The Canisius College baseball team, which is a perennial contender in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference baseball title picture, begins its quest for its third conference championship on Friday, as the squad opens the season at Gardner Webb, in Boiling Springs, N.C. The Blue and Gold enter the season having set a record for the most consecutive tournament appearances, making their 10th-straight in the 2016 season.
Last year, the Griffs appeared to be well positioned to defend its 2015 title, as the squad, led by seniors Anthony Massicci and Iannick Remillard, and Alex Godzak, reeled off two impressive wins, after tallying wins over Marist (15-7) and Siena (8-4), before being upended by Fairfield (8-5) and eventually ousted by the Saints (5-0).
The hallmark of this program has been the sustaintability of success despite the annual departure of a veteran senior class, and the Coach Mike McRae and his staff believe this season is no different.
Departing the team is last year’s batting average leader, Massicci (.344), as well as the 2016 MAAC reliever of the year in Remillard. Aside from those losses, Aaron Casper, who had arguable his best year as a Griff (7-1, 3.19 ERA) also leaves a hole as the hurler was a versatile piece, coming out of the bullpen and as well as having the ability to start. Also, despite battling through injuries Godzak provided a strong presence from the bullpen and was effective when healthy.
The hope is that an influx of talent both at the freshman level and transfer players will bolster the talent and help elevate this team to championship glory once again.
The Blue and Gold return the heart of its order to the infield this year, with players like Lumley, Ryan Stekl and Liam Wilson, back for another season. However the biggest hole left by the 2016 senior class comes in the infield, as the Griffs will attempt to replace the services of the sure-handed Massicci.
One option in play is moving Lumley, who has primarily played second base over to shortstop and turn to freshman infielder Brandon Nicholson to take over the role. Regardless what happens a newcomer will likely have to step into a starting position.
As for offense of the middle-infield, Lumley’s return provides Canisius its most versatile bat. Lumley was second on the team in average last year, posting a .339 mark. He also finished with 35 RBI and three home runs. He also recorded seven doubles and three triples.
Also returning is the veteran presence of Christ Conley. The catcher played in 49 games last year and recorded a mark of .258, with 15 RBI. His bat provides pop, and provides extra-base potential as he recorded six doubles on 31 hits.
The hot corners may be the strength of the infield with the positions all-but set. Stekl, returns to play first, while Wilson and Joseph Preziuso will battle out for the starting third-base job.
Stekl posted an average of .257 to go along with 55 hits and 44 RBI. Meanwhile Liam Wilson provided a spark with his bat in his first year with the Griffs, as he was third on the team in average with a .319 mark and led the team in hits with 74.
Preziuso brings a different dimension to the fold, as his defensive acumen at third base brings a different element. The second-year infielder impressed supporters with his glove in many instances last season and an uptick in his offensive numbers would make him a real contender for the starting job. Preziuso finished the year with a .202 average and rapped out 19 hits in 38 games.
Also joining the team will be junior Gage Lanning, freshmen Brett Migliore, and Stephen Bennett. The team’s early plans may be to have Lanning fill in the designated hitter position, while Migliore and Bennett will battle starts as well.
The outfield may be the Griffs’ biggest question mark, with lots of open opportunities for returners and newcomers alike to battle for playing time.
It appears that the only player that is firmly entrenched in a starting role is that of redshirt junior Tim Kensinger. Kensinger proved to be a reliable offensive and defensive player for the Blue and Gold, as he started 53 games, recorded a .291 batting average, along with 59 hits, eight doubles and 20 RBI.
Canisius has a glut of returning outfielders that provide different attributes. Juniors John Conti and Cyrus Senior provide speed and defense to the field, but their offense has struggled, while sophomore Mark McKenna is a player that can play both on the infield and outfield provides decent pop at the plate, while having shown reliability in the field.
Zach Garick is also in the fold. The redshirt junior missed all of last season but was key piece in the teams title run in 2015, making numerous starts and providing solid defense.
Also expected to challenge for time and possibly even earn the starting jobs are freshman Jake Burlingame and transfer John Novenche. Burlingame brings speed and arm talent to the outfield while; Novenche brings good power at the plate and projects to be a solid defender with a good arm.
The rotation will be another area where the Griffs seems to have a number of options to choose from. Aside from losing Godzak and Casper, the Blue and Gold return Zachary Sloan, Andrew Kneussle, Nolan Hunt and J.P. Stevenson.
Hunt returns as the wins leader amongst the group, going a flawless 5-0 with a 2.90 ERA. Hunt might have been the biggest surprise among the starters last season, going 62.0 innings pitched and allowing just 20 earned runs.
Stevenson comes back with maybe the biggest upside, fighting through an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, after posting an impressive freshman season. Stevenson finished the season with 2-6 record and a 5.89 ERA.
Sloan also provides a veteran presence and took a step forward in 2016, going 1-0 in five starts and posted a 3.00 ERA.
Kneussle also could be a source of starts if he can continue to improve upon a promising freshman season. Kneussle finished last season 3-3 in eight starts and posted a 4.85 ERA.
Looking to fill key bullpen roles are Tyler Smith and Andrew Sipowicz. Smith spent much of last season as a late inning reliever, often times setting up Remillard in save situations. He is someone that is slated to slide into the closer role vacated by the flame-throwing Remillard.
Smith went 6-3 last season, posted a 4.63 ERA and made 22 apperances. He fanned 59 batters in his sophomore season, leading the team in that category.
Sipowicz, showed the ability to be a long-reliever or spot starter in 2016, and could pick up the role that Casper played last season, receiving starts and picking up when starts are ended early. Sipowicz appeared in 19 games, and limited opponents to 3.45 earned run average.
Alvin Vega also should factor into the bullpen, as the hard-throwing righty, showed flashes during his freshman campaign.
Canisius opens its season at Gardner Webb, playing a game on Friday, followed by a double-header on Saturday and a single game Sunday, to round out its opening weekend. Game times are set for 4 p.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m. and 1 p.m., respectively. The Blue and Gold will play its first home game on March 7, when the team hosts crosstown rival, Buffalo for the first game of its four-game non-conference schedule.