NEW BRITAIN - Charlie Hickey wasnâ€™t even back in New Britain for 72 hours when it was time to get back out on the road again.
Â The Central Connecticut State baseball team had just returned from its NCAA regional in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and its best finish in program history. But for the Blue Devilsâ€™ head coach, there was also work to be done and potential recruits to scout.
After coming off its first-ever NCAA Tournament win when it beat California-Berkley last Saturday, and second conference championship in three years just to reach regional play, Hickey and CCSU are looking to build on and maintain that success in the coming seasons.
â€śI know it canâ€™t hurt,â€ť Hickey said of the benefits of the 7-4 win over the Golden Bears and playing TCU close before losing 9-5 last Sunday in an elimination game. â€śIâ€™ve been seeing and hearing people talk about us. It certainly helped that we played late into the weekend and have been there twice in three seasons. I plan on utilizing that for the next couple of years.â€ť
For a small Division I school like CCSU out of the Northeast Conference, itâ€™s easy to see why. It was a special season for the Blue Devils that saw plenty of top moments, especially late in the year.
CCSU won 12 of its final 15 games entering the Regional, including three straight to come out of the losersâ€™ bracket to beat Bryant twice and win their sixth Northeast Conference Tournament championship and the NECâ€™s automatic bid. But no moment, other than the conference title for Hickey, was bigger than the win over Cal.
The Blue Devils rallied multiple times throughout that game to snap the coachâ€™s 0-10 streak in regional play. The closest the program had been to winning a regional game before that was a 6-5 loss to Dallas Baptist in 2017.
It also proved to be just the second win for the NEC in NCAA regional games. The conference was a staggering 1-45 before CCSU arrived in Fayetteville, the lone win by Bryant in 2013.
Third baseman Buddy Dewaine and outfielder Dave Matthews were later named to the Fayetteville Regional All-Tournament Team. Dewaine hit .385 (5-for-13) with a double, triple, home run, three runs scored and two runs batted in. Matthews also hit .385 (5-for-13) and led the Blue Devils with five RBI in three games.
â€śWhat we experienced down there was memorable,â€ť Hickey said. â€śWhen we played Friday [against No. 5 Arkansas] at 1 p.m., it was in front of 10,000 people. The kids embraced it and the fans were great, then to go out and to beat a top-25 team inÂ the country was exceptional. It was only the second time a team from the NEC has been able to win at regionals. It was indicative of us having grown through the season.â€ť
That was important for Hickey, whose team had to rely on its pitching staff early with its lineup relatively inexperienced and in flux. First baseman T.T. Bowens missed the first 25 games of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery. Matthews was coming off a redshirt season after sitting out due to transfer rules. But the season began to turn in CCSUâ€™s favor during its series against Mount St. Maryâ€™s.
At the time of the late-April series, the Blue Devils were just 15-16 and struggled to score runs to help their pitchers like Mike Appel, Bristolâ€™s Tom Curtin and Berlinâ€™s Jared Gallagher.
â€śWhen we went out there, we stole Game 2 and came back to sweep the series,â€ť Hickey said. â€śThat gave us momentum going forward. That started us. Then we went down to Wagner, whoâ€™s always a top four team in the conference, and took three games. I remember we started to pitch very consistently, but more importantly, our offense started to get better. We started to score runs.â€ť
In the second game of Mount St. Maryâ€™s series, CCSU rallied twice for a 9-8 win, scoring four runs in the top of the eighth inning and three more in the top of the ninth. After that, the Blue Devils scored three or more runs in all but two of their final 20 games, including at least five in each of their three games in the Fayetteville Regional, the only team to do so.
Hickey expects that role to be reversed next season, meaning that as the pitching staff tries to assemble a rhythm and consistency, the offense will have to carry some of the pressure.
â€śThe guys we have leaving [Appel, Curtin, Gallagher and Patrick Mitchell] were immensely consistent,â€ť Hickey said. â€śEvery time out there, they pitched multiple innings and weâ€™re going to miss that and have to replace that. We have some guys in the program that we believe will be able to step up and some guys coming in as well. Hopefully next year, weâ€™re not going to be struggling to score six runs a game. Weâ€™re going to need our offense.â€ť
For now, though, Hickey still has other things to worry about.
â€śIt was a great year,â€ť Hickey said. â€śThat was some great baseball. That whole experience wasÂ great. As a coach, you want the kids to enjoy it, I want to enjoy it, but itâ€™s a continuous process.â€ť
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org