LIU-Brooklyn riding high after first NEC baseball tournament title

When Dan Pirillo returned to his alma mater, LIU-Brooklyn, to take over as head baseball coach for the 2017 season, he wanted to bring stability back to the program.

Because of the abrupt departure of his immediate predecessors — Don Maines (in 2014) and Alex Trezza (in 2016), the latter to serve as an assistant at Boston College — many of the upperclassmen on Pirillo’s team had already played for three different coaches. As Pirillo puts it, it was time to re-establish the Blackbirds’ identity, as carved out by former coach Frank Giannone, who guided the program from 1977 to 2006 and had his No. 10 retired by the school in May.

Pirillo, who played for Giannone and Maines before graduating in 2008, has done more than that. By winning their first-ever Northeast Conference title last weekend in Connecticut, the Blackbirds have qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1972. They will begin play at 6 p.m. Friday as the fourth seed against host Coastal Carolina in the Conway (South Carolina) region.

“Nobody on this team had ever been to a conference tournament, let alone a regional,” Pirillo told amNewYork. “The excitement around the program right now is through the roof.”

The Blackbirds aren’t ready to rest on their laurels. Pirillo’s team need look no further than the host Chanticleers — the 2016 College World Series champions — as a model for how far a so-called mid-major program can go. Although they face an uphill climb in a bracket that also includes Washington and Connecticut, the seeding means they avoid baseball powerhouses from the ACC and the SEC in the first round.

“The selection committee showed us a little respect,” said Pirillo, whose team heads into the tournament with 31-24 record. “However, there are no easy games for us. Everyone we play from here on out is going to be a good team.”

Like most coaches, Pirillo believes pitching and defense will be the key to his team’s success. The Blackbirds finished third in the NEC in team ERA (4.70) and first in team defense.

“Our guys are anxious to get down there and play,” Pirillo said. “And we’re going to play the ‘Blackbird Way,’ and that means good, fundamental baseball.”