second baseman Mike Garzillo, ‘16, who now serves as Lehigh’s director of Baseball Operations, said the team entered the new year already thinking about the title.
“Going into the 2015 season, we really felt we were ready to be the best team in the league and to win a championship,” Garzillo said. “Our motto going into that year was ‘finish’ because the year before, we made it to the championship and lost, and this next year we wanted to finish it off and win it.”
The team’s season didn’t get off to an ideal start after enduring several losing streaks, including dropping 11 games in a row in the month of March. However, the confidence of the players never wavered.
Even after the rough start, the team continued to focus on its process, knowing the results it wanted would eventually follow.
“Though there were some bumps along the road, when we got into Patriot League play, when it really mattered, we turned on the jets and played really well,” Garzillo said. “We never lost belief in ourselves or in each other and our teammates…We believed in ourselves whole-heartedly that we were a great team, and that we could and would win games, and that helped us win a lot of close games.”
Garzillo was a major contributor over the course of the Patriot League Tournament and was eventually named MVP of the tournament, with five combined home runs in the two series.
Yet, the overall accomplishment was a team effort, with so many others making key contributions to aid the team in achieving its ultimate goal, Garzillo said. Several players emulated the idea of hard work, dedication and teamwork.
Other notable performers included then-senior pitcher, Nick Stephens, ’15, who pitched a complete game in the third game of the semifinals against Holy Cross. Then-senior first baseman, Connor Faust, ’15, provided an influential performance, driving in the game-winning run in game three of the championship series after not recording a hit all series prior to that point.
Macaione was also a major contributor during the championship, pitching 10 full innings in the final game to help the team walk away victorious in extra innings.
“You need a very good team, but you also need some step-up moments, and we had two huge step-up moments by senior pitchers in the closing games,” said head coach Sean Leary. “Mike Garzillo was one of the shining stars, statistically, but all of the guys in that group from that senior class had a moment that either got us into the playoffs or helped us in those two series.”
Three players from that team were eventually drafted to various MLB teams.
The difference in emotions from one year to the next was night and day, Leary said. The feelings of defeat and disappointment in 2014 were replaced by the triumph and joy in 2015, and the 2015 team built a special connection.
“Sometimes, you need those moments of coming close to really fire you up for that last rep, that last sprint, that extra set of ground balls you need to take to help you win a championship,” Leary said.
Winning the Patriot League Championship gave the team an opportunity to play in the regional round of the NCAA tournament, where it traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to face Louisiana State University and Tulane University. No team in Lehigh baseball history had won a regional round game in the NCAA tournament, so the team looked forward to the challenge ahead in facing two tough teams.
While Lehigh didn’t get the results it hoped for, the tournament was an experience not many can say they’ve gone through. For the seniors, it was an extension to their final season and an opportunity to play the game they love with players they spent years growing up with.