After a long, drowned out weekend under the California sun in late February, Marist Baseball sat patiently in Los Angeles International Airport on a Sunday night awaiting their flight home. Earlier that day, they had surrendered 12 runs to the University of Southern California in their non-conference opener, capping off a brutal series in which they were outscored 37-12.
Correction: Half of the baseball team was at LAX.
The other half of the team had already made a flight, but it wasn’t back to Poughkeepsie. After the team’s original flight was canceled that night, the Red Foxes had to quickly figure out a contingency plan that could get them home in time for Monday classes. Despite hours of waiting, there weren’t any flights that could fit the 30-plus players, coaches and staff altogether.
At the end of the night, half of the team took a chance to make a connecting flight, flying northbound to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The other half of the team, including sophomore infielder Nathan Lincoln, didn’t make it home that night, instead trudging back to a hotel at dusk.
“We were all pretty annoyed, obviously,” said Lincoln. “At the same time, it was an opportunity for team building and getting closer to the guys that you stayed with.”
Though the entire team managed to return to Poughkeepsie by Monday night, first-year head coach Lance Ratchford and his squad didn’t even have time to unpack their bags. They had a bus to catch just two days later, as they were scheduled to travel all the way to William and Mary University in Virginia.
Most northeast collegiate baseball teams will hop on a bus, and sometimes a plane, to play against schools in a warmer climate early on in the season, but it’s rare for a team like Marist to go coast-to-coast during the first weekend. The pressing demands of the travel schedule certainly didn’t make things easier for the team amid their rough start to the 2023 season.
History would repeat itself again when there were more flight issues only a month later, this time occurring in Florida after a series against Florida International University.
“I was sitting in an airport and I was like, ‘This is so tough, man,’” said Ratchford. “‘Why are we doing this to ourselves?’”
Unexpected worst-case scenarios were all too common for the Red Foxes in 2023. In a year that began with former head coach Chris Tracz heading down the Hudson River to start anew at Army, the program dipped below a .500 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference record for the first time in nine years.
It was the end of July when Marist Athletics announced Tracz had accepted a head coaching job with Army West Point, Marist’s biggest baseball rival outside the MAAC. That’s when Mike Coss, the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator of the Red Foxes since 2018, suddenly became in charge of an entire Division I baseball roster, including the class of incoming freshmen and transfers.
“There was a three-week period where I’m just holding down the ship,” said Coss. “I’m running camp, I’m still trying to recruit. I don’t have kids on campus, but I’m trying to make sure some of our commits are going to be okay, saying ‘Don’t worry.’ We’re not trying to lose the whole team to the portal.”
The transfer portal has become a nightmare for teams across every sport and level of NCAA athletics to navigate when going through a coaching change. This especially applies for a mid-major school like Marist. Tracz had run the program for 13 years, sustained a winning culture with a 171-116 record in MAAC play, and led the same program he engineered to a MAAC championship in 2017.
It can be a harsh reality for players during a coaching change. The reality is the coach they played under for several years or were recruited by must still pursue their own career aspirations regardless of their relationship with the players.
Coss was delighted for Tracz. The coach he had played under, as well as coached with, was pursuing his future in the sport. On the flip side, the ship he was left to hold down had started to sink, and Marist still hadn’t hired a head coach. He also had no inkling that Ratchford could be considered for the job in a couple weeks.
Ratchford has a history with Marist baseball. He was an assistant coach under Tracz from 2016-2018 and coached Coss’s latter three years as a player at Marist. Coss was a pitcher and Ratchford a position coach, but the two still possessed a great relationship in the successful program.
When Coss graduated in 2018, Ratchford accepted a head coaching job at SUNY Cobleskill to pursue his own head coaching aspirations, while Coss helped run youth baseball camps at Marist. That’s when Ratchford approached his former player with an interesting offer: $2,000 to be the pitching coach at Cobleskill. It was Coss’s first coaching job offer since graduating.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” said Coss. “It was one of those things; I knew I wanted to get into coaching, I just didn’t really know how.”
Ratchford had spots for his new program and open arms for Coss. It was a leap of faith, one Coss was willing to take to stay in baseball.
“I’ve always liked being a helpful person,” said Coss. “It honestly was more that I couldn’t picture myself in a cubicle.”
Ratchford found success again at the Division III level with Coss by his side, winning the North Atlantic Conference championship two years in a row when a year before, the team had gone 3-28. Ratchford had coached as an assistant of a championship Division I team, and now proved he could do it on his own with a Division III team.
