Ranking second in the Northeast region with 217 wins during the past six seasons, the target on the back of the Canisius baseball team has always been there. The Griffs have won 33 or more games in five of the last six seasons, seen four players named All-Americans and advanced to the MAAC Championship in seven straight seasons.
After winning the first conference championship and playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history last season, that target might have gotten just a little bit bigger. With a roster featuring 13 players who made 23 or more starts last year, returning three of the top four starting pitchers and including five relievers who made 10 or more appearances, the experience to deal with that bulls-eye is present throughout the entire roster.
“For the second straight year, I really feel like the depth of our roster is an asset to our team. We will establish roles and they will play out as the season progresses,” 10th-year coach Mike McRae said. “We can ride the hot guys and also replace guys who are struggling and try to get them back on track when we will need them later in the season.”
Junior Devon Stewart
The Griffs will have two major spots in the pitching staff to replace. No. 1 starter Garrett Cortright (11-4, 2.41 ERA, 115.2 IP, 76 K) signed a professional contract after being selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 40th round of the Major League Baseball Draft following his junior season. At the back end of the bullpen, two-time MAAC Relief Pitcher of the Year Jon Fitzsimmons (4-0, 1.16 ERA, 10 saves, 38 K, 31 IP) signed a contract with the Kansas City Royals after striking out the side in the Coastal Plain League All-Star Game, earning Defensive Player of the Game honors.
Junior Rohn Pierce (3-1, 5.25 ERA, 60.0 IP, 46 K) appears poised to take over the No. 1 spot in the rotation. Pierce has started the final game of the MAAC Tournament each of the past two seasons. The Lockport, N.Y. native served as the No. 4 starter and pitched in a setup role in the bullpen during his first two seasons. Pierce touched the low-90s in his two innings of work against No. 23 Florida Atlantic in the NCAA Tournament and has the potential to be another Canisius junior selected in the MLB Draft in June.
The last two MAAC Rookies of the Year, who each earned Freshman All-America honors, occupy the next two spots in the Canisius rotation. Junior Devon Stewart (5-6, 5.65 ERA, 79.2 IP, 47 K) took a minor step back last season but has the experience of 29 starts during his first two seasons to be a force in the weekend rotation and also could potentially be drafted. Sophomore Alex Godzak (8-3, 3.36 ERA, 83.0 IP, 66 K) burst onto the scene last year and took hold of the No. 2 spot in the rotation in the seven-inning game. The Syracuse, N.Y. native threw the first seven innings of the nine-inning no-hitter against Iona, joining Pierce and Fitzsimmons in the feat. McRae expects those “three returning starters to see the bulk of the load on the weekend.”
Senior Mike Tolsma, junior transfer Brandon Bielecki and freshmen Josh Shepley and Zachary Trumpler comprise a quartet of pitchers who will look to find a role as either the No. 4 starter in early-season non-conference games and mid-week contests or a multiple-inning reliever. Tolsma had a 0.44 ERA in his final 10 appearances (20.2 innings) that included a streak of 17.2 scoreless innings. Bielecki continues the pipeline of players who come to Canisius after two years at Niagara County Community College where they play for former Golden Griffin Matt Clingersmith.
Shepley and Trumpler are two freshman right-handers that McRae is excited to see develop. Hailing out of Windsor, Ontario, Shepley (6-2, 225) will get the first crack at the No. 4 spot in the rotation as McRae feels he has a “bright future” in the Blue and Gold. Trumpler (6-0, 184) has “outstanding stuff” that needs some game experience to get the Elma, N.Y. native refined to become a consistent contributor.
The backend of the bullpen also features a quartet of arms who are looking to establish roles, from set-up to specialist to the closer. A similar situation presented itself in 2012 with Fitzsimmons, after a tough freshman season, grabbing the closer spot and not letting go for the next two seasons.
“We will let the closer role play out,” McRae said. “Everyone forgets that two years ago we didn’t know who would be the closer at the start of the season.”
Senior Tyler Soucie (1-0, 3.72 ERA, 9.2 IP, 11 K) struck out more than one batter per inning in his first year at Canisius, a good trait to see any pitcher but especially in late-inning relievers. Junior Eric Stolzenburg (1-2, 6.17 ERA, 11.2 IP, 10 K) served as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen the last two years but in the offseason has shown more velocity and the ability to be stretched out. Fellow junior Aaron Casper (2-0, 7.56 ERA, 16.2 IP, 19 K) is another right-hander who averaged more than a strikeout per inning. Sophomore Iannick Remillard (2-0, 3.71 ERA, 26.2 IP, 17 K) bounced between a spot starter in mid-week games and weekend relief during the 2013 season.
Three other pitchers — junior Tyler Vavra and freshmen Michael Ginther and Zachary Sloan — provide more depth and will see innings throughout the season. As a pitching coach at heart, McRae knows a staff can never have enough arms.
Senior Ryan Coppinger
Having too many options for the nine spots in the batting order isn’t a problem, it’s a good thing. That’s a juggling act Mike McRae balanced last year and will have to do it again during the 2014 season.
Canisius will have to replace All-MAAC selection Brooklyn Foster behind the plate. Foster made 35 starts last year and tied for the team lead with a .360 batting average while handling the Canisius pitching staff. Junior Mike Booth (.247, 25 starts, 12 runs, 11 RBI) and freshman Christ Conley will be a platoon behind the plate.
“We will probably go more left-right with our platoon this year,” McRae said. “Mike Booth has gotten a lot of experience during his first two years and Conley showed a solid ability to hit during his high school career.”
