Familiar faces in new places for baseball Griffs

The baseball team has some unfinished business as they kick off the season today in North Carolina.

Senior third basemen Stephen Bennett squares up a ball during a game last Spring. Bennett was named second team-All MAAC in 2019. Photo courtesy of Canisius Athletics via GoGriffs.com.

After a disappointing ending to the 2019 season, the baseball team is looking to turn their fortunes around this season with some new faces and some familiar ones in new roles.

The team will bring back a number of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, headlined by outfielders Jake Burlingame, Jacob Victor and Andy Leader. They will also return third baseman Stephen Bennett, infielder Jacob Martins and utility man Dylan Vincent as part of a core that saw last year’s squad hit .249 as a team and finish the season with a 17-7 MAAC record and winning 10 of 13 home games.

Victor had the second-highest batting average on the team at .292, behind the now-graduated Mark McKenna, but Burlingame is the one that is seen to be the one to lead the team, being named to the all-MAAC preseason team and thinks that he has improved a lot this offseason. Last year, he had four home runs and showed off some speed with four triples and had an on-base percentage of .380.

“Just working on being more consistent, that’s the biggest thing. Getting in the cage as much as possible, get a good swing and being more consistent at the plate, and on defense just continue what we’ve been doing, just try to get better,” Burlingame said.

He added on being a team leader and helping guide a team that has 13 new players, 10 of them freshmen, “We’ve got a lot of guys, like our older guys, that are good leaders. It hasn’t been hard, everybody has kind of meshed together, and we’ve got a good group.”

On the pitching side, the Griffs will have to look to young guys as well as those who are stepping into new roles that they haven’t done at the college level. The team lost all three of their weekend starters in Andrew Sipowicz, Andrew Knuessle and Nolan Hunt to graduation, and will have to look to arms such as reliever Kyle Warner jumping into a starter role, the coaching staff expects to see junior college transfer Joe Barberio start games, and younger pitchers such as sophomore Brett Kochanski start more games, and freshman Rockne Seidel will see innings right out of the gate. It is also seen as a possibility that closer Will Frank, who has never started a game in 58 collegiate appearances over three years, may end up starting some games.

The team sees it as they have a lot of depth on the mound but it is mostly unproven. They do bring back Andrew Fron, who had a 5.98 ERA over 11 appearances, nine of them starts, in his freshman year, as well as Jeff DeStefano, who they see as more of an innings-eater bullpen arm, might start more games after starting four last season.

“It’s tough because it’s going to take time. You can’t expect it to be midseason form right away, you’ve got to understand that there’s going to be lumps along the way, some growing pains so to speak. But maybe not even lumps. Maybe guys will over-exceed expectations and surprise you but you can’t expect that but if it happens, you’re not going to be surprised,” head coach Matt Mazurek said.

They have been able to practice outside approximately eight times ahead of their season opener on Friday, kicking off a four-game set with UMass-Lowell in Holly Springs, N.C., part of a non-conference schedule that includes West Virginia, Winthrop, Marshall, Radford, Michigan and Maine, all in the south, except for the Michigan series which is in Ann Arbor, before they open MAAC play on March 28.

The team will be coming into the year with a bit of a chip on their shoulder after an early exit in the conference tournament last year, which saw them go 0-2 in a double elimination style tournament, coming at the hands of Manhattan and Fairfield. They were picked fourth in the coaches’ poll that came out earlier this week.

“I think they’re going to be extremely competitive, I think they have the opportunity to prove people wrong, because I don’t think that people believe we’re as good as we believe we are, and they’re only going to get better in time,” Mazurek said. “I think it’s going to be an interesting year and it could turn out pretty positive for the group we have.”

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