Ratchford accepted a job offer from Athletic Director Tim Murray, and he was announced on Aug. 8 as the program’s head coach.
Remember the sinking ship mentioned above? It was still sinking.
Ratchford’s initial main objective was to continue sustaining success like his predecessor and former boss had done for 13 years. With his successful track record and the foundation of Marist Baseball in the MAAC, it didn’t appear to be a tall order, but that quickly proved not to be the case.
Keeping transfers in-house was the most present problem. With no head coach confirmed to the players, the big names had already taken off.
The headline was Gavin Noriega, a redshirt sophomore who was an offensive powerhouse in his first year at the collegiate level. As a rookie, he made the First Team All-MAAC, starting every game for the Red Foxes and finishing with the second highest batting average and second most RBIs on the team in 2022.
“I had been through his recruiting situation too, and if he had known I was going to be there, he probably would’ve stayed,” said Ratchford.
Erubiel Candelario was the key veteran of the pitching staff to depart before Ratchford was hired. Candelario knew Ratchford from the Cape Cod Baseball League playing for the Brewster Whitecaps, where Ratchford was an assistant coach. He and graduate student Alex Pansini carried the starting pitching staff in the 2022 season on their backs, pitching over 75 innings a piece averaging around a 4.25 ERA between them.
Along with the transfer portal, Ratchford had to assemble another coaching staff like he had done at Cobleskill. During the interview process, Coss took interviews from multiple schools for other coaching positions. Once Ratchford’s hiring was official, Coss stayed, adding some structure and familiarity to the coaching staff.
“You have this window where you’re just trying to hold all your guys in, but I can’t hold them in because I’m not the guy yet,” said Ratchford.
With a lack of remaining options in the transfer portal due to most players already being committed, the Red Foxes entered the 2023 season with a considerably young roster. With 12 freshmen on the roster, many were required to step into significant roles from the get-go, especially on the pitching staff.
Sure enough, Marist ended the year with a ghastly 9.38 team ERA, the third worst in the MAAC conference.
“We had a group of new guys that were in new roles that they have never been in,” said Ratchford. “And the tough non-conference schedule wasn’t setting them up for failure, but it was setting them up for a really big obstacle.”
Despite retaining Coss, they were still incomplete as a coaching staff. Ratchford retained Coss and offensive assistant coach Anthony Spataro, but Ratchford felt he didn’t have a complete coaching situation for his first year with a Division I program. The staff lacked depth for coaching intricate positions, which would later force the three coaches to pick up more responsibilities throughout 2023.
The combination of Ratchford’s late hiring, key pieces transferring out without any transferring in, a small coaching staff and a relatively inexperienced roster proved to be too much to overcome. When the time came for the team to hop on a flight and play a PAC-12 school, the odds of retaining the winning culture in 2023 had already dwindled.
The Red Foxes entered the MAAC schedule with a horrific 3-19 non-conference record, an impossible hole to dig out of. For context, Marist ended the 2022 season with 18 losses. They were in uncharted waters, and had to trudge through the season for the rest of MAAC play.
Niko Amory was one of the seven graduate students who ended their college playing career with the Red Foxes in 2023. A catcher on the team for all five years of his college eligibility, he had seen the winning culture that Marist Baseball and Tracz’s program had regularly enjoyed. His final year, he struggled not just during the games, but also with ending his baseball career on a team that fell short of expectations.
“I think the biggest thing [last year] was just holding each other to a higher standard,” said Amory. “I think we did it last year. But there were some things that we let slide, like being on time and dressing the same as everybody else. Just holding each other accountable. Like if you’re pitching like crap one day, or your swings aren’t looking right, like just having somebody next to you tell you, ‘Hey, we need you to be better here.’”
Amory reminisced over the extent of his long baseball career with the Red Foxes. In fact, Ratchford was the main reason Amory was at Marist in the first place. One of Amory’s assistant coaches at his travel baseball team in New Jersey played with Ratchford at Keystone College. Keystone was where Ratchford played his final year at college, hitting .339 and taking home the NCAA Division III College World Series title.
While as an assistant for Tracz, Ratchford was at Diamond Nation in Raritan Township, New Jersey late in the day watching Amory play. Most of the other Division I coaches had left, and he noticed how Amory had been overlooked amid the Diamond Jacks’ talented roster.
Ratchford got in contact with his old teammate, Amory’s coach, to ask about him. At the same time, he wanted Tracz and fellow assistant Eric Pelletier to watch Amory play.
