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Canisius Softball Wins MAAC Championship, Advances to NCAA Tournament

By: Vinnie Christiano III

For the 13th time in program history, and for the first time since 2009, the Canisius Golden Griffins have won the MAAC Softball Championship Tournament and will be travelling to Gainesville, Florida for the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

Canisius, which was already the winningest softball program in MAAC history, has now more than double the amount of championships than the next most accomplished program, Iona (6).

Canisius clinched the #1 position in the MAAC Softball Championship Tournament after sweeping Niagara on May 8, which meant the Griffs would host the other qualifying MAAC teams for a second year in a row. The rest of the field in seed order consisted of Fairfield, Siena, Rider, Marist, and Iona.

Canisius, by virtue of being the number one seed, also received a bye in the first round, giving them an extra day of rest while four of the remaining five teams had to play on Wednesday. The first game of the day was between Siena and Iona, a game in which Gaels pitcher Kara Zazzaro began what was a very impressive run during the tournament, and resulted in the sixth seeded Iona upsetting the third seeded Siena Saints.

The day’s second game saw Marist, who were the MAAC preseason favorites, defeat the Rider Broncs. As a result, the Broncs turned around to play the Siena Saints in an elimination game immediately after. During that game, the Saints emerged victorious, sending the Broncs home and cementing their place as the team to beat in the loser’s bracket.

The tournament’s second day saw the two best teams in the conference by record play their first games, as Fairfield would face off against Iona in the day’s earliest game and Canisius would play host to Marist in the day’s second game.

Iona performed another upset in the morning, defeating the Stags 3-0 to remain in the winner’s bracket. At about 11:00 am, the Golden Griffins took the field for the first time in the championship tournament.

The Griffs were slated to play the Marist Red Foxes, the team that relegated Canisius to the loser’s bracket in last year’s MAAC Championship Tournament. In 2021, the Red Foxes beat Canisius on Day one 5-0, but the Griffs defeated Fairfield in the loser’s bracket before getting a rematch against Marist, a game in which they won just 1-0.

This time around, Canisius got on the scoreboard quickly, tallying four runs in the bottom of the first inning. Christie McGee-Ross recorded the game’s first hit, a double which put the sophomore in scoring position for Destiny Falques, who’s RBI single opened the scoring. Lindsi Dennis and Sophia Recrosio also recorded RBIs in the opening frame.

Marist scored in the top of the second to make it 4-1, and again in the top of the fourth. Both scoring plays for Marist came off of the bat of Meghan Davis. Canisius added an insurance run in the bottom of the fourth off of a Red Foxes error.

Although Marist out-hit Canisius 10-5 in the game, the Griffs stranded eight Red Fox runners on base on their way to a 5-2 victory.

“They’re almost like our second rival, I would put it, so to beat them to advance was a really great feeling and it really motivated us a lot,” said McGee-Ross. She remembered that Canisius and Marist have always gone back and forth, which is evidenced in seeing that the Griff’s record against the Foxes is closer to .500 than most other conference opponents.

With the win on Thursday, Canisius remained in the winner’s bracket to face Iona on Friday morning. The Gaels worked their way to the championship game thanks to stellar performances from last season’s pitcher of the year Kara Zazzaro, who again began the game in the circle for Iona. Megan Giese, this year’s unanimous MAAC Pitcher of the Year, again started for Canisius.

As the game went on the two ace pitchers continued to duel, holding the game scoreless through the end of six innings.

In the top of the seventh, leadoff batter Jamie Sheeran broke the tie with a home run to left field. Canisius left fielder Erin Hufford tracked the ball to the fence, and was mere inches from making what would have been a highlight reel catch; as she reached her arm over the fence, the ball deflected off the edge of her outstretched glove and onto the ground, giving Iona a 1-0 lead.

The Gaels put two more runners on base, but Canisius got out of the jam and headed to the bottom of the seventh down by one.

Head Coach Kim Griffin said the mindset in the dugout was still very confident despite the deficit. “Honestly, there’s no quit in these girls. Even when we had two outs, I was like ‘we can do this,’ and everyone believed that.”

The first two Griffs batters both flew out, meaning Canisius now had no runners on base with two outs already on the board. With their seven, eight, and nine hitters due up to the plate, the stats seemed to indicate Canisius might be headed to the loser’s bracket for a second year in a row. To this point in the game, the entire second half of the Griffs batting order had failed to reach base with Zazzaro in the circle (with the exception of a walk drawn by Tiara Johnson in the bottom of the second inning).

