NCAA Regional: #4 Fairfield Stags (32-24) vs. #1 Texas Tech Red Raiders (41-16)
WHEN: Friday, June 3 -- 12:00 PM PT/1:00 PM MT
WHERE: Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park; Lubbock, TX
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN3/WatchESPN
It's always a story when a program breaks onto a big stage for the first time. For the Fairfield Stags, however, that story isn't quite so cut and dry: They weren't expected to do a lot of winning in the preseason, to compete for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference crown, but they did.
Their reward? A date in west Texas with the fifth national seed in the 64-team NCAA tournament. No big deal.
While facing off against a power conference foe might seem like a tall order -- Fairfield lost all five games against ranked opponents in the regular season -- the Stags have been in this situation before, and they should present a stiff challenge to the Red Raiders by doing everything well.
For more on the MAAC champions, I reached out to Ivey Speight, who is Fairfield's multimedia services associate.
Matthew Kenerly: The Stags are making their first NCAA tournament appearance, which is to be congratulated. What can you tell us about the program's recent history? How has the team progressed to this breakthrough?
Ivey Speight: The program has really been on the upswing especially since Bill Currier took over as head coach five years ago. Since he's been here, he already holds the highest win percentage of any coach in our program history. He set the program record with 32 wins in 2014 and tied it again this year. Fairfield has been to the conference tournament six times in the last 21 years, and three have been in his five years, so he has righted the ship. He said his goal was to win the MAAC in the first four or five years of his campaign and he has accomplished that. The team has upped their strength and conditioning program and the coaches that Currier has brought in has really helped with recruiting, not just talent wise but also character wise. That's what set us apart this year, everyone on the team has that hard work ethic.
MK: Senior outfielder Jake Salpietro (.349/.439/.581) appears to have made good on preseason expectations, finishing the year as the Stags' lone first-team all-MAAC representative. What can you tell us about his approach at the plate that enables him to tap into his power?
IS: Jake has really been our best power hitter all four years he has been here and is second all-time with 25 career home runs. He's also in the top ten in several other categories. His approach is simple, he's looking to hit the ball hard and when he makes contact, he is so incredibly strong that the ball jumps off his bat and he has power to all fields. His stance is very simple and compact, he gets right into the box and is ready to hit. He was outstanding in the MAAC Tournament and won the MVP of the tournament as well as a National Player of the Week award and hit .692 (9-for- 13) and slugged 1.230 in three games.
MK: I noticed that Fairfield was among the nation's best in avoiding free passes, finishing 14th overall with just 2.76 walks per nine innings, and freshman John Signore, in particular, was particularly adept in that regard. I imagine keeping that up will be critical against such patient regional opponents, so is there a certain philosophy that Stags pitchers follow?
IS: Our defense has been really good this year, the best fielding percentage in the MAAC, so our pitchers are not afraid to draw contact and have batters hit the ball. We have a new pitching coach this season in Ted Hurvul who has really stressed that as well. John Signore has been amazing in that regard, as he has said he just looks at the catcher's glove and throws it there. He actually led the nation in fewest walks per game and strikeout to walk ratio for a few weeks towards the end of the season. All three starters have three pitches that they can throw for strikes anywhere in the count.
MK: What do you think is the biggest challenge Fairfield will face in this regional?
IS: Obviously, the caliber of the opponent is something we have not faced this year and the talent of both the hitters and pitchers is something you cannot duplicate in practices, so that would be the biggest obstacle. But this team has thrived when they have been doubted. They were preseason ranked eighth in the MAAC and posted that in the locker room and really embraced the challenge of proving people wrong. We came within an out of defeating North Carolina at Chapel Hill when they were ranked sixth in the country this season before falling to them in 13 innings. Last season, we lost to Florida by a run when they were the top team in the country, so the Stags are not afraid of the big stage.
MK: How can the Stags break through and surprise Texas Tech in their first game? And if the team faces an early exit, how do you think it's set up for future successes?
IS: As I said, this team really loves being the underdog and having people doubt them, and they have had some surprises this year. We have sixteen comeback victories this season so this team has that "never say die" attitude. Specifically, it comes down to pitching, that's where we make our name, specifically the starting pitching. If our starters can hold the opposition down and give enough times for our bats to come alive you never know what can happen. No matter what happens though our future is pretty bright here. We lose only two starters from our current team and our closer are the seniors that have seen the most time. Our three main starters are a freshman, sophomore, and junior, so the basis is still there. And this team seems to improve year-by-year in terms of work ethic and their individual games so we are all excited to see how they build on this historic year.