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The message goes back to the early 1970s, when Ron Torgalski was running around with a baseball in one hand and a basketball in the other. St. Francis High School served as the family playground for him and his three brothers while his father was coaching in Athol Springs.

It should be no surprise that the University at Buffalo has put together its best baseball season in 33 years, no surprise when you learn they’ve won by playing hard, playing smart, playing as a team and doing the little things needed to win. Coach Ron Torgalski had the formula ingrained by his father.

“I grew up around a coach,” Torgalski said. “From the time I was 3 and 4 years old, going to the gym, going to the field, my brothers and me, we lived at St. Francis growing up. We were at every practice in baseball and basketball. Even as I was going through high school and college, I was watching my dad coach.”

Apparently, he was listening.

Torgalski was named Mid-American Conference coach of the year Tuesday, a day before taking the second-seeded Bulls (32-22) into the conference playoffs today against Toledo. Center fielder Jason Kanzler was named player of the year after leading the conference in batting, home runs, runs batted in and total bases.

“I don’t pitch it, I don’t catch it and I don’t hit it,” Torgalski said. “I’ll take credit for being smart enough to surround myself with good players, good coaches and people who find a way to get it done. They did it and did it for the program.”

UB is winning in old-school ways his father, Bob Torgalski, would appreciate. He’s been coaching high school sports for 51 years and counting. Lately, he’s been coaching baseball and girls basketball at Nichols, where all four of his sons were stars. Ron has found a way to maximize his roster at Buffalo.

Kanzler is the one true star on a team that relies on great pitching and sound defense. The Bulls have played smart and excelled at all the little things that make a difference. UB was headed for the first seed before a loss and a Kent State win pushed the Bulls to second. UB beat Kent State in all three meetings year, each by a run.

“The kids come to play every day,” Torgalski said. “We’re not a team full of superstars. They’re guys that, right now, are doing the things you need to do to win a game whether it’s coming in and making a pitch late, making a great defensive play to save a run, moving a runner over and knocking him in. We’re just grinding it out.”

It sounds about right.

Torgalski, if you remember, was named to the all-Western New York teams in basketball and baseball in 1985. He was known more for basketball after leading Nichols to a state title with Christian Laettner. Torgalski played hoops at Hamilton College, where he started his coaching career as an assistant.

Hey, whatever happened to that Laettner kid, anyway?

Torgalski was an assistant basketball coach for six seasons at UB before taking over a baseball program fighting through growing pains. Buffalo dropped baseball for 12 seasons but resurrected the program when implementing Division I sports. Starting in 2000, the Bulls averaged 15 wins in eight seasons.

The Bulls have won 20 games or more in four of the past five seasons under Torgalski. Their 32 victories this season tied a school record set in 1980, when UB had three players – Joe Hesketh, Dennis Howard and Pat Raimondo – selected in the same draft. Thirty-three years later, UB has evolved into a MAC baseball power.

“If you pitch and play D, you’re going to give yourself a chance,” Torgalski said. “We’ve been swinging it better. We’re executing offensively as far as moving guys. Late in the game, if we’re down a run, we’re able to scratch one out.”

UB has the best player in the conference in Kanzler, who batted .322 and led the conference in homers (10), runs batted in (46) and total bases (124) and was second in triples (six). He hit .456 against lefties. He’s had pro scouts following him all year, and he’s almost certain to be selected next month in the Major League draft.

Catcher Tom Murphy was picked by Colorado in the third round last year after a terrific career at UB. He’s tearing up the South Atlantic League (Class A) with a .337 batting average, 31 RBIs and eight homers in his first 27 games. Murphy drew scouts to the program. Kanzler kept them coming back.

“Defensively, there’s no comparison,” Torgalski said. “Defensively, he’s the best outfielder I’ve seen in years. He’s a difference maker as a center fielder, stealing hits, going to the gap, diving and making plays. He’s done it all year long for us. He’s just been unbelievable out there.”

UB has only 7½ scholarships, four fewer than the maximum for Division I baseball. The Bulls don’t have their own on-campus field. They play their home games at Audubon, a town park behind Northtowns Center. It makes this season even more impressive. Torgalski is doing more with less better than any coach in the conference.

