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Softball clinches MAAC regular season title, home field for conference tournament

Megan Giese tossed her second no-hitter of the season in the Griffs' 9-0 mercy rule win over Niagara on Sunday. Canisius Athletics via GoGriffs

By Vinnie Christiano III

After sweeping cross-town rival Niagara on Sunday, the Canisius Golden Griffins softball team has officially clinched the MAAC regular season championship as well as the No. 1 seed for the upcoming MAAC Softball Championship tournament.

As the first-place team, the Golden Griffins are also awarded a bye in the first round of the tournament, which will be coming to Buffalo for the second straight year. The highest seeded team in the conference earns the right to host the tournament, which takes place from May 11-14 with May 15 set aside in case of a rainout.

Last season, due to the COVID-altered conference-only schedule, there was a quarterfinal round played the weekend before the tournament, allowing eight-teams to technically participate in the championship tournament instead of the regular six. During said quarterfinal round, the highest seeded Manhattan lost to Marist, giving the then No. 2 seed Canisius the right to host the remaining four teams in a battle to make it to the MAAC championship.

This season, the conference has moved back to their traditional tournament setup, as now the top six teams after the regular season will converge later this week at the Demske Sports Complex for the double-elimination tournament.

Going into the weekend series against the Purple Eagles, the Blue and Gold controlled their own destiny, as a sweep would cement them as having the best record in the MAAC. They would have also had a share of the conference regular season championship had they split with Niagara; Fairfield was the next highest team, and would have shared the title with Canisius with a Griffs split and a Stags sweep of both Quinnipiac and Manhattan.

However, had that situation happened, Canisius still would’ve hosted because of their holding the tiebreaker scenario over both Fairfield and Siena, the next highest ranked team in the conference.

The Griffs entered the game hot, winners of seven straight games, but knew they were up against a Purple Eagles squad that was desperate; a Niagara sweep of Canisius would’ve likely locked the Eagles into the MAAC Championship Tournament as well.

The day started eventful enough, as a 3 p.m. scheduled start time for the doubleheader was moved back two hours after the Canisius Baseball team’s own game against Niagara went to 14 innings and lasted over five hours.

“We had one task to complete and we had one goal in mind, and we stuck with that regardless of the circumstances that we can’t control,” said graduate senior Emily Nicosia about the delay.

The softball programs, which had each been patiently waiting while they watched their fellow baseball programs duke it out on the diamond adjacent to their own, eventually were allowed to take the field around 4:30 p.m. Following the conclusion of each team’s warmup, Canisius then took some time to honor their five seniors, four of whom are competing as fifth years. Head Coach Kim Griffin ensured each one of them saw significant game action in one or both contests.

The first game began quickly for the Canisius offense, as graduate senior Erin Hufford reached base to lead off the inning with a single. Niagara pitcher Riley Crum then walked the bases loaded, before being pulled from the game in favor of Cara Leone. Leone began her time in the circle by walking Gianna Fazzolari, giving the Griffs a 1-0 lead with the bases still loaded and no outs on the board.

A long delay followed after fellow graduate senior Lindsi Dennis’ grounder hit Destiny Falquez in the leg while the sophomore was between second and third base. The umpires called time and declared a dead ball, but a more than 40-minute delay followed as the umpires deliberated the official rules.

Eventually play resumed as if the previous play had never happened, in sort of a re-do. The result of Dennis’s next at-bat was Niagara recording the first out of the ball-game.

Soon after, Rosie Gomez hit a ball up the first base line to Crum, who had stepped in to play the three position. With runners still in scoring position, Crum attempted to throw home to eliminate the lead runner. However, the ball hit Gomez in the hand while the Canisius designated player was running to first, and as the ball deflected away from home plate, three Griffs runs scored, extending their lead to 4-0.

The Griffs scored one run in the second inning to go up 5-0, and then extended their lead in the bottom of the fourth by playing another four runs. They carried the 9-run lead into the top of the fifth, when sophomore pitcher Megan Giese continued holding Niagara at bay to record her second no-hitter of the season. Giese allowed one walk during the game, the only baserunner she let on in the five-inning mercy rule victory.

“Meg is a dynamic pitcher, she’s got multiple pitches that she can throw for strikeouts, and she did a great job getting ahead in the count. We even talked that she could’ve come back for game two because she only threw 65 pitches,” Griffin said.