As Sophia Recrosio stepped to the plate, the home crowd attempted a rally, with applause and cheers aimed to instill confidence into the Canisius offense.

It seemed to work, as Recrosio swung at the first pitch and made contact, recording a single to put the tying run on base.

Griffin recalled, “When Sofia got that hit, we said ‘okay we’re doing it.’ We just needed that one hit to get us going, and then from there we just rolled.”

Fifth-year senior Shea Ollison then stepped to the plate to pinch hit, something she did in a similar spot in last year’s MAAC Tournament against Fairfield.

Ollison worked a walk on a 3-2 count, now bringing the tying run into scoring position and putting the lead run on base. Freshman Saige Alfaro also was walked, this time on four straight balls, to load the bases and bring up the MAAC Player of the Year Erin Hufford.

On a 3-2 count, Hufford slapped the ball towards the waiting Iona shortstop, Brianna Bailey. Bailey fielded it on it’s second bounce, and fired the ball towards first. As the remaining three blue and gold baserunners took off at the release of the ball, Hufford raced towards the bag and slid headfirst, touching the base before the ball got there to record the game tying RBI and keep the bases loaded.

After this play, there was a bit of a delay on the field as Canisius partially exited the dugout to celebrate Recrosio’s crossing the plate to tie the game. Iona’s head coach, Alyssa Tiumalu, then also exited the dugout to alert the umpires of their leaving the dugout in an uncontrolled fashion.

Originally, it seemed that the Griffins had certainly violated a rule, and as a result an administrative ejection would be made, meaning Kim Griffin would no longer be allowed to coach this game and would have to leave the diamond. However, after much deliberation, it was revealed that because Tiumalu also left her dugout, a dead ball was declared. During a dead ball period, the teams are allowed to step out of the dugout, so because of this technicality, Griffin was not ejected and the game continued without any changes.

With bases still loaded but two outs still on the board, Canisius now had an opportunity for a walk-off win as the leading run was merely 60 feet from home plate.

Christie McGee-Ross swung on the third pitch, slapping a single through the gap between second and third base, and as the ball reached the outfield Emily Ilano crossed home and the Griffs emerged from the dugout again, this time to celebrate the victory that sent them to the championship game for the second year in a row.

“Christie was so calm and confident, more confident than I’ve ever seen her at the plate,” said Griffin.

McGee-Ross agreed, and actually credited the short delay for giving her time to settle back in. “I think that was the calmest I’ve ever been, because I knew that if I did it, it would be awesome, but if I didn’t do it, it would still be fine too.”

The game was almost the epitome of a pitcher’s battle, as Zazzaro and Giese struck out seven and nine batters respectively, with Giese only allowing three hits to Zazzaro’s seven. The Iona pitcher seemed to show the effects of fatigue as the game went on; she threw 133 pitches in the contest bringing her three-day total to 315.

Siena, who lost to Iona on day one, would end up seeing the Gaels again. Fighting their way through the loser’s bracket after eliminating Rider, they also eliminated Fairfield after the Stags’ loss to Iona. Siena then defeated Marist, eliminating them from the tournament during the afternoon game on Friday, before playing a back-to-back game again, this time a rematch against the Gaels.

Iona took a four-run lead in the first inning, but the Saints answered back quickly and ended up prevailing 7-4. After playing five games in three days, the Siena Saints had earned their first ever trip to the MAAC Championship game, where they would take on the host Griffs on Saturday morning.

The game was originally slated to begin at 11 am, but the threat of afternoon thunderstorms pushed the game’s start ahead to 10 am.

Last season, the Canisius Golden Griffins awoke on championship day knowing they would have to beat the Manhattan Jaspers twice in order to win the championship. This year, the blue and gold came to the Demske Sports Complex knowing they only needed to win once.

“It’s very refreshing,” said Emily Nicosia, who herself threw 229 pitches during last year’s tournament. “Last year I was excited but knew it was going to be difficult. This year, I woke up feeling ready and prepared, and felt very confident in the girls next to me that we were going to get the job done in one game.”

Both Nicosia and Alexis Churchill remembered how tired they felt, having combined for almost 400 pitches already and knowing they would need to throw two more games. Giese, who was a freshman last season, was unavailable to the team during the championship due to Covid protocols.

This time around, the team entered the game with Giese on a hot streak, and fresh, experienced arms in the bullpen in Nicosia, Churchill, and Ollison in case their sophomore superstar needed a break.

“I think we all had motivation, we came so close last year, so we all wanted it more than ever,” Giese said. “We used the momentum we had from [Friday’s] big win and pushed it to the championship.”

