Hometown boys key the rise of UB baseball

“We’re right where we want to be,” Joe Tonelli, the University of Bridgeport head baseball coach said. “We did well. There is a good dynamic within the entire team."

Tonelli, a Milford resident and Notre Dame of West Haven and Assumption College standout, saw his Purple Knights’ season come to a close with a tough 4-1 loss against the St. Thomas Aquinas College Spartans on Championship Saturday of the East Coast Conference Tournament.

UB was loaded with local talent, including four players from Tonelli’s hometown — Brian O’Keefe, Anthony Alicki, Casey McCone and Kevin Johnson.

The quartet helped the Purple Knights finish with a 25-24 record and grab the program’s first-ever share of the East Coast Conference regular season title, plus make UB’s fourth appearance in the ECC Tournament final in the last five years.

O’Keefe finished his career as UB’s all-time leader in victories and strikeouts. The lefthander out of Foran High, prepped at Orange Coast College in California,  before returning East.

“Those records are (the by-product) of hard work,” O’Keefe said. “It’s all the work I’ve put in with the players and coaches since I returned three years ago. They make my job easier and it shows on the field.

“The past couple of years I felt like I needed to win (every game), which I always want to do. This season we went four or five deep with a good bullpen.”

Tonelli said, “Brian has been every bit as good as we hoped he would be. He played one season at OCC and was hurt one year.

“In his three years, no one worked harder, on or off the field. He is a great team leader and led all the pitchers in conditioning.

“Brian had a great career with us; the program’s strikeout leader and the leader in wins in only three seasons

Alicki, another Foran High product, put together a 6-3 record and a 2.51 ERA in a staff leading 71.2 innings pitched. The righthanded sophomore struck out 76 batters and allowed only 52 hits.

“Anthony is a bulldog and is going to be our mainstay,” Tonelli said. “You don’t have to tell him anything; you don’t know if he’s up ten runs or down ten runs he goes after hitters.

McCone, who had two hits in the championship game, batted 2.48 for the season. The Foran High graduate drove in 25 runs with his 45 hits and scored 16 runs. He stole six bases in eight attempts.

“Casey is 6-4 almost 6-5 and is growing into his body,” Tonelli said of the sophomore third baseman. “He’s a big strong kid and just learning how to utilize all his tools.

“The last half of the year Casey really came on and he’ll be everything we projected him to be batting in the four, five or six hole.”

Johnson, a freshman out of Jonathan Law, threw 28.1 innings for the Knights with 19 strikeouts. He went 1-2 on the season with three saves.

“We brought Kevin along slowly and he’s going to be a good one,” Tonelli said. “He pitched mostly in a relief role, but started two games — one against Villanova, who was ranked highly all year, and the other against Wilmington.

“Kevin came through and had three big saves in our conference games. We don’t know yet is his is a bullpen arm or a starter’s arm, but he’s very athletic and has the right makeup coming out of the bullpen.”

Tonelli was named the Coach of the Year by his peers after guiding the Purple Knights to a share of the East Coast Conference regular season title for the first time in program history.

Knights’ earning spots on the All-ECC first team were senior shortstop John Ascenzia (West Haven), senior designated hitter Tim Bickford (Wallingford), junior starting pitcher Rob Anderson (Stratford) and freshman relief pitcher PJ Martino (Medford, N.Y.)

Alicki and freshman second baseman Jose Negron (New Haven) received All-ECC second team accolades.

Ascenzia was selected as the American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings NCAA Division II National Gold Glove Winner.

He is the first UB player ever to honored with a national ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove. In 2013, UB outfielder Jesse Solar received a received regional Gold Glove accolades.

In 2015, Ascenzia, who became the University of Bridgeport’s all-time leader in hits at the plate finishing his career with a total of 183, was nearly flawless in the field taking care of 189 chances with only three errors all season long.

Ascenzia, Bickford, Anderson and Martino were recognized by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association with spots on this year’s NCBWA NCAA Division II All-East Region team.

One of the highlights of the season was a regular-season ending victory over St. Thomas.

Trailing 8-7 entering the top of ninth inning, UB rallied to score three runs and notch a 10-8 win in the second game of a doubleheader that gave the Knights a share of the East Coast Conference title for the first time in program history with a 15-9 record.

UB shared the ECC regular season crown with the Dowling College Golden Lions.

UB led 6-1 after the top of the sixth inning and 7-4 after the top of the seventh, only to see the Spartans rally to take an 8-7 lead heading into the ninth.

In the ninth inning, the Purple Knights scored a run on a wild pitch to tie things up at 8-8 to set up a game-winning, two-RBI single by McCone, who was red-hot on the day going 4-for-5 at the plate with five runs batted in.

McCone’s base hit made a winner of Alicki, who picked up the win in relief to up his season mark to 6-3.

O’Keefe worked a scoreless ninth inning to pick up his first save of 2015.

Alicki pitched a nine-inning, complete game 1-0 shutout victory over STAC in the first game.