Start with the home field — or lack thereof.
New Jersey Institute of Technology’s baseball team has to take bus rides to practices and games at Kean University.
Then consider the roster — which includes players from California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Maryland. It is a hodgepodge of student-athletes who can meet the rigors of the acclaimed engineering school in Newark. Its top two position players, twin brothers David and Julio Marcano of Texas, landed at NJIT only after reaching out to coach Robbie McClellan themselves over email.
The Highlanders, less than 20 years a Division I program, are the epitome of an underdog story. You can’t find a better David versus Goliath example than Friday night, when NJIT’s baseball team makes its NCAA Tournament debut against Arkansas, the top-seeded team in the country. It will go from near-anonymity to playing on the sport’s biggest stage, in front of over 11,000 people at Baum Walker Stadium, in the double-elimination Fayetteville Regional. There have been more media requests in the past week for NJIT than the past 10 years combined.
“For NJIT baseball, it’s the biggest moment that’s ever happened in program history,” said the 40-year-old McClellan, in his third season as the team’s head coach. “It’s a great experience for our kids. It’s a great experience for our university. It’s so much recognition. It’s a big deal.”
Such an opportunity would’ve seemed very unlikely as recently as early April. NJIT started 3-12. It lacked an identity. The defense was a sieve.
Then David Marcano, the team’s only true shortstop, returned from a broken hamate bone. Everything fell into place from there. They closed the year by winning 18 of 22 games and nine in a row. They won their first two games in the America East Tournament, rallying from behind both times to advance to the championship game out of the winner’s bracket.
NJIT didn’t have to play again to reach the NCAA Tournament. Heavy rains canceled the title game against Stony Brook, and since NJIT hadn’t lost in the tournament, it was deemed the winner. The NCAA required all conference tournaments to be decided by the end of the day.
“We’re living the dream right now — the college baseball player’s dream — of making the regionals and playing on the biggest stage of college baseball,” said infielder Julio Marcano, the team leader in almost every offensive category and a first-team All-America East selection. “This is a moment you should cherish.”
McClellan and his players insist they won’t be in awe of Arkansas. Two years ago, NJIT defeated three top-25 teams. Of course, that was different, the coach acknowledged. This group has never faced a top-10 team, let alone the No. 1 team in the country with a 46-10 record and a number of top draft prospects, led by ace reliever Kevin Kopps. McClellan’s message has been to not change a thing. Julio Marcano, who has played against elite competition before in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League, has emphasized the need for his teammates to enjoy this. He’s confident they can play with Arkansas.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” starting pitcher Jared Kacso said. “Arkansas has never seen a team like us before. They’re used to seeing 100 mph fastballs and 6-foot-5 hitters. But we’re a different team than that. We’ll probably be a unique look for them.”
There’s been plenty of good fortune to get to this point. The COVID-19 pandemic worked in NJIT’s favor. Two of its top starters, Kacso and Friday’s starter Tyler Stafflinger, gained an extra year of eligibility. It enabled Kacso, dealing with a torn labrum in his shoulder, to get fully healthy, and he has enjoyed a strong season. David and Julio Marcano were looking at Ivy League schools but wanted financial assistance. That’s when they came across NJIT. Julio Marcano emailed McClellan, starting the recruiting process. McClellan described the duo as “generational players for NJIT” who will break every offensive record in school history if they return to school next year.
“Sometimes, recruiting takes a little luck,” McClellan said. “When you’re building a program, you have to find the right types of kids. I think we’re lucky by the fact we have kids that are interested in putting NJIT on the map.”
Just getting to this point is significant, in terms of raising the school’s athletic profile. The men’s basketball team received notoriety after it upset Michigan in 2014 as a 24.5-point underdog, and now it is baseball’s turn. Athletic director Lenny Kapkan said the school has been trying to find a plot of land in Newark to build a field for the team, after its old field, Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium, was torn down. Kaplan has heard from players going back all the way to the 1970s about this team. Teachers have reached out to him.
“Everyone likes the success of the kids because they know how hard they work academically,” Kaplan said of the team, which has a cumulative 3.48 GPA.
NJIT, though, wants to prove it belongs. As the lowest seed in the field, Julio Mercado understands not much is expected out of his team. If you look at its overall 26-22 record and the statistics the Highlanders compiled, it’s not overly impressive compared to most of the teams in the tournament.
But this is a team that finished the year hot, that has overcome so much just to get to this point. It won’t be scared or intimidated despite the long odds.
“I think,” Julio Marcano said, “we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”