Game two began as much more of a defensive battle, with Nicosia in the circle for Canisius and Maddi Hickingbottom for Niagara.

The first run of the game was scored by Saige Alfaro. As she was running to first, an errant throw from the Purple Eagle infield rolled all the way down the fence line into the right-field corner, which gave the speedy freshman the time to round all three bags and come home to score.

The Blue and Gold maintained a 1-0 lead until the bottom of the fourth, when they extended it by one thanks to an RBI double from Dennis. Nicosia pitched four innings, holding the Eagles scoreless before true senior Alexis Churchill entered for Canisius to recored her fifth save of the season.

It was during this game that the Griffs would record their 104th stolen base of the season, a new single-season program record.

“This year we have a lot of girls that are confident in stealing the bases,” said Hufford, who leads the team in stolen bases at the end of the season. “We definitely have speed 1-9 in the lineup, and we have a lot of trust in the batter when we’re on the bases. I don’t ever second guess myself when I’m stealing, I know that [the batter] will get it down and I know that they’re going to get the job done.”

Holding the two-run lead into the bottom of the fifth, the Griffs then scored six runs to walk-off the game with another mercy rule victory. The game was cemented after graduate student Shealyn Ollison drilled a pitch deep to center field that bounced narrowly off the turf and over the fence to record a ground rule double. Gomez returned to the plate to bring home two runners, finalizing the Canisius victory.

The 16 conference wins are a program record for Canisius, aside from last year’s conference-only COVID-altered schedule. Giese is only the fourth pitcher to record more than one no-hitter in the same season, and Hufford has reached the top six in program history for hits in a career. Those are only two of the many accolades this Canisius team accomplished this past weekend and this season alone.

But of course the job isn’t finished, as they still need to win three games in order to hoist the MAAC Championship trophy. The seniors discussed how they have to have the right mindset while also enjoying the journey at the end of their careers.

“At the beginning of the games tonight I looked at them and I said, ‘there’s no one I’d rather have on the field with me right now than you guys,’” Nicosia said. “We just have this sense of trust in each other and this chemistry; I think we’re leaving the program better than when we found it.”

Dennis, who just mere weeks ago cemented herself as only the second Griff ever to record 1,000 career put-outs, said “It’s all about having fun, my dad always says ‘the hard part is over, this is where you showcase yourself and enjoy the time you have with your best friends’ so it’s very special.”

“I think it’s been all of our dreams to play division I softball, and now we get to do it with our favorite people,” said Ollison, who recorded her first collegiate hit with the ground rule double. “To see it all kind of fall together, the culture aligning with our success and the fun we have, especially for our fifth year, it’s a beautiful way to go out.”

Churchill, the lone “true senior” on the team this season, said she’s excited to have the opportunity to return for her fifth year but is excited about what this group has crafted for the future. “I think it’s all about the girls. When I came in as a freshman there was a great group of girls in front of me, and it really set the tone as to what to expect the next four years. We created a new culture, I really think we left our mark.”

Hufford, who had one of the most impressive statistical campaigns of the entire MAAC this season concluded “Being able to have a fifth year here was probably the easiest decision I’ve ever made. Being able to all play the sport we all grew up playing and that we love, together, is really incredible.”

Having seen plenty of senior classes come and go, now in her eighth year as a head coach, Griffin has had plenty of chances to reflect on each class that helps shape this softball program for the next. She fondly remembered of this most recent class, “They’re an amazing group of young women. They’ve grown up so much in their time here, and they all have distinct personalities and distinct strengths. They have really embraced servant-leadership, a foundation of trust in their leadership and not a foundation of power, and I think they appreciate each other and love each other so much.”

With a guarantee of playing at least two more games together, and the possibility of playing more than double that if they win the MAAC and advance to the NCAA Tournament, their time together is certainly winding down but not quite over yet.

“It’s really hard to say goodbye to groups of seniors like that,” Griffin said. “But we’re just going to try and make this season last as long as we can so we don’t have to.”

Awarded a bye in the first round, Canisius’s first MAAC Tournament action will come on Thursday, May 12 at 1:30. All games can be streamed on ESPN+ or ESPN 3.

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