On Sunday, NJIT Baseball Head Coach Robbie McClellan spoke with Jersey Sporting News to discuss the team clinching a spot in the upcoming America East Tournament. The Highlanders will face number one seed Albany on Thursday at Stony Brook, with the first pitch set for 2:30 p.m.
In their first season in the conference, the Highlanders won 23 games, including seven straight to end the regular season, which is a new program record. Overall, NJIT registered a 24-22 regular season record, the most wins for the program since 2015. After starting the season 7-13, the Highlanders have been on firing going 16-4 the rest of the way.
Q&A with NJIT Baseball Coach Robbie McClellan
Jersey Sporting News (JSN): Congrats, Coach, on clinching a spot in the America East playoffs, winning your last seven games, and heading into the tournament. The first year in the conference, this is tremendous for the NJIT Baseball program.
Robbie McClellan (RM): It's been kind of a wild ride, having some COVID restrictions in the spring; early on, we were injured, so we weren't playing as good as we wanted to play. Then we got healthy, and we had our backs against the wall. The guys and coaches stuck with it, and we started playing baseball that we were capable of playing, and it's been a really fun group to be around.
JSN: You started 7-13, 16-4 since, wondering if there are any points during the season, it started turning around, and you got on that winning track.
RM: I think when we played Stony Brook, after going 1-3 against Binghamton, we went 3-1 and then 4-0 the following weekend, so we went from not playing how we wanted to play to win seven out of eight-game in two weekends and put us right back in the thick of things. We got healthy since then; we've just continued to play better baseball, and getting David Marcano back at shortstop allows everyone to play their natural positions.
JSN: First year in the America East Conference, can you talk about the level of competition and making that switch from the ASUN (Atlantic Sun Conference)?
RM: The ASUN was a great experience for our kids; it's kind of known as a baseball conference, and what's kind of ironic, this year, the America East has the higher RPI than the ASUN. I don't think people realize how good baseball is in the America East, and throughout the league, anybody can beat anyone on a given day. The play was really good; there's a ton of top-end starting pitching and talented hitters, so it was a tough grind, and top to bottom, the America East is a really good conference.
JSN: 23-17 in the America East, last year 6-10 in an abbreviated season due to COVID and in 2019 17-27-1. An assistant coach for a long time; how good of a feeling is this as a head coach?
RM: My first year, I was an interim head coach, so that's another unique experience then; my second season was COVID, so I've seen the ups and downs. It's gratifying; the best part is seeing the kids have success, and I certainly believed we had a team capable of doing this. We have some really good players; I'm excited they are finally getting that recognition and respect they deserve.
We have three or four players on the roster at some points that can be professional baseball players, and when you play baseball, you know we'll play anybody anywhere. We know that we are going to give anybody a tough game. I feel the program is trending up; the success we had in the America East is a kind of validation. The program is here, and we're doing the right thing.
JSN: Let's not overstate this or look past this; you guys don't have an actual home field, playing your home games at Kean University. That's not easy for the coaches and players. Can you talk about those challenges?
Robbie McClellan: We talk to our team all the time, every field that we go by, and we talk about stands for opportunity, so it doesn't matter whether we play at Yankee Stadium or UMBC or the University of Texas, there is opportunity. We're thankful that we can practice at Kean University and a great place for our kids. It's probably not ideal for many people to wake up early and go on a bus to practice, but our kids don't view it as something that can be kind of troubling, but we view it as an opportunity, and that's what makes this group so special.
JSN: Going into this season and now heading into the tournament, what was your message to the team?
RM: My message was I thought we had a pretty good team, we practice hard, and we great set of assistant coaches that put together a great plan and daily for their skills groups. For the COVID issue, we talked a lot about protecting each other, keeping each other safe off the field because our goal was to get in as many games as possible. We only missed a three-game series against Seton Hall all year. Our main focus was just practicing, getting better, and believing we were a good team.
JSN: I think ten seniors on this team, which means the bulk of these guys are coming back for the next couple of years which lays the foundation of a good building block. Can you talk about the make-up of this roster? A couple of guys on the offensive side in Julio Marcano, Albert Choi, and Daniel Helfgott?
