For the first time in a number of years, Canisius head softball coach Mike Rappl will have a few decisions to make as he fills in his first line-up card of the 2013 season on Saturday, Feb. 16, when the Golden Griffins play St. Bonaventure at 1 p.m., in the Cleveland State Indoor Tournament.
"I would like to think we have more depth on this roster than on any other team over the last few years," Rappl said of his 2013 team. "And not only are we deep, but we are going to be able to play some different lineups because we have a number of kids who are able to play multiple spots. On paper right now, we have a lot of flexibility."
However, Rappl, who is entering his 34th season at the helm of the Canisius softball program knows that games aren't played on paper - they are played on the field. Over the past two seasons, the injury bug has played a major role against the Blue and Gold and there are still some signs of that injury bug around today. Seniors Katie Medina and Stephanie Pfentner hit their final year in a Canisius uniform after sitting out the fall season in 2012 as they rehabbed from injuries and redshirt sophomore Marissa Miller has dealt with shoulder troubles. Rappl also understands it is a long season and no other team in the MAAC is worried about Canisius' injury issues.
"To win a conference championship, you need to work hard, take care of your business, get lucky and stay healthy," Rappl said. "Our kids know that because of our history and success in this league that they are going to get everyone's best shot every day. We have to be ready. Over the last few years we really had our hands tied because we had injuries to key players at various times throughout the year. We addressed that a bit by adding some players that can play a few different positions in case we do get injuries. And if everyone is healthy, then we have all sorts of options. Roster flexibility is a great thing."
Rappl is stressing to his team to stay even keel throughout the long season, which is scheduled to run from Feb. 16 through May 4 when the Griffs meet Siena in the regular-season finale. He doesn't want his team to get too high after wins or too low after a loss, and he believes the mental make-up of this year's team is up to the challenge.
"Our team chemistry has been good from day one," he said. "We've been stressing to stay even keel throughout the season. There needs to be a mindset and a mentality in place to see the end goal is bigger than just a five-game stretch here and there. I'm pretty confident this group understands that and we're at a good place as the season starts."
Canisius' opening day lineup will feature two returners on the right side and two freshmen on the left side. Medina will move to first base for this season after playing second base and at shortstop for most of her career. The senior from Hamburg, N.Y., led the team with her .330 batting average last season and she drove in 13 runs, but she missed 17 games because of injury. Sophomore Robin Kennery will move from third base to second base this season. Kennery played second base a bit in 2012 when Medina was out with her injuries, and she is one of two players, along with junior Valorie Nappo that played in and started all 50 games a season ago. Kennery hit .275 and led the 2012 squad with her 10 doubles and 25 RBIs and she also posted a .951 fielding percentage in her rookie campaign.
Freshman Alexis Roman will get the start at shortstop for the Griffs in her rookie year. Roman, a native of Chino, Calif., was named All-CIF four four-straight seasons at Don Antonio Lugo High School and she earned Defensive MVP honors two times. She has a strong arm and great mobility and she hit better than .300 during her senior year in high school.
Fellow freshman Meghan Cuda will start at third base for the Griffs. Cuda was an All-Western New York and an all-state honoree in her time as an infielder at nearby Lewiston-Porter High School. A team captain and the Lewiston-Porter team MVP in 2010 and 2012, she hit .485 during her high school career, where she earned five varsity letters.
"Both Alexis and Meghan got to play a lot during the fall season and I think they showed they can handle the work load for us," Rappl said. "They both have strong arms and they can both cover a lot of ground. Meghan is not afraid to charge the ball in our bunt defense and Alexis has shown that she has the ability to make tough plays look routine."
Rappl also has the ability to move as many as four different players into various infield spots this season. Valorie Nappo, who started all 50 games at first base last season, has been moved to right field, but she can play first base if needed. The Griffs can also get time at first base from Miller, who will most likely serve as the team's designated player and back-up catcher. Sophomore Erica Afanador can play either of the middle infield positions in addition to her ability to patrol the outfield and freshman Bethany DeMarco has the ability to play at third base when she's not behind the plate.
"The flexibility with our infield is key," Rappl said. "If we put DeMarco at third, we know she's be ready to go. She has a strong arm and understands what it takes to play there. Erica Afanador played some infield for us last season and I would expect she could see some time there again this year as well. A few years ago, if one of our infielders went down, we struggled defensively. That doesn't appear to be the case this year."
