April 12, 2023

With Junior Outfielder Bandura Emerging as a Star, Tiger Baseball Finds Itself in Thick of Ivy Title Race

SEEING PROGRESS: Princeton University baseball star Scott Bandura takes in the action in a game earlier this season. Junior outfielder Bandura has starred this spring as Princeton has gone 11-16 overall and 5-4 Ivy League, a marked improvement on its 2022 campaign when it went 7-33 overall and 3-18 Ivy. In upcoming action, Princeton plays at Monmouth on April 12 and then hosts Columbia for a three-game set with a doubleheader on April 15 and a single game on April 16. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Scott Bandura would like nothing more than to reach new heights with the Princeton University baseball team.

The Tiger junior is hoping to add an Ivy League championship to the success and memorable experiences he’s had at every level of the game.

He came to Princeton after helping the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (Pa.) win the competitive Inter-Ac League championship in high school. Before high school, he played for the Taney Dragons in the 2014 Little League World Series (LLWS), catching for instant celebrity Mo’Ne Davis as she became the first girl to win a LLWS game on the mound. Their Taney Dragons team from Philadelphia got a parade, and Bandura traveled with Davis to appear on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It’s an experience that’s since been hard to beat.

“Of that magnitude, probably not,” said Bandura, a Philadelphia native. “But my junior year at Chestnut Hill we won the conference championship and a lot of the guys that were on that team were also on that Little League team. Years later, coming full circle and doing something together again, that was pretty cool. But I think an Ivy championship would come really close to that just because of the lows we saw last year and the work we put in to get where we are now. So an Ivy title would definitely be up there.”

The LLWS run doesn’t feel that long ago to him, but Bandura isn’t asked about his experience too often these days. It’s as though he’s a part of a unique club. When the Tigers played Georgia, Bandura chatted with their first baseman who played on the Pennsylvania team that went to the LLWS the year after him. Against Duke, Bandura ran into some more players from the Connecticut LLWS team.

“It’s definitely unique and a unique experience,” said Bandura. “Not a lot of players get to do that. Of the guys I’ve met and been able to talk to, it’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there. I definitely think it’s a tight knit mutual understanding when you see those guys.”

As a player, Bandura has evolved a lot since his Little League days. He was a catcher for the Taney Dragons and a small ball hitter with aggressive base running. Only the base running remains.

“In high school I hit a huge growth spurt and my sophomore or junior year I moved to the outfield and did all my college recruiting in the outfield,” said Bandura, who now stands 6’4 and weighs 190 pounds. “A lot has definitely changed. I was one of the smallest kids on that Little League team. I could run a little bit so I led off and I bunted for hits all the time. As a player, I’ve definitely changed a lot since then.”

Bandura is a skilled player who has bolstered the Tiger lineup. Decimated by injuries — including his own — Princeton won just seven games overall and three in the Ivy League last year. The Tigers still don’t have ideal depth, but they have talent back healthy and it has pushed them to an 11-16 start, 5-4 in the Ivy League.

Last weekend, Princeton split a doubleheader at Penn on Saturday, dropping the first game, 10-5, before winning the second game, 5-0, with Bandura homering in the fourth inning to give Tom Chmielewski all the run support that he needed. He also had a pair of hits Sunday, but the Tigers couldn’t muster enough run support in a 5-2 loss to fall to fourth in the Ivies. He has hit safely in 15 out of his last 16 games.

After a mid-week game against Monmouth scheduled for April 12, head coach Scott Bradley’s squad will return to league play when they host Columbia for a doubleheader on Saturday and a single game on Sunday as the Tigers continue to prove themselves after a faster start to this season that has them in the thick of the Ivy title race.

“It’s huge,” said Bandura, reflecting on the team’s promising start. “We play our first 17 or so games against some pretty good competition. We were able to get some wins here and there against some good teams, and everyone knows it’s a completely new season once the Ivy League conference games start. To get out to that start and show them we’re here, how we’ve been playing all year is going to translate well in the Ivy League and we’re not the same team that we were last year, and it’s a huge confidence boost. Coach Bradley talked about it when he talked to the team the other day — we’re playing with some confidence and swagger. We walk around the park like we’re the team to beat. That’s honestly been the biggest change from last year with the start we’ve gotten out to this year.”

For Bandura, the season has finally been a chance to prove himself after a challenging stretch. His senior season of high school baseball was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So was his freshman year at Princeton. Then last year, in his first chance to play for the Tigers, he got in eight games before a hamstring injury shut him down for the remainder of the spring.

“It was definitely difficult,” said Bandura. “I missed my senior year of high school and then my freshman year here got canceled. I was able to play over each of those summers, which was big. My freshman spring, we had no games, but we were on campus. We scrimmaged so I was able to get a lot of at bats under my belt that spring and the summer following that. So I felt pretty prepared going into last year and missing that season was hard. But I was able to go get healthy and play this past summer and get ready for this year.”

Bandura has come out swinging in his third year at Princeton. He leads the team and is second in the Ivy League with a .398 batting average after 27 games. He has 11 doubles, five home runs, and a pair of triples. He’s also stolen nine bases to lead the team. He’s driven in 24 runs, second only to power-hitting classmate Kyle Vinci, who has 12 home runs and 30 RBIs to lead the Tigers in both categories. Eric Marasheski also has 11 doubles and a team-high 15 walks. Nick DiPietrantonio gives the Tigers a third player batting over .300. They set the table for players like Vinci and Bandura.

“He was supposed to be the best player in the league going into last year,” said Bradley of Bandura. “My whole junior class — Vinci, DiPietrantonio, Chmielewski, these guys all came in and there was no baseball the first year they got here. Vinci had about 20 at bats last year and then got hurt. DiPietrantonio was in and out of the lineup while hurt. They’re borderline freshmen for us right now.”

The biggest change for the Tigers is getting them back in the lineup. They were itching to get into the season after so much time away and their presence has certainly made a difference.

“First and foremost is experience,” said Bandura. “Last year, we came in with only three or four guys on the team having played a college baseball game before because we missed the last two seasons. Just having a full year of experience with all the guys on the roster was a huge contributor. After such a tough year last year, we came into the fall with a purpose of doing all the things right that we didn’t do last year. And it’s been paying off so far.”

Princeton has been averaging almost six runs per game. The Tigers rank third in the league in hitting with a .275 average and second in home runs and slugging percentage and were tied with Columbia for the league lead in walks.

“It’s probably one through nine, as deep a lineup as we’ve had,” said Bradley. “We get production at the top and bottom pretty consistently. If we get everyone going on the same day, we have a nice blend of speed and power. It’s balanced. The two freshmen — [Jake] Koonin and [Jake] Bold — are starting to figure it out. They’ve been a little streaky as they’re getting their feet wet in college baseball. But they both have ability. We’re very athletic. We’re physical. We can hit some home runs, we can steal some bases. And 1 through 9, we have the ability to create some offense that we haven’t had in a while.”

With some more timely hitting, and once their pitching and fielding come together, the Tigers could be even better. Princeton is next to last in the Ivies in earned run average and has walked more batters per game than anyone in the league, but Bandura says the team is confident in their staff led by their top two starters — Jackson Emus and Chmielewski — and relievers Jacob Faulkner and Justin Kim. They are seventh out of eight in fielding percentage.

“We’ve had a pretty good start to the Ivy League season but I’m sure every guy on the team would tell you we left a win or two on the table,” said Bandura. “We need to limit the self-inflicted errors and wounds, walking guys on the mound, putting together better at bats with two outs and runners in scoring position, trying to limit strikeouts in those spots, cleaning up the things we can control mainly with the defense and the walks on the mound and the strikeouts at the plate.”

Princeton is playing far better than a season ago thanks in part to a new commitment in the offseason. They worked to be in better shape to prevent injuries, and to perform up to potential. Princeton’s disappointment in last season’s results fueled them through their preparations for this year.

“As a team, it was being more focused in practice, with everything with the intent of winning games,” said Bandura. “With the level of experience we had last year, a lot of us just weren’t sure what it takes to be a winning team. So gearing all of our intent in practice, team lifts and team meetings, stuff like that, all with the focus on winning, I think that was the main thing.”

Bandura hasn’t appeared to be rusty after having only a handful of college games under his belt before this year. He got off to a good start to the spring and has maintained his play.

“I was pretty confident,” said Bandura. “My freshman summer, I played in Washington, D.C., and that was the first college baseball I played. I had a really good summer that season. I’ve never lacked confidence. I got off to a slow start last year and I felt like I was starting to find my footing and starting to heat up and that’s when the injury happened. So I kind of knew that if I stayed healthy and did all the things right and followed my process and plan, that things would start to go right. It was just a matter of being on the field enough for that to start happening. It’s definitely nice to be out there every day and perform the way it’s gone so far.”

Princeton has to stay healthy to continue to strive for the top of the Ivies. Sweeping front-runner Columbia (16-11 overall, 7-2 Ivy) could narrow the gap considerably, and Princeton this year feels like it has the roster to compete better.

“We have no depth, but to get those guys back is big,” said Bradley. “We felt like that was a very good recruiting class when they came in, but with COVID and not playing their first year and then injuries, it’s taken this long before they’ve been able to establish themselves. They’re all very good. They were all high level recruits. Scott’s at a different level because of his overall ability to run and steal bases and play defense and all kinds of things. It’s what we expected they’d be able to do, but with COVID and injuries, it’s just taken some a while for them to get their feet on the ground.”