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By Amy Moritz

NEWS SPORTS REPORTER

At the beginning of the season, the Niagara softball team was struggling to forget bad plays, bad innings and bad games. They were unable to win close games.

And then they split with Marist.

And things started to click.

Shortly after that, Niagara put together a nine-game winning streak. And with the right breaks, the Purple Eagles found themselves back in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament for the first time in three years.

The Purple Eagles advanced to the four-team conference tournament thanks to a tiebreaker after finishing 9-7 in the MAAC along with Manhattan and Iona.

Niagara (15-28) took the No. 4 seed into the double-elimination tournament at Marist College.

The championships open today with No. 2 Fairfield (26-19) facing No. 3 Marist (27-24) at noon followed by top-seeded Siena (21-24) against Niagara.

The tournament continues with games on Friday, with the championship round at noon on Sunday. The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

It’s the first trip to the MAAC Tournament for the Purple Eagles since 2010. Their only conference championship came back in 1998.

“With only four teams making it every year, the room for error is very small,” said interim coach Larry Puzan, who took over in April after first-year coach Ellie Hanover stepped aside for personal reasons. “To finish in the top four, whether it’s through tiebreakers or whatever, it’s hard to get into the top four in the MAAC.”

The key to getting that spot first came in mid-April when Niagara split with Marist, which was then at the top of the conference standings. The Purple Eagles dropped their next three games, but the young group began to understand that they could compete with the better teams. And that set up a school-record nine-game winning streak, seven of those wins against MAAC opponents.

“At the start of our season as a young team, we didn’t learn how to win early enough,” Puzan said. “When you’re struggling early in the season it makes it harder when it gets into conference play. You don’t know how to win those close games. But once we got on that roll and took nine in a row, that was huge.

“When we played Marist, that was the turning point, I think. To split with them, the team figured that we can do this, we can play with anybody when we play our best game. … When we learned how to win, we learned not to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. Early on, we’d have a bad inning and you’d see the whole body language and faces drop. Oh no, here we go again. Now it’s, OK. Next inning.”

Helping to provide leadership have been three seniors – catcher Becky Zill, third baseman Gabrielle Lustrinelli and shortstop Alexis Wayne (Depew).

In the circle, junior Jennifer Sansano, a transfer from St. Bonaventure and Clarence native, leads the MAAC in strikeouts (163 in 141.1 innings of work).

The magic formula for success is no mystery.

“You want to get solid pitching and key hits with runners in scoring position,” Puzan said. “Teams are going to make mistakes. Everyone would love to play error-free softball but getting solid pitching and being opportunistic with your chances will minimize mistakes and errors.”

UB heads for MAC meet

The University at Buffalo heads this week to Akron for the Mid-American Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which will begin today and end Saturday.

The Bulls have the top seed in nine events:

Miles Lewis (men’s 100), Ryan Billian (men’s 110 hurdles), Will Cole (Hamburg, men’s 400 hurdles), Meghan Manley (Orchard Park, women’s 800), Austin Price (St. Joe’s, men’s triple jump), Jonathan Jones (Portville, men’s shot put), Jacob Sunday (men’s javelin), Emma Siuciak (women’s heptathlon) and the women’s 4x100 relay team of Jamiee McClary, Camaria Long, Brooklynn Ventura and Crystal Graham.

“The women will be facing very strong competition at the MAC championships,” UB coach Vicki Mitchell said. “We have been preparing all year, putting in unbelievable training. Our competitions leading up to the MAC championships indicate that we are on the right path for an outstanding meet. Our goals are set very high. Focus and passion will be the driving force leading us to a great competition.”

Baseball berths on the line

It’s a big weekend in MAAC baseball as Canisius hosts Niagara on Friday (6:30 p.m.), Saturday (7:30 p.m) and Sunday (2 p.m.).

The Griffs (34-13, 11-7) are in the hunt for one of the top four spots in the MAAC Tournament. They also host Fairfield May 16-17 and need three wins in those final six games to clinch a spot.

Niagara (15-31, 9-12) needs to sweep Canisius and get help in the standings to make the tournament field.

email: amoritz@buffnews.com