The reputation of the Canisius outfield is speed, speed, speed, and this year's group is no different. Canisius lost two seniors to graduation last May as former Griffs Lizzy Gatto and Lauren Falzone earned their degrees from the College after roaming the outfield for four-straight seasons. Sophomore Michelle DelPrince, will be back in left field again this year. Last year as a freshman, DelPrince hit .248 with four doubles, two home runs, 14 runs scored and 15 runs batted in while being credited with three defensive assists. Joining DelPrince in the outfield this season will be Valorie Nappo, who will play in right and her younger sister Tori Nappo, who will take over the reigns in center field. Tori Nappo helped lead Clarence High School to the 2012 New York State Class AA championship after she hit .500 with 10 homers in her senior campaign. Valorie Nappo, who was named a team co-captain along with fellow junior Jen Consaul last fall, ranked third on the 2012 team with 23 RBIs and she also stole four bases to go with 375 defensive putouts from her first base position. Afanador will also see time in right field for the Griffs after she played in 43 games last year. Senior Chloe Contreras can fill in defensively in the outfield, but Rappl will most likely use her as a pinch runner, a role she has filled the three previous seasons. Joining Contreras as a reserve in the outfield is sophomore Kali Michalski, who played in 20 games last season off the bench and scored five runs to go with two stolen bases.
PITCHERS AND CATCHERS
Canisius will have one of the league's most experienced pitching staffs in 2013, as senior Amanda Baun, Consaul and sophomore Corrine Schaus return to the circle for the Blue and Gold. Those three pitchers have combined to throw 545.1 innings of college action and Consaul starts her junior season as a 2013 Preseason All-MAAC selection, as voted on by the MAAC's nine head coaches.
Consaul led Canisius last year with her nine wins in 18 starts. She fanned 75 batters in 139.1 innings of work and compiled 10 complete-game and four shutout wins. Schaus made 16 appearances in her rookie season of 2012 where she posted a 3-2 record with a 2.76 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 53.1 innings of work.
Canisius hopes that Baun will return to the level that she showed in her freshman season of 2010. That year, the Riverside, Calif., native was named Second-Team All-MAAC after she went 18-12 with a 1.99 ERA in 31 appearances. In the last two seasons, she has appeared in a total of 27 games.
"I am very pleased with our pitchers through the fall and the early spring, now we just need to maintain that progress and get stronger," Rappl said. "All of our pitchers have been working hard and they all understand what it takes to win at this level. I believe you can be in every game if you get good pitching and good defense. It's good to know that on paper our pitching staff is stronger than it was at this time last season."
Pfentner is coming off a back injury that kept her out of the fall season, but the three-year letterwinner will be the Griffs' primary catcher when the year begins in Cleveland on Feb. 16. She played in 33 games last year and made 30 starts where she hit .218 while ranking second on the roster with three homers. Rappl doesn't believe he'll be able to have Pfentner catch every game, so DeMarco will see time behind the plate for sure, and Miller might get the call to go behind the dish from time-to-time as well. Rappl says he is confident in all of his catchers, but having a senior leader like Pfentner behind the plate puts him a little more at ease.
"Catching at this level is hard, and we ask our catchers to do a lot for us," he said. "They have to know what pitchers throw which pitches in various situations and they have to have a feel for the game. Steph has that experience because she has been playing for us for three years already. There will be a bit of a learning curve for Bethany back there, but she showed us in the fall that she's willing to learn and she keeps getting better. Would I like to have the same catcher every game - absolutely. But with our schedule, I don't think that is an option."
Canisius is scheduled to play its first 29 games on the road or at a neutral venue before the 2013 home opener against St. Bonaventure on Monday, April 8. That twinbill with the Bonnies will mark the start of 15-straight home dates for the Griffs between April 8-24. The Griffs will start the season by taking part in four tournaments, including the George Mason Cherry Blossom Classic March 15-17, where the Griffs will play against the host Patriots, Ohio State and Pittsburgh.
The MAAC portion of the 2013 slate will get underway April 6, when Canisius plays at Rider. The Blue and Gold will host eight-straight MAAC games from April 13-21, highlighted by the annual doubleheader with long-time rival Niagara, and then team will close out MAAC play at Iona, Fairfield and Siena. Rappl expects the MAAC to be as competitive as ever this year and he believes any number of five different teams can win the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA Division I Softball Championships in May.
"From top to bottom, this league is going to be tough," he said. "You look at teams like Fairfield and Marist and they have been tested and are looking to make the next step. Iona is the three-time defending champion, so they have pride and experience on their side too, and Siena has one of the league's best players. Our goal is to win the MAAC. That's our expectation each and every year. I think our non-league schedule will have us ready to go for when we get into conference games in March."The 2013 MAAC Softball Championships will be held at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from May 9-11. Canisius qualified for the 2012 MAAC Championship with an 11-5 league mark, the program's 21st trip to the conference's postseason championship in the last 23 years.