Back in the fall, Mike McRae believed his Canisius College baseball team would be extremely deep. That depth would allow the Golden Griffins to ride a hot bat or compensate if there were any injuries.
But more than that, depth has allowed for positive internal competition, keeping everyone on his toes lest he lose his spot in the lineup.
And that sharpness is what has helped Canisius to another appearance in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
The Griffs still have one regular season conference series left when they host Fairfield at noon on today and Friday. But with a three-game sweep of Niagara last weekend, they have secured their spot in the four-team field along with Rider, Marist and Siena.
It will be their seventh straight year in the MAAC tournament, the longest active streak in the conference.
One of the keys to that success this season has been depth at the plate. Canisius leads the conference in nine offensive categories including batting average (.310), on-base percentage (.416), slugging percentage (.430) and runs per game (7.0).
Consider those numbers come from a lineup where 11 players have 18 or more runs scored, 13 players have 23 or more hits and 14 players have 10 or more RBIs. The Griffs have seven players with at least 100 plate appearances, batting over .300.
Those kinds of numbers win ball games. And if you believe that hitting is contagious, it also provides a pretty good motivator for staying on top of your game.
“It’s friendly competition of course, but when you have a guy out there who can fill in your spot you want to be able to play to your upmost potential,” said junior Jesse Kelso, the Griffs’ starting left fielder who is batting .331. “To be able to have other people push you is always a good thing.”
“Practices have upped the level of play a little bit because if you don’t play well, you’re going to lose your spot,” said Brooklyn Foster, who has caught 26 games and is batting .354. “The guys have handled it well as everyone is friends on the team, so it’s not a big loss but the competitive edge is there.”
It’s been important to McRae to keep the numbers in perspective, noting that a quality at-bat doesn’t always look flashy in the box score.
“Guys are sometimes worried that if they don’t have a good day, they won’t be back out there,” McRae said. “You have to be careful of that because it has nothing to do with a guy getting two hits. It’s about having quality at-bats, moving a runner over, a sacrifice bunt, a walk, getting hit by a pitch or hitting the ball hard. Those are all quality at-bats. And as long as they have quality at-bats, they’ll be a productive part of our lineup.”
The Griffs set a school record with an 11-game win streak from April 10 to April 27. With a 38-13 overall mark, the club hasn’t endured many losing streaks, but one in particular was important. In March, the Griffs had won 10 of 11 games on the road, then returned to open MAAC play at the Demske Sports Complex against Saint Peter’s. They were promptly handed 7-5 and 2-0 losses.
“The next thing you know, we come home to start conference play and I think if anything we were a little overconfident,” McRae said. “We got slapped in the face pretty good by Saint Peter’s. It might have been a good wake-up call. The guys responded well and understood there needs to be a sense of urgency. They started to look at what we needed to do.”
“To lose those games early was kind of a blessing in disguise because we were able to get that wake-up call and refocus and ultimately get towards our goal,” Kelso said.
The first goal was to make the MAAC tournament field. Now attention turns this weekend to fine-tuning execution and building momentum with the hopes of making a post-season run. The Griffs never have won a MAAC baseball title but have been runner-up three of the last four years.
The MAAC tourney begins on May 23 at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, N.J., with the championship game scheduled for May 26.
• The University at Buffalo crowned four individual champions at the Mid-American Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships last week. On the women’s side, sophomore Meghan Manley (Orchard Park) won the 800 (2:07.41) and sophomore Emma Siuciak won the heptathlon (5,388). The women’s third-place team finish in the 12-school field is its highest at the MAC Championships. On the men’s side, sophomore Austin Price (St. Joe’s) won the triple jump (49-9.75), freshman Ryan Billian won the 110 hurdles (14.05) and junior Jonathan Jones (Portville) won the fourth straight shot put title for the Bulls (62-7.75).
• If you’re looking for a sign that Buffalo State wants to win in women’s ice hockey, its latest coaching hire is a good indication. The Bengals hired former Niagara standout Candice Moxley as head coach. Moxley played for Niagara from 2001-05, including on the NCAA Frozen Four team. She has spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach at Ohio State and spent two years as an assistant at Robert Morris. The Bengals went 6-18-1 overall this year and have not had a winning season since going 11-4-1 in 2000-01.
• Erie Community College and Niagara County Community College will meet in the semifinals of the NJCAA Region III Baseball Tournament on Friday in Little Falls. NCCC, ranked eighth in the country, is 34-16 while the Kats enter the double-elimination tournament at 37-18. ECC won the Region III title in 2011 while NCCC is the defending champion. Also in the field are Herkimer County CC and Onondaga CC. Games are scheduled for Saturday with the championship game set for noon on Sunday.