It was midway through the 2007 season and Mike McRae was already agitated. His Canisius College baseball team was swept at home by Le Moyne and it was time for some much-needed soul searching.
Back-to-back setbacks proved to be the light-bulb moment for the program and six years later they are experiencing the ultimate breakthrough. The Golden Griffins (42-15), participants in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, face a formidable task in playing North Carolina (52-8), the tournament’s top seed, at 6 p.m. today in Chapel Hill’s Boshamer Stadium.
“We’re going down there to face a bunch of college guys, too,” Canisius senior catcher Brooklyn Foster said. “You can’t let their No. 1 ranking get in your head too much. We’ve got nothing to lose, really, and we have to go down there and play our game.”
The Golden Griffins aren’t fearful of what’s to come.
The program that seemingly embraced a culture of losing prior to McRae’s arrival nine years ago has turned into one of the more consistent teams in the nation.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions set both program and conference records for overall victories in a season with 42, and enter the NCAAs with a .737 winning percentage – which ranks 15th in the country.
“We are always trying to grow, we’re always trying to get better, we’re always trying to get better players and make the players we have in the program better,” McRae said. “Within that framework, I see a group where some of those lessons are sinking in.”
Prior to McRae taking over in 2005, Canisius combined to win 12 games over the three previous seasons.
“Failure was acceptable because they had done it for so long,” he said. “That’s a tough thing to break through.”
The Golden Griffins went 9-38 in McRae’s first season and 18-36 in 2006 and after back-to-back losses to Le Moyne dropped the team to 6-26 in ’07, McRae called a meeting and told his team to take a long look in the mirror. Are you here for the right reasons? What are your intentions? How committed are you to improving as a player and as a team?
“It’s not OK,” McRae told his team. “The school isn’t committed to losing, they’re putting in money and resources and they want us to grow and get better and it’s going to happen. Guys need to get on the train or get off.”
The team responded and dug in, finishing 14-9 the remainder of the season to make the MAAC Tournament for the first time. They’ve qualified for the postseason ever since.
“That really spearheaded things,” McRae said. “That taste made people hungry.”
McRae also credits the team’s success to great leadership, something he says is difficult to recruit.
“Everyone is playing video games and they shut it off when they lose,” he said. “To have somebody that says, ‘Hey, we just got whacked in the face and we need to recover from that.’ … When you have good leadership, those lessons can be spread more effectively.”
One of those leaders is hard-throwing junior Garrett Cortright, the 6-foot-5, 208-pound right-hander from Frontier High School. Cortright (11-3, 2.24) takes the mound today against Tar Heels right-hander Benton Moss (8-1, 3.56).
“Garrett has been throwing well all year,” said sophomore pitcher Rohn Pierce, the Newfane product. “Start after start he’s been doing great consistently. It gives us a lot of confidence going in.”
North Carolina, which tied LSU for the most wins at 52, doesn’t appear to have a glaring weakness. Of the players who started at least 50 games, only second baseman Mike Zolk is hitting under .300.
Senior first baseman Cody Stubbs went 10 for 22 (.455) with six RBIs en route to being named MVP of the ACC Tournament. Third baseman Colin Moran could be the top pick in the this year’s MLB Draft. Moss has the highest ERA among the four-man starting rotation that includes Kent Emanuel (2.11), Hobbs Johnson (2.14) and Chris Munnelly (2.36).
“Everybody in the lineup hits .300, everybody on the mound throws 90-plus and throws strikes,” McRae said. “They are where they’re at for a reason. When you see their facilities and resources, they’re going to get some of the best players in the country.”
A win today could enhance the reputation of McRae, who is signed through 2014. In a sport where the great teams emerge primarily from the South, Canisius is the only team in the Northeast with 33 or more wins in five of the last six seasons.
Larger programs will likely come calling but McRae doesn’t appear to have a wandering eye.
“The only thing I’m worried about right now,” he said, “is catching the flight for the game.”