NEW YORK – Kevin Leighton took a look at his Manhattan College baseball team before the season and saw trouble ahead.
Forget the NCAA tournament, he thought. The Jaspers might not even make their conference tournament.
"I had us being a fifth-place team in our conference," Leighton said with a laugh. "I underestimated them, I guess. They really proved me wrong."
Boy, did they ever. The Jaspers (34-17) finished 20-2 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, won the conference tournament and made it to the NCAA regionals for the first time since 2006 and only the third time in school history.
"We had a tremendous year in conference play," said Leighton, in his sixth season as the Jaspers' coach. "I really do try to push their buttons a little bit sometimes and I think our team responds to that. My thing is that I will tell them, 'You're not supposed to win and you shouldn't win, but you can win because anything can happen.'"
There will be plenty of that kind of talk during the next few days as Manhattan prepares for its nationally televised opening-round game Friday in Gainesville, Fla., against No. 2 national seed Florida (45-16). Miami (36-21) and Jacksonville (36-22) are the other two teams in the bracket.
That's right, three Florida-based schools with odd-man-out Manhattan, a ragtag bunch flying in with upset on their minds.
"I think we'll definitely embrace that underdog label a little, but we're not going in there with that mindset," senior outfielder Mike McCann said. "We know those teams have the pressure on them because they're supposed to beat us. We've played teams down South and beat them and hung in with them. I think we have the mentality that we can beat these teams."
The Jaspers know they're a team probably few in Florida are familiar with. Their unique team name is in honor of Brother Jasper of Mary, who served at the college in the late 19th century and is credited by some for "inventing" the seventh-inning stretch. Oh, and some probably aren't aware Manhattan College isn't even located in New York City. It's in Riverdale, the northwest corner of the Bronx — or several long balls away from Yankee Stadium.
"Nobody really knows about us down there and we're the underdog," Leighton said. "I think that plays to our advantage. I think they believe they can beat anybody, and that's a scary thing as the opposition."
That approach is nothing new for Leighton, the Jaspers' 31-year-old coach who led the program to one of the biggest upset wins in NCAA tournament history in his first season five years ago. That's when Manhattan went into Lincoln, Neb., and beat the host Cornhuskers and future Yankees right-hander Joba Chamberlain in the opener. The Jaspers lost to Miami and staved off elimination by beating San Francisco before having their season end against the Hurricanes.
Not bad for a program that had only one other NCAA tournament appearance — in 1957 — before this year.
"Yeah, we've been hearing about the '06 team ever since we got here," McCann said. "We've been looking up to them and been wanting to do what they did, and we're glad that we finally get to write our own story, so to speak."
This group of Jaspers, especially the seniors, already has to a large extent. After getting knocked out of the MAAC tournament the past three years, Manhattan finally sealed the deal this time around with two comeback victories and the school's second conference title. With 128 wins in four years, McCann is part of the winningest senior class in school history.
"The four years I've been here, I've never seen this team give up," McCann said. "We don't get down on ourselves and we know anything can happen because we've seen it. In a tournament like this, a little luck doesn't hurt, either."
The starting pitching has been a major reason for Manhattan's success, particularly sophomore righty John Soldinger, who was the MAAC pitcher of the year and is 10-2 with a 2.34 ERA. Giordano, a junior described by Leighton as "a crafty right-hander," is 8-2 with a 3.92 ERA and a team-leading 74 strikeouts. Sophomore lefty Eric Luksis (7-3, 3.47) has also been solid. The three have also combined for 15 complete games, including six each by Soldinger and Luksis.
"They've been able to cruise for the most part," said Leighton, who notched his 200th victory in the MAAC title game. "They've done a great job of keeping us in games and going deep into games, which is what we might need because we're not as deep as, say, maybe a Florida. In the regionals, I'm not sure how our guys will stack up against these teams, but if we want to have any kind of shot, these guys have to perform well, so we'll see."
The offense has also been consistently productive, led by seniors McCann (.365, six home runs, 38 RBIs), Chad Salem (.340, 9, 50), Mark Onarati (.337, 6, 26) and Austin Sheffield (.311, 3, 29). Onarati is the school's career hits leader and the second-toughest player in Division I to strike out with just five in 193 at-bats, while Salem holds the marks for homers and RBIs.
"I think having our four seniors in the middle of the lineup with a ton of experience has really helped us a lot," McCann said. "Our pitching has been unbelievable, and we expect to win. We're not going to back down from these teams. We want to prove that teams from the North can play with teams from the South."