Dave DeLuca/ The Record
While sitting in a softball coaching convention over the offseason, Buffalo State coach Marie Curran learned something that changed the dynamic at Buffalo State. It wasn’t an X or an O about pitching mechanics, or a drill designed to improve players’ bat speed. It centered on the idea of Team 36.
Curran and the Bengals clinched the No. 5 seed in the SUNYAC playoffs after splitting a doubleheader with Brockport on Monday night. That was the reward for a team that has been working out together, practicing together and playing together since August. This season, Buffalo State fields their 36th softball team in their history.
And to Curran and her players, that’s all that matters: Team 36.
Speaking at the convention was Carol Hutchins, the head coach at Michigan University. With over 1,300 wins in her 29 seasons at Michigan, Hutchins is a coaching icon. She spoke about her 2006 Michigan team that missed the College World Series, just a year after winning the national championship in 2005.
“Their staff thought a lot about it,” Curran said. “They thought about what was the difference.”
Hutchins and her staff decided that the team had relied too much on the past and the players that had left. The team paid too much attention to the conversation of which recruits were coming in. They didn’t think about what they had and it cost them on the diamond.
“It was really the same kind of thing I saw here at Buffalo State,” Curran said. “Last year’s team was so, ‘The team before did this. This is what we did last year.’ When really, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter, because those weren’t the same kids on this team.”
After a 14-19 season a year ago, it’s a different team at Buffalo State. The team’s leading hitter, Breanna Fenski graduated. Jenna Clarke, Joanna Bardak and Chrissy Rennard transferred in from Monroe Community College and earned starting roles for the Bengals.
Division III college softball can be a revolving door. Players come, players go. Some transfer, and some graduate with associate degrees. But for 10 months, the door doesn’t move. It’s Team 36.
“The only people that can win and lose games this year are members of Team 36,” Curran said. “Not the people from Team 35 or the ones coming in for Team 37. The girls have realized that this is our family. This is who can do it. This is who we have.”
Cortland (25-13, 14-4 SUNYAC) enters the SUNYAC playoffs as no stranger to postseason play. Cortland hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1996, including 15 consecutive trips to the championship game. They are the reigning national champs and winners of five of the last seven NCAA tournaments. Cortland is coached by Julie Lenhart, who has coached the Red Dragons for 19 seasons.
“Julie Lenhart is one of a kind,” Curran said. “She’s amazing, she’s not much older than me, but I still aspire to be her…She instills a good amount of discipline in her team, she’s a great recruiter. They do really well; they keep everybody happy on their team.
“They usually have really big rosters. People stay around and wait until they’re juniors to start to play at Cortland. It’s the kind of philosophy of team first, that really has been built in and that’s where you see the success of the program.”
Cortland is the SUNYAC’s premier power-hitting program. The Red Dragons enter the tournament leading the SUNYAC in home runs (27), hits, runs scored, doubles, slugging percentage, total bases and walks—just about every offensive category.
How in the world do you attack that type of lineup?
“Not throw the ball down the middle of the plate, honestly,” Buffalo State junior pitcher Maddie Coneys said with a laugh. “You have to keep them off balance. They are expecting what pitches you’re going to throw. You have to change up your sequence a little bit and throw some off-speed and do your best to keep them off balance.”
Leading the Red Dragons lineup is reigning first team All-American Meaghan Kohler. Kohler has eight home runs this season and is hitting .330 in the clean-up spot. That’s just one of many weapons that Buffalo State will face on Thursday. Diane Cork is hitting .361 with five homers and Jamie Bucci is hitting .346.
Looking to counter Cortland’s star-studded lineup is Coneys. Buffalo State’s ace in the circle has been one of the top pitchers in the SUNYAC this season. Coneys enters the tournament with a 9-5 record and a 1.70 ERA (tied for second in the conference).
“Maddie makes the entire team relax,” Curran said. “They’re very confident in her ability. They know she’s a gamer and she really steps up and does a phenomenal job. She’s doing some things that we didn’t expect her to be able to do, which is really nice.”
Behind Coneys is a defense that has struggled for much of the year. The Bengals committed the most errors in the SUNYAC this year (59). However, just as the games are about to matter most, Buffalo State has cleaned up their spotty fielding.
“Our defense is slowly leaping in confidence and things are falling into place with us defensively, just as they should be,” Maggard said. “I’m confident that we’ll have our defense and our offense working together as whole.”
Buffalo State had errorless games against RIT, New Paltz and Brockport something the team had only done five times in 24 games before doing it against RIT.
“It’s very encouraging,” Curran said of her team coming together defensively. “Even though we lost the first game to Oneonta, it was probably the best softball game all year. Two great pitchers, both teams had strong offensives, both teams made incredible defensive plays.
“We carried that over into New Paltz – diving catches in the outfield, plays going in the hole and throwing off our wrong foot to throw people out on the bases. It’s really exciting for me to see the girls getting comfortable by having all these games.”
Sophomore Stephanie Novo will be the Bengals’ force at the top of their lineup. As the team’s leadoff hitter, Novo is leading the SUNYAC with a .439 batting average and 50 hits.
“Steph is our leadoff, she is our headlight,” Coneys said. “She usually gets things going and gets us all pumped up. She sets the tone for our hitting, pretty much, which she is very good at doing. We all have a tremendous amount of confidence in her.”
Along with Novo, others have had solid seasons to this point and will look to continue that success into the tournament. Junior catcher Kate Brownell is hitting .371 this season in the cleanup spot for Buffalo State. Sophomore first baseman Sarah Gorski is hitting .341. Bardak is hitting .315 and Maggard is hitting .300.
“I’m very confident in our offense,” Maggard said. “That’s definitely the strong part of our game right now. We have no problem putting six, seven, eight runs up on a team. So as long as we do that going into the playoffs and keeping up with our offensive game, we’ll be fine.”
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