April 23, 2012
Army had just improved its Patriot League record to 16-0 with a doubleheader sweep of Bucknell on Saturday. The second game had taken 15 innings following Logan Lee's no-hitter in the opener, the first Army no-no in 55 years.
The Black Knights won for the ninth straight time, the 28th time in their last 33 games, and went to 33-9 overall. Coach Joe Sottolano, a Minisink Valley graduate, once the most outstanding player of the Division III World Series as a sensational left-handed pitcher at Ithaca, saw two emails roll into his box that night. It was a couple freshmen asking if they could do some extra work on Army's off day Sunday.
Sottolano wasn't surprised. Ever since the fall he would step out of his office into darkness long after practice and see the lights sparkling from the batting cages on Doubleday Field. It wasn't just the typically more mature older players and starters doing their homework. It was freshmen and backups, guys as passionate as they are talented.
And these Black Knights just might be the most talented baseball team in Army history. That is saying something considering Sottolano, in 12 previous seasons as head coach, has had nine 20-win seasons, four 30-win seasons and coached all four of Army's appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Sottolano won't go there. He dislikes comparing teams almost as much as he does missed signs. But Army's numbers reveal a whole bunch of Academy records being broken this season.
"Probably one of the hardest-working teams I've ever coached,'' Sottolano allowed. "The pitching has been nothing short of special.''
The topic of chemistry seems to draw more attention in football and basketball than in baseball. But Sottolano thinks chemistry is most integral to a successful baseball team because of the sport's failure rate. Quality teams need a strong culture based around trust and loyalty.
"This team, I probably feel, is the closest team as far as understanding me,'' he said.
"No. 1,'' said J.T. Watkins, who has had the privilege of catching a staff with a 3.11 ERA, "it's a very hungry group. I noticed during the offseason that there were so many guys staying after practice, working before practice, between classes -- extra work, extra lifting. The guys just love being around baseball.
"There are no individuals on this team. We do stuff off the field -- we go out to eat. We just enjoy being around each other.''
Army developed a bit of a chip on its shoulder entering the season. The Black Knights had graduated some big-time players, including Clint Moore, one of the best players in Army history, and returnees sensed low expectations from the outside.
Army already has clinched the league title for the sixth time in nine years. The Black Knights have nine games remaining before the Patriot tournament, including Wednesday's Hudson Valley showdown against Marist at Dutchess Stadium. Sottolano is especially impressed with league foe Holy Cross, which the Black Knights play four times this weekend. And for all its brilliance, Army's season could end abruptly in the league tourney.
"Yeah,'' Sottolano said, "but I don't worry about that. If the season ended tomorrow, I would have zero regrets.''
Sottolano knows his Black Knights will give their best effort. He knows they will have pinpoint preparation and focus. There are no regrets when you have a team with that approach.