Giese, and the rest of her team, certainly seemed like they came ready to play. McGee-Ross crossed the plate in the top of the first thanks to a well hit ball from fellow sophomore and Western New York product Gianna Fazzolari.

They didn’t know it then, but the run scored in the top of the first would be the game winner. The Griffs did add three insurance runs in the fourth inning, but Giese and the Canisius defense held Siena scoreless the entire game.

The game was highlighted by good performances all the way around for Canisius, including a few highlight-reel catches from the outfielders. Hufford caught the first out of the game on a sliding play, and Recrosio made two incredible diving catches in right field later in the contest that certainly could’ve earned a spot on the SportsCenter Top 10.

But possibly the most impressive performance of the game, and likely the entire tournament, came from Giese, who pitched her third consecutive complete game. The sophomore out of Orchard Park had retired every single Siena batter until there were two outs on the board in the sixth inning, when shortstop Sabrina Vargas recorded a single that broke the Canisius pitcher’s perfect game.

The Griffs kept Siena out of scoring position until a wild pitch put Ava Fitzmaurice on second base in the top of the seventh. But with two outs on the board, a grounder to Destiny Falquez was fired across the infield to Dennis, who recorded the final out at first to begin the championship celebration.

Giese finished the game allowing only three hits and no walks, all while striking out five and throwing another 114 pitches. Fazzolari went 2-for-3 at the plate, including the RBI that brought in the winning run, McGee-Ross, which when put into perspective made Fazzolari even happier the three sophomores and Buffalo natives could accomplish this together.

Fazzolari also remembered the emotions that came with taking the field in the seventh inning, only needing three outs to win. She explained the feeling of crouching behind home plate, and looking into the field directly at two of her best friends. “I knew once we got the first out, that it was our game. Me and [Giese] are right here, right now, [McGee-Ross] is in center, we’ve played with each other since we were 10, it’s just what dreams are made of.”

After the celebrations ended, five Griffs were named to the MAAC All-Championship team. Hufford, McGee-Ross, Johnson, and Recrosio were all awarded with plaques, before the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player was announced to be Giese.

The first Golden Griffin Softball championship since 2009, and also the first for the program under a head coach not named Mike Rappl, was coincidentally the only MAAC Championship a team at Canisius College has won since the baseball and lacrosse teams both did in the spring of 2018.

Griffin emotionally expressed how much this meant to her. “It’s joy, but also a relief. Taking over a program with so much success, the winningest program in Western New York, of any team, any sport, that weighed on me a little bit,” she said. “Coach Rappl always says it’s not pressure it’s opportunity, but to take that over was a lot of pressure and I was a first time head coach.

It just feels really good, and it’s a nice relief,” she finished.

Canisius now gets the opportunity to represent the MAAC, and Buffalo, in the NCAA Tournament. The only team in the tournament in about a 200 mile radius, the Griffs learned on Sunday evening they’ll be traveling about 1,000 miles to Gainesville, Florida, to take on the Florida Gators, one of the most storied programs in softball and collegiate sports history.

Hufford, one of the four fifth-year seniors who have just played their last game at the Demske Sports Complex, is looking forward to the opportunity to play more softball in a Griffs uniform. “It means everything. It’s been a long time coming, I don’t want my season to end, these girls don’t want our season to end, so the opportunity to play more softball and get to play in an NCAA Tournament is amazing.”

It seemed the consensus within the team was that it felt amazing to have reached the top of the mountain, but also to get the chance to play more softball. Fazzolari and Churchill said they’d never won a championship before, and that hearing their name called at the selection show helped make it feel even better. McGee-Ross said that it felt like something out of a dream.

“You’ve worked since August to get to this singular moment. You have this big trophy, and everyone takes pictures of you, it was surreal,” She said, smiling. “And then you wake up the next day, and you sort of say ‘wow, we’re MAAC Champions.’”

“Going into these games, we’re the underdog, which just sort of makes it light,” said Griffin. “We’re going up against really good teams but we can hang with and beat good teams.”

She continued, “We can go out and surprise teams, I think we’re gonna represent the MAAC really well. The girls aren’t afraid of any team, this team has a great mentality. They 100% know that if we show up with our best game, we can beat anybody.”

The Golden Griffins will face off against the no. 14 Florida Gators in their first game of the tournament on Friday, May 20 at 4:30 pm. The remaining two teams in the Gainesville Regional, Wisonsin and Georgia Tech, will play first, their game at 2:00 pm. Both games on Friday, as well as Saturday’s Gainesville Regional games, will be broadcast on ESPN+.

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