Catholic baseball rides name-brand support to College World Series

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Wally Pipp and Brian Cashman are the most famous Catholic University baseball alumni, but no one has had a greater influence on the program than longtime coach and native Washingtonian Ross Natoli. Natoli has more than 700 wins during his 37 years at the Northeast Washington school, and this season he has led the Cardinals to their first appearance in the Division III College World Series.

“Our goal every year is to take our program further than we’ve ever been, and credit to the guys on this team for pulling it off,” Natoli said ahead of the eight-team tournament, which begins Friday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “When you can be playing baseball in June, it’s pretty special.”

Natoli, who went to Churchill High and was an outfielder at George Washington, took over at Catholic in the fall of 1985 after serving as an assistant at GW and Gonzaga College High. His first season coincided with Cashman’s freshman year.

Cashman, now the New York Yankees’ general manager, was a speedy second baseman and leadoff hitter who started every game over the next four years. He has remained close with Natoli and kept tabs on the program while building four World Series champions in New York since taking over in 1998. Cashman addressed the Cardinals during a visit to campus in early April, when he was inducted to the Catholic Athletics Hall of Fame.

“They already seemed to have a good, tight unit, and it seemed like they were capable of great things,” Cashman said in a phone interview. “I’m so proud of what Ross Natoli and [assistant coach] Bobby Picardo and this crew have been able to accomplish thus far. They’ve already opened a lot of people’s eyes and forced the baseball universe to pay attention.”

Building on the success of legendary coach Bob Talbot, who coached the team from 1964 to 1977 and later became the school’s athletic director, Natoli guided Catholic to NCAA tournament appearances in 2011, 2015 and 2018. He said he had an idea that this team could be special during its annual trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., in March. With Catholic trailing by three and down to its final out in the first game of a doubleheader against the University of Rochester, sophomore Jesse Lacefield, who had entered as a defensive replacement in the top half of the inning, hit a walk-off grand slam.

Catholic (34-14) earned one of 19 at-large bids to the 60-team NCAA tournament, and the Cardinals’ run to Cedar Rapids has been stunning. In the deciding game of the Winchester (Va.) regional, Catholic fell behind 6-0 in the first inning before scoring 13 consecutive runs in a 13-10 win over Shenandoah.

Last weekend, the Cardinals dropped the first game of a best-of-three super regional at Ithaca (N.Y.) College before winning twice Sunday to clinch their World Series spot. Junior Ben Nardi had a grand slam and five RBI in Catholic’s 16-2 rout in the winner-take-all game.

“I think we really truly believe in each other, from underclassmen to upperclassmen,” said Peter Giombetti, a senior designated hitter and the Division III Region 5 player of the year who is hitting .373 with 15 home runs, a school record. “There’s just a faith and belief in each other and that our coaches will put us in the right position to succeed.”

The groundwork for the most successful season in Catholic history, including a fitness test dubbed the “Cedar Rapids Challenge,” was laid in the fall and winter, as it always is under Natoli. Cashman said one of his former coach’s mantras, preached year-round, set him up for success after graduation.

“When you’re out there and you’re going through your reps — whether it’s sprints, whether it’s doing cardiovascular work between the fall and spring season or you’re taking batting practice, fielding groundballs — you’ve got to do it a certain way,” Cashman said. “He always told us: ‘Don’t cut corners, don’t cheat yourself, because if you cheat yourself here, you’re going to cheat yourself in the most important spot. It’s going to manifest itself later in a game.’ … If you can build up that type of consistent approach, it will serve you well in life.”

Natoli said he has heard from more than 50 of his former players since Sunday’s win, which culminated with the coach on his back in the infield, reveling in a celebratory Gatorade cooler shower. One of those players has provided added motivation for Natoli and the Cardinals this season. Matt Kurkjian, the older brother of ESPN baseball reporter and Bethesda native Tim Kurkjian, was a third baseman on Talbot’s 1977 Catholic team that advanced to the Division I tournament and came within three wins of a trip to the College World Series in Omaha. Last summer, Matt Kurkjian, who played against Natoli in college and with him on summer league teams, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

On the same weekend that Catholic honored Cashman, Natoli arranged for Kurkjian to throw a ceremonial first pitch, with several of his 1977 teammates at his side. The Cardinals have worn shirts modeled after that team’s jerseys, with “M. Kurkjian” and his No. 2 on the back, during warmups throughout this season. Kurkjian couldn’t make the trip to Cedar Rapids, but he won’t be far from Natoli’s mind.

“We’ve kind of dedicated this year to Matt,” Natoli said. “It’s a special motivation for me because he was the best teammate I ever played with. I just feel really fortunate that we’re able to stand on the shoulders of the teams from the ’70s that had a special run to the NCAA regional under Coach Bob Talbot. We have a lot of support behind us, and there’s no bigger supporter of our program than Matt Kurkjian.”

Catholic, the No. 8 seed, opens the World Series at 11 a.m. Friday against Ohio’s Marietta College (43-5), the top seed. The tournament begins with double-elimination bracket play and culminates in a best-of-three championship series. All games can be viewed at NCAA.com.

“We’re here for a reason,” said Natoli, who credited the “best coaching staff in the country,” including three of his former players, for much of his success. “We want to savor every moment that we can here and at the same time prepare to the fullest because in this game of baseball, it’s not necessarily the best team or the highest-ranked team that wins the game. It’s whoever plays their best ball when it means the most.”



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