It's been an interesting first half of the 2011 season, but now we are about to enter the race for the MAAC championship and the automatic bid to the National Tournament. MAAC play begins Saturday with 3 doubleheaders. Every team is 0-0 now. I think it may be a very interesting season; there does not seem at this point to be a clear cut favorite to win it all. There may be a few surprises. Let's look at how the conference stands as the teams fight for the top 4 positions and a berth into the tournament to be held in Poughkeepsie in mid May.
Defending champion Iona still has pitcher Sarah Jackson as their primary weapon. She has mostly pitched very well, with a few bumps in the road. Her performance at Hawai'i (a 1-0, 9 inning win) is what should worry the rest of the conference most as she seemed to will her team to a victory that night. The Gaels have struggled offensively this season however. Eileen McCann is still nursing an injured foot, and Jodi Petersen and Allyssa James have not yet returned to last season's form. Alyssa Maiese though is having a productive year offensively, as is freshman Katie Jansson. It is vital that Iona get the offense in gear because if they don't, they will be vulnerable in MAAC doubleheaders, The team is 2-8 when Sarah Jackson does not pitch. What the Gaels still have though is championship experience.
Regular season champion Canisius is strong again on offense. They currently have 4 players hitting .300 or better, and one (Lauren Falzone) hitting over .400. Sophomore Stephanie Pfentner has done a great job filling the shoes of the departed Michelle Fridey. The Golden Griffins are again excellent on the base paths, leading the conference in stolen bases. But the team is struggling in the circle so far this season. Caroline Main and Amanda Baun, All-MAAC selections in 2010, have both endured slumps at various points this year. Canisius is a team loaded with upperclassmen who have championship experience, and a coach who has won 12 MAAC titles, but if their pitching doesn't return to last season's level, they will be vulnerable.
Niagara has an excellent senior class in place, including last season's POY Teresa Healy. Teresa is having another great season; the bad news for MAAC pitchers is that the players around her in the batting lineup are hitting the ball hard. You can walk Teresa Healy, but then you must face Becky Zill, or Jen Hare, or Alexis Wayne and so on. The Purple Eagles are as dangerous at the plate as they have been the last few years, and now they have improved pitching. Freshman Kim Bryson and junior transfer Bri Allen have stepped right in and done good jobs. Primary starter Julie DiMatteo has had an uneven start, but she has been ill. If the Purples get stellar pitching, they will be very difficult to beat.
Manhattan is a team with 8 seniors, all of whom have tournament experience. But the story with the LJs has been the great play of their lone freshman, Katie Bowen. Katie can hit and pitch, and has forced her way into the lineup despite all the seniors. Ashley Rampino has returned to the form she had in 2009, pitching and hitting well. However, the LJs have been hampered by the slow starts by Jaci Rahey, Kristina Walraven, Erika Sullivan and Nicole Michel. These seniors are key to Manhattan's hopes. The good news is that each of them have recently shown signs of improved play.
Fairfield is an interesting story in 2011. They lost a whole mess of players due to graduation; and have a whole mess of freshmen on this year's team. These freshmen have performed splendidly, and have kept the Stags a contender. There's 8 of them all told, and each has contributed. Of course, Fairfield still has 2009 Pitcher Of The Year Sarah Minice on the team, and the senior has pitched very well, especially recently. And Coach Brzezinski has not over worked Sarah this season; she will be fresh for MAAC play. Sarah can be dominant. So the Stags went from a question mark before the season (due to inexperience), to an energy filled and dangerous team. They will contend.
Maybe the surprise of the year are the Marist Red Foxes. Marist last season won only 10 games; 4 in the MAAC. This season they already have won 15. They don't have a senior on the team, but are getting great production from key players, and good play from their freshmen. They are a very well coached team. Coach Ausanio has instilled a toughness in them too; they never give up. Nicole DiVirgilio and Megan Lamoureux are having terrific seasons. Freshmen Haley Birnbaum and Alyssa Zahka are among the conference leaders in RBIs. Sophomore pitcher Emily Osterhaus continues her improvement and recently, freshman pitcher Paige Lewis has emerged. I don't know if Marist is quite ready this season to make the push to the top 4, but I'll tell you, if any team takes them lightly they will regret it.
Siena is another interesting and well coached team that seems to be on the upswing. Sophomore Shannon Jones is having a great season, hitting over .400 and showing much improved defensive play. She's looking like a 4 year All-MAAC player. She's not the only .400 hitter on the Saints though. Freshman phenom Jessika-Jo Sandrini leads the MAAC with a .437 average. I told you about her a year before she got here, but even my eyes are popping at the numbers she's put up. J-J is an all around ball player who will do anything to get on base and win. She pitches too. She's done quite well in the circle so far, but believe me when I tell you that we haven't seen her best yet. She could be the dominant pitcher in this conference in the near future. Samantha Ray is another freshman who has performed very well, hitting right around .300 and doing well in the field. Senior Courtney Brinkman has played good ball, and provided a leadership role. Amanda Filippazzo has pitched well of late, meaning the Saints should have more pitching depth than in recent seasons. Don't know if Siena can make it to the top 4 this season, but they will surely be competitive.
If the season ended today, I would vote Rachael Matreale of Rider to the All-MAAC team, 3-9 record and all. She has pitched very well, but simply does not get the run support. Part of the reason could be that it appears that Heather Muscara may be nursing some sort of injury, although I have no information on that. She has missed many games. Brittany Eckett is having a down year, and has missed games as well. It was at this point last season that Rider did get their offense going. They will have to again this season to make any noise.
St. Peter's is rebuilding under new coach Ranae Bart. The Peahens' goal this season is simply to be more competitive in MAAC play. They were run ruled far too many times last season by MAAC opponents. They have some young talent on the team, and Coach has to get them to believe in themselves.
All in all, it could be a very entertaining MAAC season. And hopefully, this weather will clear up now!