PREVIEW: Broncs reload after championship run

By Benjamin Shinault

All the way in the back of Rider’s campus stands a dormant baseball stadium. Over the harsh winter season, it has collected snow and rain atop the tarp. It used to be home to clouds of dirt, chewed-up bubble gum and sunflower seeds and baseballs being bashed by rattling, metallic bats.

Alas, the time is almost here for Sonny Pittaro field to come alive again. Baseball has returned to Rider’s campus and the team is ready and eager to win another Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship. 

Rider’s season begins on Feb. 16 as it heads south to face off against the nationally ranked East Carolina Pirates.

Breaking down the Broncs

The Broncs have had their fair share of departures with some of their top contributors nestling into new programs, including starting pitcher Dylan Heine, who made his way to Arkansas State, and slugging outfielder Brendan O’Donnell, who took his bat to James Madison.

Last season, O’Donnell led the Broncs in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage.

Another Bronc that has left Sonny Pittaro Field was 2023 All-American closing pitcher and MAAC reliever of the year Danny Kirwin, who now plays for the Oakland Ballers, a professional baseball team within an MLB Partner League.

With all this considered, the Broncs had to refuel the talent lost to graduation and the not-so-forgiving transfer portal. 

Entering the ensuing season, Rider will have two new graduate students: outfielder Justin Costanzo, pitcher Christian Coombes and six freshmen added to the roster. 

Costanzo, coming in from Widener, brings veteran leadership and some pop to the plate. Last season he had a .318 batting average, hit a team-leading seven home runs and led Widener in walks with 25.

“Great kid, a left-handed hitter with some power, and he has a chance to be a great player for us,” Head Coach Barry Davis said of Costanzo. “He’ll probably be our designated hitter [in] game one, and he is very capable of playing left field.”

On the mound, Coombes, coming in from MAAC rival Saint Peter’s, can definitely help the Broncs with their depth, as they had some key losses to their starting rotation. Last season for the Peacocks, the southpaw pitcher struck out 36 batters over 50 innings and had a career-low in batting average against with .261.

“He’s a strike thrower … and he’s an innings eater,” Davis said of Coombes. “He’s not going to be pitching in non-quality situations, he’s going to be pitching in competitive situations … and he’s another piece to the bullpen.”

Returning Broncs

Despite the constant turnover of names in Rider’s baseball program, some still sport black and cranberry.First baseman Luke Lesch and infielder Jack Winsett are returning to Rider this season. Both Broncs are graduate students and have taken a leadership position in and out of the dugout.

“Jack didn’t play as much in his first couple years but slowly developed into a great player for us,” Davis said. “Luke has essentially played since he was a freshman … for Luke, this will be his fourth straight year at first.”

Davis described what he is expecting from Winsett and Lesch as they take bigger leadership roles as graduate students.

“They have certainly experienced the failure and the success that comes with a season,” Davis explained. “They can certainly be more vocal off and on the field trying to develop relationships with the young guys … we are expecting them to play at a high level every time we go out.”

Winsett, who has been with the Broncs since the 2020 season, has been to three MAAC Championship games and won twice. Winsett is expecting the same this spring.

“I feel like just being in the championship the last three years puts a target on our back, and I feel like the end goal is always winning the MAAC championship,” Winsett said.

Winsett’s last season with the Broncs was one of his most successful. He batted .289, had 59 hits, brought in 46 runners and only committed four errors at the hot corner.

Lesch also had one of his better slugging years, as he put eight balls over the wall and landed on the MAAC All-Tournament team after his electric performance to help the Broncs win it all. 

Lesch had similar feedback when it came to putting up another banner on the outfield fence at Sonny Pittaro Field.

“It was definitely a great feeling to win the MAAC, especially with the senior class we had last year and the expectation for this year are going back and winning it again,” Lesch said.

Another Bronc that turned heads last season was senior catcher Brian Skettini, who was recently ranked the 39th best catcher in the nation according to That honor comes as no surprise, as Skettini was one of the most productive Broncs last season and is expected to replicate that performance this season.

“It honestly was a great honor, but I’m more focused on going into the season, as I do every year, just as a team,” Skettini said.

Skettini last season was second team All-MAAC, led the Broncs in batting average at .313 and had 67 hits to go with 49 RBIs. 

The road ahead

The Broncs will open their season at East Carolina, who is coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance.

“It’s the first game so we are always excited, and I don’t know if we’ve opened up with a tougher opponent than East Carolina ever,” Davis said. “We have played two teams like them … but as far as opening the season … we are just excited to go out there and play.”

 The following weekend, the Broncs will continue their southern road trip as they take on East Tennessee State, a program that finished with a losing record at 26-29, so Rider has a chance to collect some early wins in the first couple weeks of the season.

“Every opening weekend we get matched up with someone down south, so the odds that we play somebody good is pretty high,” Winsett said.

The Rider bus will park at Sonny Pittaro Field to play Fairleigh Dickinson on March 6, when green leaves color the outfield and fresh paint lines the dirt-filled diamond.

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