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April 9, 2014 / Sports

Blackbirds fly straight after coaching change

Long Island University’s Pete Leonello owns multiple program hitting records.
Brooklyn Daily
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The Long Island University baseball team has proven it can handle a curve.

The sudden resignation of Blackbirds’ six-year head coach Don Maines in early March was a shock to the players, according to LIU Athletic Director and interim coach John Suarez, but the veteran team soon banded together.

The players snapped out of it quick after Suarez proved he was capable of helping them win games.

“This team has stuck together throughout it,” siad senior shortstop John Ziznewski. “This team is strong.”

The Blackbirds, who were picked by the coaches to finish fourth in the Northeast Conference, are 14–11–1 overall and 11–5–1 since Suarez took over. Long Island University won just 21 games last season.

Suarez, who played college baseball at Farleigh Dickson and interim assistant coach Dan Iglesias, a former pitcher at the school, have eased the transition. But the coaches give plenty of credit to veterans like Ziznewski, Pete Leonello and graduate student Matt McCormick for keeping things together.

“I think this would have been more of a disaster if I didn’t have those five or six seniors who were able to understand how you get through this and work with me to get the team through it,” said Suarez, who declined to give details on Maines’s departure beyond saying it was because of an “incident on the coaching staff.”

Long Island University headed into this week riding on arguably its best performance this season — an 11–1 win over Wagner last Sunday — to even the team’s weekend series at two games a piece. Freshman Bobby Maxwell allowed just four hits over 8.3 scoreless innings of work. The duo of Leonello and Ziznewski collected a combined six hits and seven runs batted in.

“I think if we keep hitting the way we’ve been hitting and pitching the way we have been pitching, we can be a top team in the NEC,” Leonello said.

Leonello owns the program record for hits, doubles and stolen bases. Ziznewski is the conference’s preseason pick for player of the year, and has driven in 31 runs. Bobby Webb and Mark Hernandez are also off to fast starts. Five Blackbirds who had played in 20 games or more are hitting over .300.

“From top to bottom, we are very strong,” Leonello said.

The pitching staff has followed suit. McCormack, who has a 2.53 earned run average, leads a young group. He has also been calling the pitches with the absence of a true pitching coach. Two of the Blackbirds’ four starting pitchers against conference foes are freshman — Bobby Maxwell and Dustin Carlson. They have earned run averages of 2.61 and 281 respectively.

Suarez knows his team has the tools to make a run at a conference championship, but also a small margin for error. He will remain the coach until the end of the season before he begins a national search for a permanent replacement. Until then, his job is to try to keep his players focused and confident.

“We are good enough,” Suarez said. “I think we just have to believe we are good enough to play with some of the top teams in the league.”

Reach reporter Joseph Staszewski at jstaszewski@cnglocal.com. Follow him on twitter @cng_staszewski.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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