Senior Jimmy Luppens (.360, 48 RBI) returns as the starting first baseman after earning First-Team All-MAAC and ABCA Northeast Region First-Team honors in 2013. Luppens earned MAAC Preseason Player of the Year honors earlier this week after leading the league in on-base percentage (.465) and ranking in the top five of five other offensive categories as a junior.
Canisius features a quarter of talented players up the middle in seniors Jose Torralba (.273, 24 RBI, 12 SB) and Ronnie Bernick (.283, 27 RBI), sophomore Anthony Massicci (.413, 32 GP) and freshman Jake Lumley. McRae gave lofty praise for that foursome.
“The depth of that group is as good as I’ve seen, not only at our conference level but possibly in the country,” McRae said. “All four can play at a high level and the biggest challenge will be getting them the at-bats that they deserve.”
Torralba is in his fourth year as the starter at second base and took the ultimate one for the team last season — getting hit in the shoulder with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game to give the Griffs their first MAAC Championship. Bernick developed into an All-MAAC Second-Team selection, just two years after getting just 16 at-bats as a freshman.
Trying to unseat that senior duo are Massicci and Lumley. Massicci was the beneficiary of a hot streak last year when he had a 14-game hitting streak and earned MAAC Rookie of the Week honors twice. Lumley comes to Canisius after playing for Team Canada in the 18U World Cup in August.
Over at third base, junior Connor Panas returns as the starter after a sophomore year where he hit .321 with 40 runs scored and a .451 on-base percentage in 50 appearances. The Toronto, Ontario native also led the team with a .361 batting average in MAAC play. Panas can see some time at first base to spell Luppens while Massicci could get some time at third base as well.
The breakout player from the end of the 2013 season was junior Jesse Puscheck (.290, 20 RBI), who will get a chance as the primary option at designated hitter while also seeing time at third base. The North Tonawanda, N.Y. native hit .344 after April 6, culminating by earning MAAC Championship Most Outstanding Player honors after hitting two homers and recording seven RBI in the tournament.
In the outfield, the Griffs lose two players in Chris Gruarin and Christian Segar who combined for 55 starts. The primary options heading into the season, from left to right, include senior Jesse Kelso (.292, 39 RBI), junior Mike Krische (.248, 12 SB) and senior Ryan Coppinger (.316, 27 RBI). Kelso was an All-MAAC First-Team selection after ranking fourth in the conference in runs scored (44) and fifth in RBI. Krische flashes high-level speed on the base paths and covers a lot of ground in center. Coppinger, who also will play some center field, had a number of big hits throughout the 2013 season and ended the season on a 10-game hitting streak during which he hit .395.
Other options in the outfield include senior Shane Zimmer (.222, 14 RBI) and sophomore Brett Siddall (.318, 29 RBI). Zimmer can play either of the corner positions while providing a right-handed option at the DH spot. The St. Albert, Alberta native shattered the program record with 54 walks as a sophomore but could never get in a groove in 2013. Siddall, who will play in right field, at first base or DH, had a number of bright spots during his freshman campaign en route to receiving MAAC Rookie of the Week honors
“We’ll treat the outfield just like we did last season,” McRae said. “It’s a combination of matchups on the mound, lineup balance and who is swinging the bat well.
“The speed of those guys in the outfield shows up on the base paths but can get lost in that they cover a lot of ground and really help out team defense.”
SCHEDULE AND OUTLOOK
The Griffs’ non-conference schedule had a major change to start the season. Due to the storm affecting the Southeast region of the country, the Griffs saw their four neutral-site games at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary, N.C. cancelled. Canisius was able to pick up a three-game series against No. 5 and 2013 College World Series participant North Carolina State, who wasn't able to fly to its opening series at UC Santa Barbara. Following the opening weekend, the Griffs face a range of opponents from perennial mid-major power Charlotte to 2013 regional participant East Tennessee State.
Canisius, which was picked first by the league’s coaches, opens MAAC play with its first two series at home, starting against Saint Peter’s on March 22-23. The league schedule stayed at 24 games even with 11 teams now in the conference, so schools will not play two opponents (Iona and Rider for Canisius). The Griffs wrap up their MAAC schedule at home against Monmouth, a team that has been near or at the top of the NEC standings for a number of seasons.
The 2014 MAAC Championship (May 22-25 at Lakewood, N.J.) expands to six teams but stays as a double-elimination tournament. An emphasis is placed on regular-season play as the top two teams in the MAAC standings get a first-round bye in the tournament. McRae is a big fan of both of those developments.
“With the increase in the number of teams in the league, we needed to expand to six teams to be fair and keep up with the rest of college baseball,” McRae said. “I am always a fan of rewarding regular-season play. There is definitely motivation to finish in the top two of the standings.”
Coming off the most successful season in program history when Canisius won a conference-record 42 games and appeared in the NCAA Tournament, the Griffs finally experienced the reward of a conference championship after getting agonizingly close for a number of years. The goals for the program haven’t changed and may have even been raised.
With the depth on the pitching staff and in the lineup, the raising of the goals seems warranted. Now the challenge comes with working to meet that new level while not getting satisfied with last year’s success.
“I haven’t noticed anything really different with the team during the offseason that I think is a result of the MAAC title. We’re an experienced team and I’ve been pleased to see the way we have been grinding through at-bats during the past few weeks,” McRae said. “We’re always looking to find ways to generate offense when you aren’t barreling the bat. We always want to be a lineup of tough outs from top to bottom.”