By Nolan Hopkins
Coming on the heels of a 35-win campaign last season, the Canisius baseball team is looking to reload, not rebuild.
The team welcomes back some of the key components of last year's squad that helped the Griffs finish the season with the third highest team batting average (.273) in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Only Fairfield (.289) and Marist (.278) had a higher team batting average than the Blue and Gold.
Redshirt senior catcher Christ Conley and senior infielder Ryan Stekl are two of the big bats on the team that are looking to make an impact in the middle of the order.
This past summer Conley received the 2017 Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League Player of the Year Award. In 41 games in the collegiate summer league, Conley hit .382 to go along with a .582 on-base percentage for the Jamestown Jammers. These were some of the highest marks in league history.
“It was definitely a great accomplishment, it was nice having guys from our team down there with me. So being familiar with some of the guys on the team helped out,” said Conley. “John Conti (senior outfielder) and I were working together a lot this summer, hitting wise. I was helping him with some things, he was helping me with some things, I think a lot of the hard work off the field in the cages and stuff payed off.”
Conley slugged three home runs last season for the Griffs, and also drove in 41 runs, which was tied for the most on the team with Stekl.
“I’ve just been getting my foot down. It is the one thing I had trouble with my sophomore season. I tried to switch some things up and turn into a power guy but it didn’t really work out so that kind of screwed my swing up,” Conley said.
Conley may have found his stroke this summer, which would be a welcomed sign for a ball club that hopes to be even more dangerous at the plate this year.
Three of the Griffs offensive standouts will be returning this year. This includes Conley, Stekl and senior utility player Liam Wilson.
Wilson was named to the Preseason All-MAAC team, the lone Canisius player chosen. Last season, Wilson hit .343 with three home runs and 38 RBI. He also hit a team-high 18 doubles and was second on the team in hits (74).
The team’s pitching staff is also retaining some of their best arms for this season. Senior JP Stevenson (Glasgow, P.E.I.) led the team in wins (9), games started (15) and strikeouts (69), while posting the second-lowest ERA on the team (3.65). In addition, Stevenson was named to the Canadian Baseball Network All-Canadian College Team after his junior year performance. Junior Andrew Sipowicz burst onto the scene in his sophomore season as a dependable top-of-the-rotation guy. He was second on the team in wins (6), second in games started (12), second in strikeouts (65) and had the lowest ERA (3.48).
Canisius’ senior closer Tyler Smith was named to the All-New England Collegiate Baseball League First Team this past summer. Smith recorded 10 saves and one win in the NECBL to go with 47 strikeouts. In his junior season for the Blue and Gold, Smith was stellar out of the bullpen, finishing with 11 saves and 43 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings of work.
With an abundance of upperclassmen at the plate as well as on the bump, the veteran leadership resonates throughout the team.
“The veteran leadership is so valuable, you cannot even put a price tag on it, because it helps you on the field and allows you as a coach to not have to say too much all the time,” head coach Matt Mazurek said. “You can point them in the direction and they can lead from within. The veteran leadership is going to go a long way and dictate how far this team goes.”
Coach Mazurek is in his first year at the helm of the team. He served as an assistant coach for 12 years under former head coach Mike McRae. He was also a player on the Griffs baseball team, winning the college’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2006.
“Taking over has been an honour, there is a strong tradition that has been built here on winning and working hard, and I want to continue that and then put my own spin on it,” he said.“I’ve been using the example of, it is not a rebuild its a remodel.”
The Griffs were picked to finish in second place in the conference in the MAAC preseason poll.
“There’s the preseason polls saying we’re first or second, that doesn’t mean anything, especially to me, I don’t want to hear any of that stuff,” said Stekl.“I want to go out there, I want us to play hard, and I want us to play like every single game is our last.”
The team will open up the season in Port Charlotte, Fla. today as the Griffs take on Ohio State and Milwaukee in the SnowBird Classic. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. against the Buckeyes at the Mets’ Spring Training facility.