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Ivy league champ Columbia thriving under Boretti

Special to MLB.com

It doesn't matter what the sport or the league -- repeating as champion is the hardest thing to do. Columbia's baseball team reached that exalted pinnacle last Saturday by winning the Ivy League championship series. For the second straight season, Columbia swept the Dartmouth Big Green in a home doubleheader, to become the first team to make the 2014 NCAA Tournament, which opens with sub-regionals on May 30 and continues through the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., beginning on June 14.

For coach Brett Boretti, it is his third Ivy League title in nine seasons on the campus in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York, and it was the first time in over a half-century that the Lions have won back-to-back titles.

It doesn't matter what the sport or the league -- repeating as champion is the hardest thing to do. Columbia's baseball team reached that exalted pinnacle last Saturday by winning the Ivy League championship series. For the second straight season, Columbia swept the Dartmouth Big Green in a home doubleheader, to become the first team to make the 2014 NCAA Tournament, which opens with sub-regionals on May 30 and continues through the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., beginning on June 14.

For coach Brett Boretti, it is his third Ivy League title in nine seasons on the campus in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York, and it was the first time in over a half-century that the Lions have won back-to-back titles.

Both Columbia and Dartmouth needed to win play-in games to battle for the championship in a best-of-three format. Overcoming an elbow injury to star hurler Beau Sulser, the Big Green extended their winning streak to eight games by topping Yale to win the Rolfe Division. Meanwhile, down at Penn, Columbia ace senior left-hander David Speer shut out the surprising Quakers to earn the Gehrig Division honors.

One week later, the Lions called upon Speer in the first game of a doubleheader, and he delivered eight solid innings in a 6-2 victory. A home run by Columbia cleanup hitter Robb Paller broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the fourth inning to give the Lions the lead for good. Paller's blast was especially rewarding because the sophomore left fielder missed all of the 2013 season with an ankle injury.

Speer may not break 90 mph on the radar gun, but he mixes two kinds of fastballs, a slider and a changeup with uncanny control.

"He has tremendous command of his pitches," Boretti said. "[Speer] will throw any pitch at any time. He is fearless."

Speer walked only seven batters all season while striking out 68, an impressive ratio that has attracted professional scouts to all of his recent outings.

In the second game of the doubleheader, another three-run fourth-inning rally abetted by an error by Dartmouth third baseman Nick Lombardi was all that the Lions needed on their way to a 4-1 triumph. Not even a rainstorm after the sixth inning that temporarily halted activities could deter the Lions. Three Columbia sophomores -- Kevin Roy, Thomas Crispi and George Thanopoulos -- held Dartmouth to four hits.

Thanopoulos, who missed last season, emerged as the club's No. 2 starter behind Speer during the regular season, but for the championship series, he pitched out of the bullpen and earned a saved in both games. Thanopoulos has been placed on the watch list for the Gregg Olson Breakout Player of the Year, an award given in the name of the former big league relief pitcher and the 1989 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner with the Baltimore Orioles.

Behind the scenes of Columbia's consistent success stands Boretti. A New England native and ardent fan of all New England teams, Boretti was recruited by a teammate of Doug Flutie's at Boston College to play both football and baseball at North Carolina's Davidson College. After his freshman season, Boretti turned in his fullback pads to focus on playing catcher on the diamond. He was a four-year starter for renowned coach Dick Cooke, who has served on many NCAA baseball rules committees and was an assistant U.S. Olympic coach under Tommy Lasorda in Sydney in 2000 and Davey Johnson in Beijing in 2008.

After his junior season at Davidson, Boretti earned Cape Cod League All-Star honors. Boretti treasures the time he spent playing against and with such future Major Leaguers as Nomar Garciaparra, Matt Morris, Bill Mueller and Jay Payton. He encourages his players to play summer ball against good competition. It is no coincidence that two of the standouts on Boretti's deep Lions team, senior catcher Mike Fischer and Crispi, were All-Stars in their summer league and carried the confidence into the 2014 season.

Boretti brought solid experience and a winning record to Columbia. After serving for two seasons under Cooke at Davidson and two years learning the Ivy League ropes as a Brown assistant, Boretti became head coach at Division III Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pa. In five years, he compiled a 116-82 record. And in his last year in 2005, his Diplomats compiled a 15-3 league record and won the Centennial Conference title for only the second time in F&M history. Two of his former F&M players are his top Columbia assistants, pitching coach and associate head coach Pete Maki and first-base coach and key recruiter Dan Tischler.

It may prove a blessing to Columbia that the Ivy League championship series was delayed a week, moving it closer to the beginning of the NCAA Tournament. Everyone associated with the program feels that the long delay before last year's tourney put the Lions at a disadvantage, because they were playing teams that were at their peak after their own late May league tournaments. Even so, Columbia eliminated New Mexico for the school's first NCAA Tournament victory, and it played competitive games against Arizona State and eventual sub-regional winner Cal State Fullerton.

This year's Columbia team has no apparent weakness. Designated hitter Joey Falcone, last year's breakout star, was a Marine medic who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Falcone has not recaptured his batting stroke, but others have filled the power void, notably a quartet of four potent left-handed batters, outfielders Gus Craig and Paller, third baseman David Vandercook and first baseman Nick McGuire. Freshman second baseman Will Savage led the Ivy League with a .354 average. Batting behind leadoff hitter Jordan Serena, a fleet center fielder and stolen-base leader, Savage is part of a formidable one-two combination. His double-play partner senior shortstop Aaron Silbar is an excellent defender, clutch hitter and a nominee for several all-academic awards.

Ivy League players are not often drafted by the pros, but last year's Lions closer, Alex Black, was picked in the 29th round by the Royals. And the 2012 Ivy League Player of the Year, Columbia outfielder Dario Pizzano, was picked by the Seattle Mariners in the 15th round of that year's First-Year Player Draft and has worked his way up to Class A Advanced High Desert in the California League. Pizzano is a doubles machine who sports a rarity in these days of free swinging, a positive walk-to-strikeout ratio. He also is the grandson of a former Boston Red Sox batboy.

Of course, nobody knows how far Columbia baseball can go in this year's national limelight. But if Boretti is right when he says that a successful team has "to be healthy and hot," the components for continued success in 2014 are in place.

Lee Lowenfish is a contributor to MLB.com. His most recent book was "Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman."