It was only fitting that senior pitcher Matt Leon was on the bump as Seton Hall recorded the final out of its Big East opener on April 13. The former walk-on helped secure the 4-3 victory that was worth more than just the Pirates’ 13th win of the season – it was coach Rob Sheppard’s 400th of his career.
“It was exciting, I mean he’s put in a lot of time for us, so it’s exciting to get that for him,” Leon said. “He gave me a shot to even play here, so I’m just grateful to him for even giving me a chance to try to come here and walk on, and I’m forever grateful for that opportunity he gave me.”
Sheppard played at Seton Hall from 1989-92 under his father, coach emeritus Mike Sheppard. Sheppard Sr. is the all-time leader in career wins at Seton Hall with 998, and his son’s 400th win came on his birthday, making it all the more unique.
“That made it special, knowing that it was on my dad’s birthday,” Sheppard said. “Because now whenever April 13 comes around, I’m going to remember my dad’s 82nd birthday was the day we won our 400th [game]. It was unique, and I think that’s what made it special to me, is I had the ability to win it for my dad.”
“It was great because I was talking to him about how ironic it was that it was also his dad’s birthday,” senior Mike Alescio said. “The irony in that was pretty cool, and it was definitely special to be a part of that.”
Sheppard Sr., a regular at Owen T. Carroll Field, was escorted just behind first base shortly after the victory to a birthday cake waiting for him.
“I guess like anybody else you love your dad, and he’s been such a big part of our program and a big part of the tradition,” Rob Sheppard said. “Anytime that he’s around it’s a blessing, and we just wanted the ability to share his birthday with him.”
However, despite the fanfare around the achievement, anyone that has been around the program over the last 15 seasons can attest that Sheppard does not measure his success purely on wins and losses. For him, being a coach is a responsibility that stretches beyond the game-day operations, and that is seen in the way his players speak of him.
“It’s been great, he’s a great life mentor and not just a coach, and I think that goes a long way for a lot guys that aren’t going to continue to play,” Alescio said.
“Just being around him every day, he’s got a good personality and he’s funny,” Leon said. “Whenever he’s in a giddy mood, it’s always exciting to be around him.”
The milestone may stand out in most families, however Sheppard knows he has a long way to go before he can think about reaching his father’s win total.
“It’s been a privilege to continue the tradition that we’ve established here at Seton Hall,” Sheppard said. “My dad had 998 [wins], so I think that puts it in perspective. It’s nice to share with the current guys and for me it was just more of a reflection on the appreciation I have for the players that played here and the coaches that have coached here with me.”
Even with all the success Rob Sheppard has garnered in South Orange, the 400th win was a fitting reminder of how important his father has been to his development. Still to this day, Sheppard can rely on his father’s tutelage every step of the way.
“He’s a great resource to have for me,” Sheppard said. “Somebody who has all that experience under his belt, and getting an opportunity to share it with me is great.”
Nick Santoriello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NickSantoriello.