RM: Julio, in my opinion, and I'm a little biased, is the America East Player of the Year. If you go up and down the leaderboard, he's top four and five in pretty much everything and a unique talent. One thing that's amazing about him, star players are versatile, and he's played left field, third base, second base, centerfield, first base, so he's kind of stepped in where we need him to play, an unselfish superstar. I think there's a really good chance he gets drafted this year.
He runs a 6.60; he throws well, hits for power and average, and the coach's dream. He's an explosive player that can pretty much do anything, and we're fortunate to have him. In the classroom, he graduated with honors with a mechanical engineering degree.
Albert Choi has a unique skill set, he's got a real good shot at being drafted next year, and some people will tell you one of the top 5 or 10 fastest players in the country. Many fast guys don't throw the ball around, but he's unique, and I think he can throw in any major league ballpark today.
Danny is a super grinder, kind of a Dustin Pedroia type of player, an undersized and scrappy player that plays with a chip on his shoulder and his baseball skills are good. He struck out 10 or 11 times with over 100 at-bats, always puts the ball in play, gets a good at-bat from him, and is very strong-handed defensively. He's just proven he belongs in the lineup, and he'll grind with anybody.
JSN: Let's talk about the pitching staff; Jake Rappaport set a program record for wins and saves this year. Ryan Fischer, Tyler Stafflinger, and Grant Vurpillat have racked up the strikeouts this season.
RM: In the nine or 10 years that I have been here, it the best pitching performance that I have individually seen. He (Jake Rappaport) has this great ability to compete; when he comes in, he gets fired up, and usually, momentum changes when he comes into the game. He has been unbelievable this year, really taken to the closer's role, and one of the reasons we're at because when he is in the game is to be won and we put him in the game, we win the game a lot more times than not.
Starting pitching has been really good; I think they finished third in conference ERA, three out of our four starters are in the Top 10 lead per nine innings, and we throw a ton of strikes. We throw a ton of strikes, and that's what really helped our defense improve. Out of 300 Division 1 team's in the country, we were 32nd with the least walks per nine innings, so the guys throw strikes, and it's been a pleasure to coach and watch those guys all year and keep our team in a ton of games.
Croix Jenkins is a freshman who has been the other guy besides Rappaport, and when you have two guys in the back of the bullpen that you can rely on when you have the lead or the game's close to give your offense a shot to win, it has been really good for us.
JSN: Looking at the roster, it's a great blend with many kids from New Jersey and out of state. I am seeing all these guys coming together and meshing so well. For the coaching staff, it's really to see the recruiting process working out.
RM: If you're good academically and good at baseball, we try to find it, and it doesn't matter where you are from. Our school has the academic profile that we're really proud of, and we have a baseball program that we view as spinning in the right direction and kids we have on this team this year from nine or 10 different states.
That comes from the older guys. We have three captains, Jared Kacso, Julio Marcano, and Paul Franzoni. When times were tough, those were the guys that the younger guys leaned on. Those guys fight for each other, love each other and just get after it every day. It's really a unique thing to be around because they just have such great chemistry. They're a joy to coach because there is never a bad day of practice and game. When something bad happens, we talk about bouncing back as quickly as possible as a group and individually. As a coaching staff, we're fortunate that we have a group that gets along.
JSN: Can you talk about the support from the athletic department, especially athletic director Lenny Kaplan and administration?
RM: Our administration is great, from Lenny to Andrew (Schwartz) to Peg (Hefferan). The amount of communication that we had going on between the administration and coaching staff here with all the COVID protocols and us practicing off campus and getting it all together. I feel very fortunate as a coach to be able to have a good relationship with the administration. I know that they're always working to do the best that they can for us. It was really cool this weekend to kind of see all that hard work from top to bottom in clinching the playoffs and winning season and great for the team and school morale.
JSN: Most importantly, what are the keys to coming out with a victory over Albany in the playoff tournament on Thursday?
RM: We definitely have our hands full, we played them early in the year, and they took three out of four from us. From that time, we're a much better team than when we played them. I know they have good starting pitching and a shortstop who is in contention for America East Player of the Year. They're a well-coached team, play hard and tough, so it will be one of those games where there's not going to be a lot of mistakes from either side, and going to be a really clean game.
The way we're playing, I feel really good about anything and excited about the opportunity. We understand that it's going to be a tough challenge, but I like how we're playing baseball, and we can't wait to play Thursday.