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Diamonds (and Seawolves) are Forever

SBU’s longest-tenured coach knows diamonds aren’t what’s most important

 

By Michael Gasparino

For Matt Senk, being a college baseball coach fits like a (catcher’s) glove.

Matt Senk and team

Coach Matt Senk knows a thing or 34 about keeping balls in the air. Here he is at practice with the 2024 squad.

The starting backstop at SUNY Cortland (formerly Cortland State), where he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1980, Senk was a two-time All-SUNY Athletic Conference selection and the team’s Most Valuable Player as a senior. He had a “couple of looks,” but a professional baseball career just wasn’t in the cards. “For me, the next best thing to playing was coaching,” he said.

Fortunately, Senk had a tremendous role model in Robert Wallace, a Cortland coaching legend who won 10 conference championships. He provided lessons that Senk continues to employ as head coach of the Stony Brook University baseball team. 

“He was always tanned and fit and in a great mood coaching baseball,” Senk recalled. “And I was like, ‘man, Coach Wallace seems like he has the best job in the world,’ and so I always thought what he did was something I’d like to do.”

Wallace was the first of several coaching mentors for Senk, who implemented what he learned from each of them in a 34-season career at Stony Brook that has seen him win more than 900 career games — and become a mentor himself to hundreds of former players. 

Senk is the longest-tenured coach in SBU history and has the fourth-longest tenure among active NCAA Division I baseball coaches. He oversaw the program’s transition to Division I in 2000 and has led Stony Brook to 27 winning seasons.

A three-time America East Coach of the Year, Senk was named National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Coach of the Year in 2012 after leading Stony Brook to 52 wins and the College World Series, when the Seawolves “shocked the world” by defeating powerhouse Louisiana State University (LSU) in the Super Regional.

While the victories and the accolades have been plentiful, Senk said his greatest thrill isn’t found on the diamond — it’s hearing from players he has coached who let him know the significant impact he’s made on their lives. 

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from Coach Senk is that you’re capable of doing whatever you put your mind to,” said senior Evan Fox. “He’s helped me grow into the person I am today. He has taught me so much — not just how to become a better player, but to be a great person and a leader on the team and in life.”

Bold Beginnings
Senk began his coaching career at St. Agnes Cathedral High School in Rockville Centre, New York, where he won a division title and was named Catholic High School Athletic Association Coach of the Year.

At St. Agnes, Senk coached alongside Frank Morris, a prominent basketball coach who counts among his former players Billy Donovan, current coach of the Chicago Bulls. “He was a huge mentor to me,” Senk said of Morris. “Still to this day I use a lot of the things he preached. Without him, I wouldn’t have had the success I’ve had.”

Senk spent the next three years as head coach at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, New York, winning league and division championships, before taking over the SBU program in 1991. He immediately set the bar high.

“I told the people on the [search] committee that I could win a national championship and you could hear a pin drop,” Senk said. It was a bold statement for a Division III program that had only six winning seasons since 1966.


Stony Brook won 30 games in Senk’s first season and rolled from there, making its mark as one of the top Division III teams in the country, thanks in part to players like Joe Nathan, the 16-year major leaguer and six-time All-Star whose name now graces the Seawolves’ home field. Nathan was drafted in 1995 and is one of 51 players that Senk coached who went on to sign professional baseball contracts.

“He’s going to help you in so many ways,” said Nathan, noting that Senk taught his teams how to make critical adjustments, play with passion and still have fun. “The ability for him to have that fire when we needed it, the ability to joke around when we needed it …it’s that balance that we all remember.”

“I had amazing players that bought into what I was selling,” said Senk. He added that the support he has received from his assistant coaches, the athletics department, university administration, alumni, parents and fans has also been instrumental in the program’s success. This extends to the classroom as more than 90 percent of Senk’s players have graduated.

Senk describes his coaching style as controlled aggression. “We want our pitchers to be aggressive and attack the zone. We’ll steal bases. I even want our defense to be aggressive and take chances as far as diving for balls and having no fear in what they do.”

That take-no-prisoners spirit was never more evident than in 2012, when the Seawolves punched their ticket to the College World Series (CWS). Led by current major leaguer Travis Jankowski, that team dominated for two seasons, posting a 94-27 record through the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Their .777 winning percentage was the best in the nation during that two-year span.

At the LSU super regional prior to the CWS, Senk met former longtime LSU coach and five-time national champion Skip Bertman. “It was an amazing thrill that I actually got to shake his hand and have a conversation with someone, who, unbeknownst to him, was a huge influence on me.”

