SMITHFIELD, R.I. – The 2017 baseball season was not the one the Bryant University baseball team envisioned. A year after winning a program-record 47 games, the Bulldogs went just 29-26 and were eliminated from the Northeast Conference Tournament in two games.
Led by the return of senior catcher and reigning NEC Player of the Year Mickey Gasper (Merrimack, N.H.), the Black and Gold have set their sights on getting back on track this spring. Gasper headlines a returning group of players that includes seven starters from last year's final game and all but one pitcher that recorded an out last spring.
"Last year was definitely a challenge, but a huge learning experience for us," Gasper said. "As a team, I think we now understand what it takes to be a champion and an elite-caliber team. Individuals learned to deal with failure and how to overcome it. I think last year shaped our mindset for this upcoming year."
The 2018 Bulldog baseball team has the potential to be a good one. Bryant returns All-NEC outfielder junior Nick Angelini (Bedford, N.H.), NEC Rookie of the Year Jimmy Titus (Stafford, Conn.), NEC Pitcher of the Year Steve Theetge (Syracuse, N.Y.), All-NEC Second Team pitcher Nathan Wrighter (Windsor, N.Y.) and a bevy of young talent. That crop of players includes sophomores Chris Wright (Cumberland, R.I.), James Ciliento (Mahwah, N.J.), Gaby Cruz (Miami, Fla.), Vito Morgese (Warwick, N.Y.) and Jack Ipsen (Eatontown, N.J.), and redshirt freshman Ryan Ward (Millbury, Mass.).
"Our younger impact players now know what it is like at this level of baseball, and our older guys want to make a legacy for ourselves so we came with a lot of energy this fall," Gasper said. "We can't just show up and expect to be better than the other team and win. After losing last year, I think myself and the entire ball club has been playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and we know we have something to prove."
And while the Black and Gold return a great deal of talent, all eyes will most likely be on Gasper. A switch-hitting catcher from New Hampshire, Gasper emerged as one of the top hitters in New England last spring. A summer after being named the MVP of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, he hit .342 and posted the third-highest OBP in DI program history (.470). Gasper posted 11 doubles, seven home runs, 53 RBI, 42 walks and just 18 strikeouts on his way to NEC Player of the Year honors.
Many thought Gasper would join classmate James Karinchak in the MLB Draft in June but his name went uncalled. Instead, Gasper headed east for a summer with the Brewster Whitecaps in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League. He went on to hit .290 with 10 doubles, five home runs, 36 RBI and a .425 OBP, helping the Whitecaps to their first league championship since 2000. Gasper received the John Caffey Award as the top New England prospect in the league and was named Brewster's team MVP and Coaches' Captain Award winner.
"This summer taught me a lot about myself as a player," Gasper said. "I gained a great deal of confidence in my abilities against that level of competition, and I think I handled my failures in a much more professional fashion and matured mentally as a baseball player.
"As a leader, I think just being a part of such a special championship team will help my leadership of the Bryant Bulldogs improve," Gasper continued. "I plan to focus on the mental side of the game with my leadership and I want this team to buy into that common goal we as Bulldogs strive for."
With the 2018 season quickly approaching, Gasper has the individual goals any returning player of the year would likely have. For Gasper, however, those pale in comparison to his ultimate goal for this team and this program, an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
"I want to win," Gasper said. "After a difficult year last year with many growing pains, I know the 2018 Bryant University baseball team is tougher, more committed, and is developing into the team we know we are capable of becoming."
As Gasper enters his final season in the Black and Gold, he knows that there is a great deal left unfinished. He has been through the ups and downs and will be looked to for his leadership and his production this spring.
"I think there is a lot more for me to achieve as part of the Bryant University family," Gasper said. "Although my time here has been life-changing, I know this group of guys that I have grown and matured with have more to accomplish. It is our turn to create something special."