By DENNIS WASZAK Jr., Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Matt Senk remembers looking out at his players during his first practice as Stony Brook's baseball coach 22 years ago and thinking he had made a huge mistake.
"'What did you do?'" a laughing Senk said, recalling those momentary doubts. "'Why did you leave?'"
He was a successful coach at Kellenberg Memorial High School, a Long Island-based Catholic school with a baseball program that produced a handful of Division I players every year. Senk left to become a full-time coach and took over a college team at a Division III school that lacked talent and tradition.
"It turned out to be the greatest decision I ever made," he said. "They were dying for someone to come in and bring stability. These guys were just starving for leadership."
Stony Brook found that in Senk, the team's third coach in less than a year after the first two hires didn't work out. He guided the program through successful transitions from Division III to Division II in 1995, and up to Division I in 2000.
"And now," Senk said, "we're going to Omaha."
The Seawolves (52-13) are in the College World Series for the first time in school history, and it's no sudden rags-to-riches story. Senk has gradually transformed Stony Brook into one of college baseball's top programs with 124 wins and two America East titles in the last three years — and the rest of the country knows it now.
"I think they had the belief," said Texas Rangers reliever Joe Nathan, who was a shortstop for then-Division III Stony Brook Patriots in the early 1990s. "But now everybody else is kind of getting a chance to witness what the Seawolves can do, and they're getting on the map and that's nice to see."
People still might not understand exactly where Stony Brook is — about 60 miles east of New York City — or what a Seawolf is — a mythical creature said to bring good luck to those who see it. But the baseball team has generated a buzz, an underdog that went from being a regional feel-good story to a legitimate national championship contender.
Stony Brook is just the second No. 4 regional seed to make it to the College World Series, joining a Fresno State team that won it all in 2008. Those Bulldogs were labeled a "Cinderella team" after having an inconsistent season before putting things together down the stretch.
The Seawolves don't necessarily fit the fairy tale mold. While they took the stunning route of winning at Miami and LSU to get here, they have been dominant all season and some thought they were deserving of at least a No. 3 seed. Stony Brook has also been among the national leaders in victories during the last three years, and made the NCAA tournament three times in five seasons.
"I don't know that I or my team has reacted too strongly to the Cinderella or underdog label," Senk said. "We kind of look at all that as just coming with the territory and we don't allow that to define us. We feel strongly about defining ourselves by the way we play and the way we go about the game."
The Seawolves lead the country in wins, were ranked in national polls during the season and are the first New York school to make it to the College World Series since St. John's got there in 1980. They're also the first Northeast-based team to reach Omaha since Maine in 1986 — a few years before any of the Stony Brook players were born.
"It's something you dream of as a little kid," senior pitcher Tyler Johnson said. "When we first won the super regional, there was a little disbelief at first, like, 'Did we really just do this?'"
They sure did, and there's no need to pinch themselves because there's plenty of proof. The Seawolves were the lead story on ESPN's "SportsCenter" after they upset mighty LSU in the super regionals — despite blowing three late leads and losing in 12 innings in the opening game of the series.
There have been countless radio and television interviews, a hero's welcome on campus and they were even a trending topic on Twitter. Nathan received so many media requests about his alma mater, the Rangers set up a conference call so he could talk about the team that plays in a facility named after him.