Senk said he modeled his program after Bertman’s, noting, “I stole as much as I could from him,” but that’s what coaches do — gain knowledge from those they admire and pass it on. 

Senk now has his own coaching tree, with former players and assistant coaches moving on to lead their own teams on the club, high school and college levels.

“That’s something that obviously makes you feel great because it speaks to their experience and what they had here,” said Senk, who last year watched former player and current Texas Rangers bullpen coach Patrick Cantwell celebrate winning the 2023 World Series alongside Jankowski.

“So many emotions,” Senk recalled. “Bust-your-buttons proud. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about what they went through.”

Past players have told Senk they didn’t really grasp what he was teaching them at the time, but now think often about what he said, realizing that they are passing those lessons on themselves, not only on the field but also in their daily lives.

“It’s fulfilling that they turned out to be outstanding fathers and husbands and successful professionals,” Senk said. “That’s really, really amazing.”

That Seawolves pride is something Senk hopes his players take with them when they leave. “They’re a part of the Stony Brook baseball brotherhood,” he said. “Whether they played in 1991 or they got to play in 2024, you’ll always be a Seawolf.”

For the latest updates on the baseball team’s season, visit stonybrook.edu/athletics.


Michael Gasparino is associate director of web content.


 

PITCH PERFECT 

In Matt Senk’s tenure as Stony Brook’s head baseball coach, 51 players went on to sign professional contracts. Five of them made it to the major leagues — Joe Nathan, Travis Jankowski, Nick Tropeano, Tom Koehler and Daniel Zamora.

Senk explained what separates the major leaguer from the rest is they have a skill set that takes them to the next level. “They just have that one thing, or in some cases a couple of things, that just totally sets them apart.”

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan
Nathan, drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the sixth round in 1995, was one of baseball’s top closers with 377 career saves, good for 10th all-time. In fact, when he retired after 16 seasons, his career save percentage was No. 1, making him a potential candidate for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Nathan started out as a shortstop, but his arm foretold a different destiny. “First practice, I hit a ground ball to him,” Senk recalled. “He threw it across the diamond. I said, ‘Joe, tell me again why you don’t want to pitch.’ He was so shy and kind of laid back and he’s like, ‘No, no.’ I just said well, we may need to revisit this someday. He had an absolute cannon of an arm.”

Nathan’s number 22 was retired in 2006, when he was awarded the University Medal and inducted into the Stony Brook Athletics Hall of Fame. In 2011, Joe Nathan Field was named in honor of his lead gift for the new campus baseball park.

Travis Jankowski

Travis Jankowski
Jankowski, an All-American at Stony Brook, was one of seven Seawolves drafted in 2012 and the first player in program history to be selected in the first round when he was taken 44th overall by the San Diego Padres.

“He’s in the big leagues because his makeup is amazing,” said Senk, who referred to Jankowski as the Stony Brook version of Mets speedster Mookie Wilson. “He just absolutely flies around the bases.”

The highlight of Jankowski’s nine-year major league career — which included the 2022 season with the 101-win New York Mets — came in 2023 when he helped the Texas Rangers win the World Series. “I was so excited for him to have him perform on that stage at that level,” Senk said.

Tom Koehler

Tom Koehler
Koehler was drafted in the 18th round in 2008 by the then-Florida Marlins and made his MLB debut in 2012. He was a regular in the Marlins’ starting rotation for several seasons, finishing with 36 wins in six years.

Koehler was known for a plus fastball, but Senk said it was his determination that made him a major leaguer. “Basically, Tommy Koehler said, ‘I’m not happy just being drafted. I’m going to make it to the big leagues.’ And he went out and had a six-year major league career. Every fifth day they gave Tommy the ball, an absolute bulldog.”

Nick Tropeano

Nick Tropeano
Tropeano was drafted in the fifth round by the Houston Astros in 2011, making his big league debut in September 2014. Senk said Tropeano made an immediate impression on the Astros. “His changeup was the number one changeup in the whole organization.”

Tropeano was part of the Los Angeles Angels starting rotation in 2015, 2016 and 2018, and in seven seasons also played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets.

Daniel Zamora

Daniel Zamora
Zamora was drafted in the 40th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015 and made his major league debut for the New York Mets in 2018.

Senk said Zamora had “an amazing slider. He didn’t throw particularly hard, but he got to the big leagues because of his slider and his spin rate.” Zamora pitched for the Mets in 2018 and 2019, and the Seattle Mariners in 2021.