“It was a slam dunk. We ended up getting him here as quickly as possible and made him an offer,” said Ratchford. “It was between us and Lehigh in Pennsylvania, where he’s from, and we ended up winning.”
Amory became a staple for the Red Foxes the next five years behind the dish while also becoming close with Ratchford, ultimately reuniting in 2023 with Ratchford’s return to the program as head coach. Despite a disappointing year, Amory felt comfortable with the guidance of the man that recruited him at the helm.
After graduating, Amory wasn’t satisfied. He felt he had ended his collegiate baseball career with a sour taste in his mouth, and longed to stay in the game he loved. He asked his former coach about entering the coaching business, and Ratchford helped out with his connections to the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod Baseball League, landing him a job for the summer on the staff.
“I hit up the coaches and asked how Niko was doing,” said Ratchford. “They said he was doing great, and that I should bring him back. That was the ultimate plan, just to see where he was at.”
Ratchford moved swiftly to fill out his staff, bringing in Amory with the title of “Director of Operations and Player Development.” At first glance, the title is fairly vague for a first-year coach.
Amory will be shooting video doing practices and games so that the staff can look over more film, which had less of a presence in 2023. More importantly, Amory will be working with the catchers themselves, something he never had as a catcher in his collegiate career.
“There was always Tracz or Coss, but a left-handed pitcher working with a catcher is just totally different,” said Amory.
Amory isn’t the only new addition to Ratchford’s staff. Hired alongside Amory is assistant coach Ray Sanchez, who worked under Ratchford as his hitting coach for SUNY Cobleskill and helped him turn the program.
Sanchez was doing his Master’s at UAlbany when Ratchford asked if he wanted to become his hitting coach, but this time at Marist. The fit was natural, helped in part because Sanchez had just married to his wife who is from Hyde Park, just a few minutes up Route 9 from Marist.
With Coss returning once again as the pitching coach, Spatarro and Sanchez spearheading the offense together, Amory aiding with player development and Ratchford coaching defense, the staff was finally complete.
Amory is fully onboard. Ending his playing career in 2023, he is fully committed to helping restore the program to what it once was during his first four years. He is still getting used to coaching a team he recently played for, but thinks his existing relationship with the team will help drive success in 2024.
“Especially for the fifth-years, guys I played with for four years. I don’t want them to go out the way I did,” said Amory. “That’s something that is going to burn a fire in me forever now.”
This offseason, Ratchford’s program brought 12 incoming pitchers: seven freshmen and five transfers. Bringing in mature arms was goal number one, and they exceeded their own expectations after netting arms from the likes of Holy Cross (Garrett Bell) and Ithaca College (Nate Chudy).
The staff went so far as to dip into the junior college level to get arms that were “proven winners,” as Ratchford described. Ty Morris (Lackawanna College) and Chris Ubner (Herkimer) each have experience playing in the Junior College World Series, which Ratchford thinks will help the pitching staff mature as they develop at the Collegiate level.
While it’s easy to focus on incoming players, there are also some key pieces returning. Lincoln, now a junior, saw the highs of the 2022 season and the lows of the 2023 season, and through it all he still trusts Ratchford’s ability to turn the team around.
“The group that stayed is the group we wanted,” said Lincoln. “Everybody who left showed us who didn’t buy in and those who stayed showed us who did. With that tightly-knit group, we can continue to build with the new guys coming in as well.”
One final issue in need of addressing was the suboptimal travel schedule that marred the 2023 season right from the start. Instead of going coast-to-coast, Marist opens the 2024 season against Eastern Mississippi, followed by the University of South Florida the following weekend.
“I want to try to make the logistics easier on the guys. Competition wise, we’re always going to be challenging ourselves,” said Ratchford.
The 2023 season was messy for the Red Foxes, but there were signs of life at the end of the season, as the team won their last two series against Fairfield and Canisius, who were the number one and three teams in the MAAC, respectively. Both teams were locked into the playoffs, but the Red Foxes took advantage of the situation, shaking those team’s confidence and giving hope to their own struggling program.
Ratchford still has plenty of work to do. The 2023 record will stick out like a sore thumb, but many variables were out of his hands. He’s had a year to patch the multiple holes and rebuild the program from scratch.
He now has a squad that trusts him, a closely-knit coaching staff, and a solid control of the transfer portal due to his ties in the CCBL. Most importantly, the variables are in his control, and it’s up to him to restore the program to its former standards.
Edited By Luke Sassa
Graphic Credit: Cara Lacey, Photos from Marist Athletics