2018 @ASUNBSB Season Preview: NJIT Highlanders

LakePoint, Ga. - Opening day is now less than two weeks away, and with the 2018 season quickly approaching it's time to take a team-by-team look at all eight ASUN Baseball squads starting play this spring. NJIT begins the preview countdown, after receiving an eighth-place vote in the ASUN Preseason Coaches Poll.

The Highlanders look to improve in their third season in the ASUN coming off a 9-40 mark a year ago. NJIT picked up conference wins against Kennesaw State and USC Upstate and returns a veteran group of players in 2018. The Highlanders also posted non-conference wins against Fairfield, James Madison and High Point. This year's schedule sees NJIT play its first 22 games of the season away from Newark, N.J. as they take on the likes of Navy, Penn State and Villanova. The season opener is on the road at North Carolina Central on February 23rd.  

Stolen bases were one of the team's specialties last season as the Highlanders ranked fourth in the ASUN with 44 swipes. They will look for some more fire power at the plate after registering 23 home runs (seventh in the ASUN) and 85 doubles (seventh) in 2017. All three of the team's home run leaders return this year in Matt Cocciadiferro, Evan Pietronico and Jesse Uttendorfer. The senior outfielder once against swiped 10 bags in 2017, giving him back-to-back double-digit stolen bases. On the mound, Brian Sondergard returns for his senior campaign after logging a team-high 46.2 IP last season. John Saviano was a weapon out of the bullpen last season as he finished with a team-best 10.02 K/9 ratio. 

Head Coach Brian Guiliana has a strong core group of players returning and will look to mix in some young talent as well with 10 freshmen on this year's Highlander squad. The team will be challenged with only 12 home games this season at Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium, while the rest of the schedule is on the road. 

NJIT Team Quick Facts
2017 Record:
 9-40 (2-19)
Best Single-Season Record All-Time in Division I: 2015; 24-23-1
ASUN Championships: None
ASUN Regular Season Titles: None 
NCAA Division I Tournament Appearances: None
2018 Season Notes: NJIT returns a strong core of players, including an outfield trio in Cocciadiferro, Pietronici and Uttendorfer that each finished the year with 188 at-bats. The trio combined for 59 RBI and tied for a team-lead with four homers each. Michael Anastasia returns after leading the ASUN in hitting at .373 and on-base percentage with .463 as the Highlanders look to make a jump up the standings in 2018. 
Season Opener: at North Carolina Central; 2/23/18 - 3 PM
Home Opener: vs. Rider; 4/4/18 - 3 PM
ASUN Opener: at Lipscomb; 3/29/18 - 7 PM

Coaching Staff
Head Coach:
 Brian Guiliana
Career Record (Years): 90-158-1 (Sixth Year)
NJIT Record (Years): Same
Staff: Robbie McClellan, Grant Neary

Key Returners
- Michael Anastasia, Jr., OF: Anastasia led the Highlanders and the ASUN with a .373 batting average in 2017. His season was cut short due to injury, but he looks to come back even stronger this season. His .463 on-base percentage was the best in the conference and Anastasia earned Second Team and All-Academic honors last season.  
- Matt Cocciadiferro, So., OF: The sophomore outfielder made an instant impact for the Highlanders during his rookie season last year. He finished the season with four homers, which tied for the team lead. After hitting .277 with a .415 slugging percentage, Cocciadiferro earned All-Freshman honors a year ago and look to build off that campaign in 2018. 
- Justin Etts, Jr., SS: Etts returns to the Highlanders infield after producing a team-high 31 RBIs last season. The Poughkeepsie, N.Y. native posted a .288 batting average and had nine doubles and three homers while playing 44 of 49 contests. In the field, Etts' defense was good as well with a .936 fielding percentage and turning 13 double plays for the Highlanders.

Top Returning Pitchers 
- Brian Sondergard, R-Sr., LHP: Sondergard enters 2018 with the most experience among the Highlanders pitching staff. He started a team-high 11 games last season and logged 46.2 innings pitched. The lefty posted 31 total strikeouts and finished the 2017 season with a 5.98 K/9 ratio. His best performance of the year came in a 4-0 shutout at NYIT, where he pitched seven scoreless innings allowing only four hits and striking out seven.
- John Saviano, Sr., RHP: The right-handed reliever posted the most strikeouts of any Highlander pitcher last season with 36. In 2017, Saviano finished with a 10.02 K/9 mark, which would have placed him fourth in the ASUN if he pitched more innings to qualify. After combining for only 30 strikeouts his first two seasons, Saviano looks to continue where he left off last year in 2018.  
- Tyler Stafflinger, So., RHP: After starting all eight games that he appeared in for the Highlanders in 2017, Stafflinger looks to provide more quality starts in 2018. He was one of only three NJIT pitchers who posted a sub-5.00 ERA last season and led the team with a 4.13 ERA mark.  

Impact Newcomer
- Jake Rappaport, Fr., LHP:
 Rappaport comes to NJIT after leading his Highland Regional High School team to the finals of the NJISAA South Jersey Group 3 region last season. The crafty left-handed starter was also named a top performer at the 2016 PBR NJ State Games and will look to make an impact in the Highlanders pitching rotation this upcoming season.   

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