By Thomas Albano
The first pitch of the 2014 MAAC baseball season was thrown Feb. 14. Though the Broncs won’t take the field until Feb. 21 against Temple in Wilson, N.C., here is my take on how the teams will finish and which players to keep an eye on.
1. Canisius (41-15, 15-9 MAAC)
Key position player: Senior Jimmy Lupens, first base
Key pitcher: Junior Rohn Pierce
The Golden Griffins have won at least 33 games in five of the last six seasons, and have advanced to the MAAC Championship for seven straight seasons. A majority of the roster from the championship season will be returning, including Lupens, who has been named the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year. Pierce is a likely choice to take the No. 1 spot in the pitching rotation, filling the shoes of two key Canisius pitchers from last season who went on to sign contracts with MLB teams. With all this, it’s no wonder why the MAAC Preseason Poll picked Canisius to repeat.
2. Rider (35-22, 18-6 MAAC)
Key position player: Senior Nick Crescenzo, outfield
Key pitcher: Junior Kurt Sowa
The Broncs finished in first place in the MAAC last season with a school-record 34 wins. However, two top hitters and pitchers are no longer with the Broncs. Fortunately for Rider, it can look to Sowa for a lot of help. Last year, Sowa, who held all opponents that faced him to a .180 batting average while winning a school-record 11 games, was the recipient of the 2013 MAAC Pitcher of the Year award. Crescenzo led Rider in RBIs and stolen bases last year and was named to the All-MAAC Preseason team. If the Broncs manage to get hot at the right time, they can be a legitimate threat to Canisius.
3. Monmouth (30-24-1, 19-11-1 NEC)
Key position player: Senior Jake Gronsky, second base
Key pitcher: Senior Andrew McGee
The Hawks, who are in their first season of MAAC play, are also a threat to the top position. Gronsky, who was selected to the All-MAAC Preseason team, will lead them in the field and in the batter’s box. Gronsky had a .302 batting average last season with a team-leading 13 doubles. Meanwhile, on the mound, the Hawks can look forward to the 2013 Northeast Conference Pitcher of the Year, McGee, who went 8-2 last season with a 2.12 ERA and 69 strikeouts.
4. Marist (27-24, 17-7 MAAC)
Key position player: Senior Nick McQuail, third base
Key pitcher: Junior Rich Vrana
The Red Foxes have finished at least .500 in the past five seasons and look for a spot in the MAAC Championship. They will be captained by three players, one being All-MAAC Preseason third baseman McQuail. Last season, McQuail hit .319, had a .434 on-base percentage and had 32 RBIs. Vrana, a MAAC top prospect, finished 5-1 with 40 strikeouts and a 2.87 ERA.
5. Siena (27-29, 15-9 MAAC)
Key position player: Senior John Rooney, outfield
Key pitcher: Junior Matt Gage
The Saints will feature a roster that contains seven players from last season’s starting lineup. They will be captained by Rooney, who was picked to the All-MAAC Preseason team. Rooney had a .284 batting average last season and finished tied for second on the team in hits with 59. Gage pitched this past summer for the Chatham A’s of the Cape Cod League, and holds the school record for most strikeouts in a single season with 88.
6. Fairfield (20-29, 11-13 MAAC)
Key position player: Senior Ryan Plourde, outfield
Key pitcher: Sophomore Mike Wallace
Fairfield will have 24 returning players, including the entire starting pitching rotation. This is Plourde’s second consecutive year being named All-MAAC Preseason. He had a .354 batting average last season, with 62 hits, 37 RBIs and an 18-game hitting streak, tying the school’s record. Leading on the mound for the Stags will be Wallace, who went 6-4 in 12 appearances with a 3.39 ERA.
7. Manhattan (22-27, 9-12 MAAC)
Key position player: Senior Yoandry Galan, shortstop
Key pitcher: Junior Michael Martin
While Galan did not put up the best offensive statistics last season, his defensive ability earned him a lot of credit and a spot on this year’s All-MAAC Preseason team. Galan started every game at shortstop last season. He had a .957 fielding percentage, with 92 putouts and 176 assists. Martin will have to fill the shoes of the departing John Soldinger, who Martin finished second to in ERA, opposing batting average and win-loss percentage. Martin held opposing hitters to a .305 batting average and finished 2013 with a 3.70 ERA.
8. Niagara (16-37, 9-15 MAAC)
Key position player: Junior Jordan Schwartz, pitcher/outfielder
Key pitcher: Senior Geoff Soja
Schwartz was named to the All-MAAC Preseason team as a utility player. Last season, Schwartz had a .299 batting average with five doubles, a triple and a .351 slugging percentage in 39 games. Soja, a senior, finished last season with a 2-2 record, six saves and a 4.08 ERA in his 25 appearances.
9. Quinnipiac (17-36, 12-20 NEC)
Key position player: Junior Vincent Guglietti, infield
Key pitcher: Senior Gary Binkiewicz
This will be Quinnipiac’s first season of MAAC conference play. Last year, the Bobcats finished 17-36 and went 12-20 in NEC games, a slight improvement from their 2012 performance. Guglietti led the team last season in batting average, hitting .284 with 57 total hits, including 17 doubles. Binkiewicz, a relief pitcher and team captain, went 2-2 with six saves last season, while holding a 2.73 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 29.2 innings pitched.
10. St. Peter’s (17-34, 9-15 MAAC)
Key position player: Senior Jimmy Smith, catcher
Key pitcher: Senior Kevin Croucher
Smith was named to the All-MAAC Preseason team as catcher. He finished 2013 with a .285 batting average, had 37 hits and 25 RBIs. Croucher finished last season with a 4.43 ERA, 16 strikeouts and 14 walks in 34 innings of play.
11. Iona (8-43, 3-21 MAAC)
Key position player: Sophomore Christian Choman, first base
Key pitcher: Senior Kenny Dietrich
Iona finished last in the MAAC last season, winning only eight games and three of their 24 conference showdowns. Choman led the team in batting average last season with .309. He also finished with 30 hits and 11 RBIs, while holding a .423 slugging percentage and a .975 fielding percentage. Dietrich, a senior, finished third on the team in ERA with a 4.57, while holding opposing batters to a .318 batting average.