Fresh off a historic 3-2 win over Northeastern in the NCAA Tournament Regionals on Saturday afternoon at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the NJIT Highlanders (27-24) baseball team was attempting to keep their magical ride going against Nebraska (33-13) on Sunday afternoon.
With a win over the Cornhuskers, the Highlanders would have an opportunity to face off against the number one overall seed and top-ranked team in the nation in the Arkansas Razorbacks on Sunday night. The Razorbacks won the opening round game between the teams’ on Friday afternoon 13-8.
NJIT Head Coach Robbie McClellan handed off the starting pitching assignment to junior left-handed pitcher Grant Vurpillat. Right off the bat, Nebraska was off and running with right-fielder Joe Acker belting a lead-off triple off the left-field wall.
With runners on the corner and one out, first-baseman Luke Roskam grounded into a fielder’s choice as Acker came into score. Facing a situation with runners on first and second with two outs, Vurpillat managed to escape further damage by getting second baseman Cam Chick to lift a fly ball out to left field to end the inning.
n the second inning, the Highlanders had a prime scoring opportunity against Cornhuskers starting pitcher Shay Schanaman with runners on first and second with two outs. However, Schanaman managed to wiggle out of the ram by retiring third baseman Jared Donnelly on a ground ball to first base.
Flexing their muscles in the third inning, Joe Acker put Nebraska up 2-0, belting a solo home run over the left-field wall. NJIT responded in the fourth inning. Making an acrobatic diving catch in shallow center field in the third inning, senior right-fielder Matt Cocciadiferrro displayed his power at the plate smashing a solo missile over the right-center field wall that ignited the Highlanders dugout.
After three innings on the mound, Head Coach Robbie McClellan made a pitching change with freshman right-hander Croix Jenkins taking over the pitching duties. The Cornhuskers offense erupted in the inning by sending 12 hitters to the plate, tallying eight runs, and collecting six hits, highlighted by a three-run inside the park home run off the bat of Cam Chick.
“I thought Grant (Vurpillat) was pretty okay early on, I have seen him sharper,” Head Coach Robbie McClellan explained. “The game just got out of control on us and they were relentless offensively all day. We missed too much in the middle of the plate, and they pretty much showed why they are a Top 20 team and won the Big 10, so hats off to them. They kicked our butt today, and they deserve it.”
Not stepping off the gas pedal, Nebraska poured it on in the fifth inning scoring six additional runs to open up a 16-1 advantage. Trailing 16-2 in the Highlanders continued to show a competitive spirit, with senior Paul Franzoni bashing a two-run home run into the left-field stands. The Cornhuskers tacked a late run that ended NJIT’s 2021 season with an 18-4 victory.
Head Coach Robbie McClellan on the NCAA Tournament run and Highlanders team, “It’s been absolutely crazy, I don’t think we know the full extent of it probably until we get home. The kids and their families enjoyed it and everlasting memories. I talked to our SID (Sports Information Director) and the amount of media attention and social media stuff, and the people of Fayetteville definitely know what they’re doing. We were proud to be a part of the regional and hopefully gave them some good baseball to watch. I’m definitely happy that we got sent here, I’m happy that our kids got to experience it and I feel like our kids worked really hard.”
“They’re great kids and to be put on national stage and rest of the world sees what we see every day in New Jersey and represented themselves very well and definitely appreciate what that the fans in Fayetteville did for them. As far as the future of NJIT baseball, I feel like it’s better than it’s ever been. We’re losing (Tyler) Stafflinger, (Jared) Kacsco and (Matthew) Cocciadiferro, and (Kevin) Blum but the other seniors that are listed as seniors have a COVID year. Others will be back, and maybe one or two of them get drafted, but I think we’re pretty much going to have our whole roster back. We’re going to be in contention next year, hopefully we can raise the bar again and get back to another regional and keep competing. We’re in really good shape, proud to be a Highlander even though things didn’t go the way we wanted today and the future’s definitely bright.”
Senior Paul Franzoni on the 2021 season, “It’s hard to put into words what this season and past week and half / two weeks has been but it’s been unbelievable and hands down probably the bets experience of my life. Doing it with the guys that I consider brothers’ and family and after the game it was tough coming to grips that we going to be lacing up for the last time with a couple of those guys. The Arkansas fans have been truly unbelievable, and I can’t thank them enough for welcoming us with open arms; and I’m very thankful right now.”
“Obviously it means a lot to have the year we had but have known here at NJIT since my freshman year making the ASUN (Atlantic Sun Conference)and what we’re capable of for a few years. To see it pay off on the field and I think it’s fair to say we’re one of the hardest-working teams in the country. We get a ton of support from our coaches and administrators and really feel like we’ve built an awesome culture. Coach (Robbie) McClellan recruited me, gave me an opportunity to play here at NJIT, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that opportunity. I’m so happy that I ended up here, and these past four years and thankfully I have another year have been the greatest experiences of my life. Coach McClellan, Coach G (Giuseppe Papaccio), and Coach (Kyle) Norman have had a lasting impact on my life and taught me so many lessons.”