Last spring, Larry Sudbrook and the St. Bonaventure baseball team just enjoyed the ride.
The Bonnies captured their first Atlantic 10 championship and became the first Big 4 baseball team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
That hasn't changed much at McGraw-Jennings Field in Olean. It's the same old Bonnies, the same coach Sudbrook and the same philosophy that has made that baseball program a consistent winner and recent champion.
"We're not the favorite in my mind or anybody's mind except for a few people who have unrealistic expectations," said Sudbrook, who picked up his 400th career win March 1. "In my mind, this team will do the same thing all St. Bonaventure teams do -- struggle early in the year until we can get outside and then, if we're any good, we'll prove it at the end of the year."
Bona is off to a 9-7 start while playing with a host of underclassmen. Most notable is sophomore pitcher and outfielder Brian Pellegrini. He was named the A-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player and a Louisville Slugger Freshmen All-American while setting the school single-season record with nine saves. He had a 4-3 record with a 2.25 ERA while batting .316 with 33 runs batted in.
This season, the accolades came early for Pellegrini. He was a preseason All-American selection by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and was placed on the Roger Clemens Award Watch List for the national collegiate pitcher of the year.
"Through the first 10 games, he's been worthy of it all," Sudbrook said. "He's swung the bat well and pitched well. He will be a marked kid and people are going to gear up for him. He's got to be ready to respond to that."
As does the rest of the team. Bona hasn't had a losing season since 1997 and has been above .500 the last six seasons. Even so, the Bonnies have not been the kind of team to arouse much anticipation in opponents.
"In the past, we were a little, private Catholic school in the hills of the Allegany that's scrappy," Sudbrook said. "That's how we were talked about by other teams and 18- to 22-year olds don't get too fired up to play some team that's scrappy. But tell them the Atlantic 10 champs are coming in and it's a different story.
"We addressed this right off the bat. Last year was last year. It was a tremendous experience for all of us, but this year's team -- in my mind and their minds -- should not be measured by last year. We have the same expectations that we do every year -- to end the season with a winning record and get into the Atlantic 10 tournament. We don't have to repeat."
The University at Buffalo (9-10) is looking to turn the corner in the fifth year since it revived its program at the Division I level. Last season the Bulls finished 15-39 overall, 4-18 in the Mid-American Conference and had their starters finish with a .300 batting average for the first time since 2000.
The Bulls have an experienced lineup this season, including three-year starter Joe Mihalics (Timon/St.Jude). The senior had a fielding percentage of .939 as a junior in his first collegiate season at shortstop. More importantly, he served as the spark on offense, setting UB record for hits in a career (176) and a single season (76). He batted .349 with a MAC-leading five triples and 25 RBIs.
On the mound, the Bulls are anchored by right-hander Mark Tourangeau, who went 4-5 last season with a 6.02 ERA. He struck out 40 batters in 49 1/3 innings and gave up three or fewer runs in seven of his nine starts. The Bulls also added sophomore Matt Francavillo, who transferred from A-10 powerhouse Richmond.
In the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, big things are expected from Niagara, which was picked to finish second in the preseason coaches poll. The Purple Eagles (3-16) have the Preseason Player of the Year in Reed Eastley and can boast of three other players on the Preseason All-MAAC team. Eastley, a shortstop, batted .368 last season with 78 hits, 45 runs and 57 RBI in 51 games. Also earning preseason honors for Niagara were outfielder Jeff Vincent, utility player James MacNevin and pitcher James Avery.
At the other end of the spectrum, Canisius was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team conference, right where the Golden Griffins (1-13) finished last season. Canisius has upgraded its program, creating a full-time head coaching position which Mike McRae took after leaving rival Niagara, where he was head coach. Still, no magic elixir exists to turn the program around in one season. While the Griffs return 22 letter winners from last year's team, only one, relief pitcher Matt Clingersmith (Niagara Catholic), is a senior.
The team hopes to get an immediate impact from junior college transfer Matt Mazurek (Silver Creek). The shortstop was part of the Jamestown Community College team that advanced to the 2004 NJCAA Division III World Series and will bring needed experience to a young Canisius team.