Kanzler is a terrific player, but the Bulls are nowhere without their pitching and fielding. The Bulls led the conference with a 3.65 ERA during the regular season despite having the fourth-fewest strikeouts (5.38 per game). Starters Mike Burke, Anthony Magovney and Mike McGee combined for 19 wins. Reliever Ben Hartz had a 6-1 record and a 1.22 ERA. Closer River McWilliams had 12 of their 13 saves.

UB is 24-4 when leading after the fifth inning. They’re playing smart. They’re playing hard. They’re competing. They’re an extension of their coach. Their coach is an extension of his father.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who said we would never win in this league, that we weren’t good enough,” Torgalski said.

“It helps our credibility. We continue to get better every year. It’s a program that’s definitely on the rise and hopefully will continue to attract great kids and good players.”

Shumpert speaks out

While veteran Carmelo Anthony talked about the Knicks being “right there” and Raymond Felton saying they had a “great year, great run,” second-year man Iman Shumpert refused to accept the soft landing after Indiana knocked them out of the playoffs.

“We failed,” Shumpert told reporters during locker cleanout day in New York. “We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”

Shumpert thought the Knicks, who hadn’t won the division since 1994, needed to reach the Eastern Conference finals for anyone to deem the season a success. Anthony and Felton did not play well, and streaking shooting guard J.R. Smith was worse. The Pacers pushed around Tyson Chandler for most of the series and were the smarter, tougher team.

“Little things like not playing hard should never come into play,” Shumpert said. “Letting a game slip at home should never come into play. Getting beat on the boards when that’s an emphasis coming into a series should never happen. We have to take care of the little things and we didn’t. And it caught up to us.”

Worst move in baseball?

Five-plus years after the trade was completed, can we agree that the Marlins’ decision to send Miguel Caberera to the Tigers is the worst in baseball history? Or does that still belong to the Red Sox for trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000?

Three of the six players who were sent to Florida – Dallas Trahern, Frankie De La Cruz and Mike Rabelo – haven’t played professional baseball in at least two years. None of the other three – Burke Badenhop, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller – is playing for the Marlins. The latter three are making a combined $6 million this year.

Cabrera last season became the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the Triple Crown. He was leading the majors Tuesday with a .387 batting average and 47 RBIs and was three homers behind leader Justin Upton. He’s making $21 million this season.

No more belly putters

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has long believed that belly putters gave professional golfers no advantage. He argued that anyone could anchor the putter against his body for stability.

Finchem must decide whether to join the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in banning the putting technique. The idea behind the rule change was to maintain rules designed for free swinging rather than embrace the evolution of the sport. Look for the PGA to follow suit, if only because it would keep rules uniform.

If they really wanted to keep tradition, they would remove technology from the game and make the pros play with persimmon woods. Of course, equipment companies that spend millions of dollars on research, and are among golf’s biggest sponsors, would never tolerate such a change.

It would go against golf’s greatest tradition: making money.

Stats Inc.

24 – Consecutive matches won by Serena Williams, the longest streak of her career, after she captured the Italian Open for her fourth straight title.

69 – Ranking of Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend on Maxim magazine’s “Hot 100” list.

23 – Strokes over par for 14-year-old Guan Tianlong in his first three PGA tour events, two shots worse than 17-year-old Tiger Woods was after his third event.

Quotable

San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York after learning the Niners will host the 50th Super Bowl in their new stadium in Santa Clara: “After losing a Super Bowl, it feels really good to win a Super Bowl.”

Quick Hits

• Rob Gronkowski has taken plenty of grief for having too much fun off the field, but is there any chance he was a step ahead of his critics? Now that the Amherst native had his fourth surgery on his forearm, I’m guessing he’ll enjoy every second of his career even more. You never know how long it will last.

• John Tortorella has been criticized for his short news conferences, but who else can pack that much entertainment into 60 seconds or less? Certainly not the Rangers, who were two for 36 on the power play going into Game Three against the Bruins. Torts doesn’t have much room to talk with his 14-20 playoff record with the Blueshirts.

• In their next CBA, major league teams should demand a clause stating players should not be paid for self-inflicted injuries caused during temper tantrums. That way, maybe fringe relief pitchers such as Ryan Mattheus, who broke his pitching hand while throwing a fit Monday, would think twice about punching a locker.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com