Saturday, March 31, 2012

Conference Play Begins

The MAAC season begins with a pair of doubleheaders Sunday; the action will be getting intense from now until tournament time.

It looks to me like a number of teams could win it all this season; no one team stands out at the moment. In fact, as of this writing, no MAAC team has a winning record. Offensive production is down from last season. Let's look at the teams, from the bottom of the standings up.

Manhattan is having a difficult rebuilding season. And no wonder, having lost eight starters to graduation. They have had difficulty competing in many of their games.

St. Peter's, though improved somewhat offensively, still can not be considered a contender. They have competed more regularly than in the past two seasons however, and have some promising freshmen who need to see conference play.

Niagara of course lost Teresa Healy to graduation, and other talented players. This season, they are struggling mightily through injury and illness. Senior pitcher Julie DiMatteo has suffered with walking pneumonia. The ailments got so bad they had to cancel participation in their last scheduled tournament. It is questionable whether or not the team can recover from this. They still have a lot of talent on the roster though.

Canisius is the mystery of the MAAC. Although they have played a difficult pre-MAAC schedule, at times they have simply not played well. At other times, they have taken nationally ranked teams to the wire. Their pitching has been uneven; senior Caroline Main has pitched some great games, but also has pitched poorly. Junior Amanda Baun has turned into a non factor, pitching only nine innings this season. Sophomore Jen Consaul has had a lot put on her shoulders, and has had mixed results. Canisius has shown they can be explosive offensively, and are still a great running team. If they can get their pitching together, they will be a threat. Canisius has the tradition of strong conference play, so it's dangerous to count them out.

Siena leads the MAAC in hitting, and has shown great improvement in that area. The top of their order is explosive, and they have had multiple home run innings on a number of occasions. Shannon Jones is a very dangerous hitter, and should be feared by every MAAC pitcher. Their pitching has been decent, but has the potential to be better. The problem with the Saints is that they have had trouble closing games out. They've lost quite a few in late inning comebacks by opponents. They don't hold leads well, even big leads. This can probably be attributed to inexperience. And yet, the Saints are a real threat, and what they need is early success in conference play to build confidence.

As long as Rachael Matreale is in the circle, Rider can compete with any team in the MAAC. She's having a great senior season, and this year the Broncs are figuring ways to scratch out runs for her. She has a winning record. Rider's offense is still anemic, but they have players who have in the past produced offensively. It will be interesting to see if Rachael goes both games in MAAC doubleheaders. That would be my strategy, if she could handle it.

Marist is currently 12-17, but they have easily played the toughest schedule in the MAAC. They spent a couple of weeks facing a slew of nationally ranked teams, and performed well under that pressure. They are definitely toughened up for conference play. They still have the players that know how to drive home runs; Dani Koltz is having a great season. One of the Red Foxes' problem areas is they have committed too many errors, which can be deadly in close games. Also, their two starting pitchers from last season have not performed well as of yet; the freshmen have seen lots of circle time. But, Marist will be ready to play and will be hard to beat.

Fairfield no longer has that super Ace in the circle, but they are getting pretty good pitching this season from Becca Trott and Rae Ball. Offensively, they are a great running team, and have a balanced lineup. They also have had a challenging pre-MAAC schedule. Lately though, they have had trouble holding leads. Lauren Liseth is not hitting for as high an average as last season, but she has compensated with plenty of RBIs. Last year's freshmen class gained a lot of experience leading the Stags to the Championship game, which they nearly won. They have the tools to win it all.

Which brings us to defending champion Iona. The Gaels have the best pitching in the conference; and of course they are led by senior Sarah Jackson. You know that she won two games on Championship day last season; she is not going to be shaken in her final season. Redshirt senior Alyssa Maiese takes the pressure off Sarah in the regular MAAC season, as she too has pitched very well this year. So the Gaels will come at teams with two Aces. In spite of their great pitching, however, they both have records of only about .500. The Gaels haven't had a very difficult pre-MAAC schedule, and have struggled offensively at times. So if they're going up against a hot pitcher in conference play, likely you will see tight, low scoring games. But trumping everything is their experience; other teams will have to overcome that to dethrone them.

Well, I think it's going to be exciting at the top of the standings this season. Who will be dedicated enough to give their all for 16 games?

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