PDS Alum Franzoni Helped NJIT Baseball Make History As Highlanders Advanced to NCAAs for the First Time
HISTORIC RUN: Paul Franzoni trots home after hitting a homer for the New Jersey Institute of Technology baseball team against Nebraska in the NCAA Division I tournament. Former Princeton Day School standout and star catcher Franzoni helped NJIT make the NCAAs for the first time in school history. Franzoni, a team captain, hit .236 with six homers and 18 RBIs as the Highlanders went 27-24, getting eliminated in the Fayetteville (Ark.) regional. (Photo provided courtesy of NJIT Media Relations)
By Bill Alden
Paul Franzoni sensed that the New Jersey Institute of Technology baseball team could do some big things in the 2021 season.
“We were really confident, we really liked our team with the guys coming back and some of the new guys coming in,” said Franzoni, a former Princeton Day School standout and senior catcher and team captain for NJIT.
“We moved conferences so that was our first year in the American East [moving from the ASUN conference]. America East is a really good league but we felt we were going to have a good shot to win it so the expectations were high.”
But Highlanders got off to a really bad start, going 3-12 in its first 15 games.
“We just weren’t playing well after a couple of weekends,” said Franzoni.
“The captains would get together and we would be like what are we going to say to these guys. We have just got to play better, we know that we are a really good team. We just have to do it. We had a couple of key guys that were injured.”
NJIT showed they were really good, going 21-10 over the rest of regular season play. “It was a mixture of things. It was those guys coming back, it was us becoming closer as a team and just becoming the team that we knew we were in the fall,” said Franzoni, reflecting on the team’s late surge.
“Everyone started to play better and it didn’t come as a surprise that we started playing better. That was our expectation in the fall.”
The Highlanders rode that hot streak into history as they earned the program’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Division I tournament, ending up winning one game at the Fayetteville (Ark.) regional and finishing the season with a 27-24 record.
In his role as a captain, Franzoni looked to keep the squad on an even keel as it went through its roller-coaster ride this spring.
“I just try to do everything that I could, especially when we were on that rough stretch to keep the younger guys on track,” said Franzoni.
“I was using some of that experience that I have been able to have these past four years to keep the guys on track. Especially being the catcher, I was able to lead the guys a little.”
Showing that leadership, Franzoni hit a homer as NJIT rallied to defeat Albany 5-4 on May 27 in the opening round of the America East tournament to take a big step toward a trip to the NCAAs. The drama continued as NJIT came through with a 2-1 walk-off win over Maine a day later in the semis.
“That jump-started us in that game, we had gotten off to a slow start,” said Franzoni, reflecting on his home run against Albany.
“After that homer, we had two more two-run homers and then we won 5-4. That was good. Against Maine we had a walk-off, the way that it ended was insane.”
The final against Stony Brook was canceled due to inclement weather and the Highlanders were awarded the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tourney as they were the only undefeated team remaining in the conference tournament.
On May 31, the team gathered to watch the NCAA Selection Show and received a tough assignment as they were sent to play in the Fayetteville (Ark.) regional, hosted by top-seeded Arkansas.
“The selection show was awesome, we were kind of bummed that we couldn’t win it on the field and do the dog pile,” said Franzoni.
“We didn’t have to wait long to see where we were going. We weren’t expecting it at all. The predictions had us going to a bunch of different places. Our RPI (rating percentage index) was pretty good, there were a lot of teams below us so we didn’t think we were going to go to Arkansas. Once we saw, we were kind of shocked but we were going to be in the best environment in college baseball so we were really excited.”
Facing the powerful Razorbacks in the regional opener on June 4, the Highlanders battled hard before falling 13-8.
“It was unreal, it was unbelievable, it was nothing like I have ever experienced before,” said Franzoni, reflecting on the atmosphere at Baum-Walker Stadium with a crowd of 11,084 on hand.
“We got off to a really good start, we were up 2-0 and 3-2. Their lineup is so deep, the No. 9 hitter hit a 2-run homer to make it 3-2. It is just tough to hold that lineup down for that long. I was proud of the guys that we were able to stay in the game and put a lot of pressure on them. The national pitcher of the year came on to face us in the third inning.”
A day later, NJIT made more history, edging Northeastern 3-2 to earn the program’s first-ever win in the tourney and stay alive in the double elimination competition.
“Our goal was not only just to make the regional but we wanted to try to make a run in the regional,” asserted Franzoni, who went 1-for-4 in the victory.
“We did that with the win over Northeastern and were close against Arkansas to breaking the game open. That was a great run. That hit was a great memory.”
The team’s run ended on June 6 when the Highlanders fell 18-4 to Nebraska.
“Nebraska is a really good team, we ran out a couple of guys who had already pitched,” said Franzoni, who went 1-for-3 with a homer and two RBIs in the defeat. “They are just so deep and I think their depth showed a little bit.”
Riding the high from the 2021 campaign, Franzoni will be aiming for a really good finale to his college career as he will be playing next year as a grad student, using extra eligibility after the 2020 season was canceled that March due to the pandemic.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better season this year,” said the 5’11, 185-pound Franzoni, who hit .236 this spring with six homers and 18 RBIs.
“Our goal since we have been on campus is to raise the bar for NJIT baseball and I think we have done that this year. Next year we want to continue it and go out the right way and try to win a regional. I will be a captain again next year.”
In preparing for the 2022 campaign, Franzoni is playing for this summer for Valley Blue Sox of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
“I want to keep getting better, I want to keep working,” said Franzoni, whose younger brother Luke, a former PDS standout and current star for the Xavier University baseball program, is joining him on the Blue Sox, who are based in Holyoke, Mass.
“I want to work out a lot this summer and get stronger. I want to keep getting at-bats, keep seeing live pitching, get behind the plate and just improve every facet of the game.”