How do you follow up a historic season? Former Franklin star Jake Noviello admits that he gets questioned about it a lot on the Fairfield campus. After winning 39 games last spring, becoming the first MAAC team to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, beating Arizona State, and reaching the program’s first regional final, what do the Stags do for an encore?
“People at school keep asking me are you guys going to be undefeated again and I keep saying probably not,” Noviello, a senior pitcher, said with a laugh, “but I think the best way to try and get back to where we were is to not focus on the big picture but just compete every day at practice. Do everything you can to just win.”
It isn’t just the team success that will be difficult to replicate. Noviello went 9-0 as a starter last season, tying the program record for wins and leading the conference. He was named to the All-MAAC First Team and All-Tournament Team and the ABCA/Rawlings All-Region Second Team. His 1.47 ERA led the MAAC, was fourth-best in the nation, and was the second lowest in program history. He also led the MAAC and was top 10 in the country in WHIP (0.88) and walks per nine innings (1.20).
Not a bad season considering Noviello went into 2021 unsure of his spot in the rotation.
“That whole winter, I was fighting for the fourth starter spot,” he explained. “I really had to focus on how to be a college starter and really developing three pitches that I could throw for strikes and really getting myself back into what I was doing my senior year of high school.”
The preparation paid off. Fairfield started the season with a four-game sweep of conference rival Canisius, outscoring the Griffs 34-11. The Stags had several fifth-year seniors return (following the loss of the 2020 season due to COVID), added several experienced transfers, and looked every bit a team that could make a run at a league title. That sweep of Canisius added belief and confidence to the team’s obvious talent.
“We were confident and we played with nothing to lose,” Noviello recalled. “We knew we were a good team and we knew we had good pitching and good hitting and it was going to take someone’s perfect game to beat us.”
Fairfield won its opening 28 games of the season and started to get national recognition, something that can sometimes be hard for teams from a smaller conference in the Northeast. Although Siena would eventually put an end to the Stags’ long winning streak, Fairfield lost only once in the regular season.
A tough loss to Rider in the MAAC championship series meant that Fairfield had to wait and see if its name would be called for the NCAA Tournament. It was jubilation for the Stags when they saw that they would be heading to Texas for the regional.
“That was incredibly special,” Novielle said. “I think we thought we deserved it. We all jumped out of our seats and started hugging each other and it was just a culmination of a lot of hard work that went into it and the struggles of a COVID year and all the stuff we had to go through. It was a really cool moment for us.”
There were of course the naysayers who felt that because Fairfield had only played a conference schedule it didn’t have the strength of schedule to compete with the best in the country. After a one-run loss to Arizona State in the opener, the Stags beat Southern (with Noviello picking up the win) and then came back from 5-0 down to knock out the Sun Devils and advance to the regional final against Texas.
“For being a small school, it showed we could compete with the big dogs,” Noviello said about the tournament win.
What made last year’s team special? Noviello said, “Being really good friends with each other, pulling for one another, and just competing hard together, I think that’s the biggest part of a winning team. We had a lot of gritty guys who were willing to do their job and I think that’s why we were so successful.”
Noviello, who enters this spring as a two-time team captain, also praised his teammates for his success on the mound. “I credit all of our success as pitchers last year to throwing against our hitters for five or six weeks prior to the season starting because those guys were some of the best hitters we saw all year.”
He added, “I tried not to look at the numbers too much. My job was just to go out there and make it so our team was winning the game when I came out. I ended up pitching most of the nine-inning games for us last year so if I could go six, seven innings and come out with us having the lead then I did my job.”
This season poses a lot of different challenges for Noviello. While he has established himself as one of the team’s top starters, expectations are going to be much higher coming off a historic season, he is garnering attention from MLB teams, and most importantly is his months-long rehab from thoracic outlet syndrome.
Only a couple of weeks after the excitement of the regional final and three days into his stint in the Cape League, Noviello had surgery to deal with a blood clot. He said that there were three surgeries and he was in the hospital for seven days. His recovery took most of his off-season, although he said his velocity was back to the low-90s and he should be able to go five of six innings as the season gets underway.
“I’m lucky to be back and have full mobility,” Noviello explained. “I’ve got to worry about competing and being as good as I was but I’ve also got to worry about getting my feet back under me and being 100 percent. But for a couple of gnarly scars you’d have no idea that anything happened.
“It’s definitely given me a greater appreciation for being able to tie up my cleats and go out there and even do our conditioning. I used to hate running but I couldn’t walk for those seven days in the hospital so just being able to put my feet on the ground and walk and run and just throw to batters. Getting back to the little things you don’t really think about.”
Fairfield opened its season with a trip to the South, facing Elon in North Carolina in the opening series and then traveling to Georgia to face Kennesaw State. The Stags were 2-2 through the first four games, with Noviello picking up a no decision in his first start. It isn’t quite the same as a 28-0 start, but will be good preparation for MAAC competition.
Noviello said he is grateful for all of the success of 2021 and the accolades that went with it. He said that he has reached out to former North Attleboro and University of Maine star Nick Sinacola for advice on preparing for the MLB draft (Sinacola was selected in the seventh round last year by the San Francisco Giants). He feels healthy and ready to attack his senior season.
“I really did work my butt off to get in those positions and I would train to think about big games and big pitches I had to make,” Noviello said. “It’s kind of nice to be cemented in and know where you’re at coming into a season. Team looks great, I’m throwing really well, feel great and getting built up. No hiccups as of yet and poised for another great year.”
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