The St. Thomas Aquinas College baseball team plays in its first NCAA Division II Championship since 2014, for these current seniors, it has been a long trip back to the finals.
The experience was all new, then. In 2014, the St. Thomas Aquinas baseball team wrote an amazing story, losing their first double-elimination game in both the East Coast Conference and NCAA East Regionals before storming back to win each, posting an incredible 8-0 record in games while facing elimination.
Amazingly, both tourneys were captured in almost identical fashion, with STAC sweeping conference rival Dowling College on the final day of each, just eight days apart. The ECC victory secured an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, the team's second in as many years. But the East crown, that led to something altogether different.
Along with that victory came a trip to Cary, North Carolina, and the NCAA Division II Championship. STAC was now one of just eight remaining teams vying for a National Championship; the banquet, personalized Regional Championship flag, the photo sessions and media attention, all something new for this budding powerhouse program from Rockland, New York.
Those who were freshmen during that 2014 run are seniors in the 2017 edition, and while they may be forgiven for experiencing some deja vu, this is also a very different experience for them. Three years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas squared off with Colorado Mesa University in their first game - the very same team they will meet in their second contest on Wednesday night.
Perhaps it was jitters from their first game on such a stage. Though the Spartans hurt themselves by allowing four unearned runs, they more than proved their worth, forcing the game to 10 tough innings before falling by a 5-4 count. While STAC was eliminated by Minnesota-Manketo in its next game, Colorado Mesa went into extra innings of the championship contest before falling. That's how close the Spartans were.
While the accomplishment was the same this season, the setting is different, as the NCAA moved the Championship from its usual spot in Cary to Grand Prairie, Texas, for this season. And for Coach Scott Muscat - a native North Carolinian - that's not such a bad thing.
"For the seniors, it's easier to see this to be a different experience (than Cary) because we're in a different state, in a different stadium. It might be more difficult if we went back to Cary." Still, for the seniors who were on that 2014 squad, they was still much to be learned, even with a quick exit.
"In 2014, it was all new to us," pointed out infielder Greg Dawber. "We expected to get there because the seniors put it in our head, and we've tried to do the same. This time it's not new; we know what we're going to see and do here."
Deven Del Priore was a catcher on that '14 squad and can vividly remember the experience through a freshman's eyes. "We were so young and all these guys (STAC's opponents) looked so huge. We saw pitchers and hitters like we hadn't seen before, but we know we were never out of it. So we can help our newer guys with what they're going to see."
Even for the coaches and staff, the days of "just being happy to be here" are in the rearview mirror. "I think this team in 2017 is better prepared to win this tournament than the team in 2014," Muscat asserts. "We have a lot of respect for all of the teams we play here and know what to expect, especially from a team like Colorado Mesa, and winning on Sunday (against UCSD) gives us a measuring stick on where our program has gone the past three or four years."
By the time the Spartans take the field on Wednesday night, two teams will be sent home and the field will be whittled to six survivors. And whether or not STAC is the last team standing on June 3, the experience is one that will last a lifetime.
"I think our team takes every game as just another game," Dawber noted, regarding his teammates' poise. "Everyone's having a great time, soaking it in and doing what we love. And we're all set on winning."
The Spartans will try to take that next big step on Wednesday night.