SANBORN – Mike Elwood had limited opportunities to play college baseball coming out of Clarence High School. Despite being an honorable mention on the All-Western New York team, the pitcher had only a walk-on invitation at Niagara University – and no scholarship offers.
But after two years at Niagara County Community College, the 6-foot-6 right-hander is committed to pitching for Virginia Tech next year and is on the radar of several major league teams scouting players for this summer’s draft.
“It’s kind of wild,” NCCC coach Matt Clingersmith said. “You don’t see Western New York kids going to the [Atlantic Coast Conference]. I can’t think of anybody off the top of my head.”
Elwood didn’t believe he was a scholarship-level player at 18, but he was convinced that Clingersmith could get him to that level.
“I wasn’t big enough to go Division I or Division II,” he said. “I was skinny, I was small, I didn’t throw hard, I didn’t hit the ball hard.
“I knew Cling would get me on the right path to where I want to be. When coach recruited me, I saw that they were starting to have success, and guys were moving on, and it kind of put that in my head: If I come here and work hard, coach will find me a school.”
Since 2009, more than 40 NCCC baseball players have moved on to four-year schools. This year, eight NCCC sophomores have received scholarship offers, and as many as five of them could land at Division I schools.
Cameron Carney (Niagara Falls High School) resurrected his career at NCCC after a lost year at St. Bonaventure University. He will play at either the University at Buffalo or Division II Tusculum College in Tennessee next year. Tim Krawczyk (Niagara Wheatfield) lasted one semester at Niagara University before enrolling at NCCC and is now heading to Long Island University-Brooklyn.
Brandon Bielecki (Clarence) has signed with Canisius College, and George Weber (Lancaster) is deciding between offers from UB and Canisius. Marcus Cavarello (Sweet Home) and Cam Hall will play at II Salem International in West Virginia, and Brendan Saville is heading to Coker College in South Carolina.
“Everybody knows that Cling has the connections to get you to the next level,” Krawczyk said. “If you’re not good enough out of high school, but you are good enough to go to a junior college, then in two years you can get better and hopefully go further in your career. A lot of guys look to come to this program not only because it’s a winning program, but because of his connections to the next level.”
“That’s what I try to do, and that’s what I get paid to do here full time,” Clingersmith said. “It’s really a smart place to start. You come here, you get bigger, you get stronger, you keep your grades up, and there’s a good chance that we can get you an opportunity.”
Bielecki pitched just seven innings in high school, but Clingersmith saw his potential while scouting the travel leagues. Bielecki said he is “100 percent surprised” that he developed into a Division I pitching prospect. “It was a lot of hard work, and Clingersmith definitely believed in me a lot, and that helped out with motivation,” he said.
Bielecki is the latest player to follow the pipeline from NCCC to Canisius, where Clingersmith pitched for two years and got his coaching start under Mike McRae.
“First and foremost, it starts with the fact that Cling has players,” McRae said. “He’s got talent every year, and guys are going to get better under him. He’s going to work the phones and let people know when guys are playing. He takes a very, very proactive stance. It’s a recruiting resource that we tap into, and it’s a place we’re always going to tap into.”
Sean Jamieson, the most valuable player on NCCC’s 2009 team, which advanced to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Series, went on to win Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year at Canisius in 2011 and was a 17th-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics.
The Canisius Golden Griffins currently have three former NCCC players, including Jesse Kelso (East Aurora) and Chris Gruarin (Niagara Wheatfield), two of their top four hitters.
“In the early going, I think it was Matt going out and selling his players,” said Bob McKeown, NCCC’s athletic director. “Now I think it’s other programs coming to Matt and wanting his players. I think he has built up that trust with the other programs, and he has so many connections that he finds places for these kids.”
Clingersmith’s relationship with Virginia Tech assistant coach Mike Kunigonis, whom he played for at Canisius, initiated Elwood’s ascension to the ACC.
“He asked me if there were any players here,” Clingersmith recalled. “I said, ‘There might be one, he’s receiving some local interest, he throws 90.’ He said, ‘Hold the phone, I’ll be up there in a couple days.’
“When they got here, I still didn’t believe it. I didn’t know if [Elwood] was Virginia Tech good. I was nervous. What if he doesn’t throw well? He threw 30 pitches in the bullpen, and that’s all they needed to see. Just like that, he’s an ACC prospect.”
NCCC entered last week ranked 10th nationally and has a good chance to defend its regional championship in the playoffs starting this week. Last year, the Thunderwolves finished second at the NJCAA D-III World Series.
With Clingersmith having proved that he can recruit and develop top players and win consistently, observers wonder when he will move on to a bigger school.
“He’s had offers,” McKeown said. “Every year since I’ve been here, he’s told me about every offer he’s had. So far, he has turned all those down. He’s comfortable here, and we have a good working relationship. He likes it here.
“There may come a day when there is an offer he can’t turn down, because he is that good of a coach. My hope is that we can keep him here for a long time. And if he gets an offer he couldn’t refuse, I would welcome it and be happy for him because he definitely deserves it.”