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Griffs recover from nightmarish start, face tall task in MAAC

Canisius men’s soccer head coach Dermot McGrane called it the “worst preseason in his 20 years of coaching.”

Back in August, the Griffs could barely field a team -- a total of 13 players were injured at one point, including nine starters. During one preseason match, Canisius had only two substitutes available off the bench.

Although the majority of the injured players have since returned to full health, the ripple effects from missed time are still evident. Training sessions were sparse during the out-of-conference slate -- the Griffs played their first six matches in a span of 15 days.

Canisius huddles before a rivalry match against the UB Bulls in early 2015. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Canisius huddles before a rivalry match against the UB Bulls in early 2015. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Because only two games in the following two weeks ensured, the fitness and cohesion in the side are improving, but the mental toughness, the final ball in the attacking third and the killer finishing touch have been elusive.

Take the 2-0 loss to Monmouth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opener on Sept. 26 as an example. The Griffs (3-5-1) thoroughly outplayed the preseason favorites in the first half hour, only to concede twice in a span of 3:33 before halftime.

Like a poised, disciplined team accustomed to winning, the Hawks kept the clean sheet, rarely taking risks by sending numbers forward. The result left the Canisius head coach to rue the mental breakdowns of his experienced back four.

Redshirt senior Ryan Schroen returns after missing all of 2014 due to injury. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Redshirt senior Ryan Schroen returns after missing all of 2014 due to injury. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

“I think we’re better than they are, that’s the bottom line,” a miffed McGrane said after the match. “We made two horrendous mistakes in the back, and they had one other chance.

“We dominated the first 30 minutes of the game, I felt...we were pinning them in their half for long periods,” he added. “We were getting chances, just not finishing. Then we turn around and our older players are making stupid mistakes, not acceptable.”

On Wednesday, Canisius traveled to Marist that wound up a goal-fest, but with the Red Foxes prevailing, 3-2, on a heart-breaking 89th minute goal by Cameron Harr. McGrane's post-game comments sounded similar.

“We dominated the second half today and had numerous chances to play the game off but we failed to do so,” McGrane told GoGriffs.com after the road defeat. “We let Marist hang around and they took advantage with a late goal but the game should have been over 15 minutes into the second half.”

For McGrane’s perspective, hopefully the breakdowns against Monmouth and Marist -- and now a rock-bottom 1-0 loss to Fairfield -- are an aberration, as the Griffs’ strength should be on defense, where 6’4 junior Thomas Teupen (No. 5), redshirt-senior Ryan Schroen (No. 4) and senior Alex De Carolis (No. 11) protect senior Andrew Coughlin’s net.

Canisius goalie Andrew Coughlin has not been as sharp as he was last year, but he's still a top-notch goalie in the MAAC. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Canisius goalie Andrew Coughlin has not been as sharp as he was last year, but he's still a top-notch goalie in the MAAC. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

The accolades are abundant for this foursome, as Teupen was the lone Canisius player on the All-MAAC Preseason teams, Schroen wears the captain’s armband, De Carolis spent the summer with the Seattle Sounders U-23 Premier Development League (PDL) team and Coughlin, an FC Buffalo veteran, returns after setting the Canisius single-season shutout record in 2014.

Teupen's year so far has been littered with trouble, as he missed two weeks to injury and then earned a straight red card against Marist, forcing him to miss the narrow loss to Fairfield.

Canisius badly needs an attacking player to step forward and lead a group that’s high on both talent and inconsistency. Senior Nico Baudo has shifted from a holding center midfielder to the No. 10-role, and McGrane has encouraged him to fight the urge to drop deep to receive the ball and, instead, exploit gaps in the opposing defense where he can either create or deposit chances.

Melvin Blair, a former Jamaican youth national teamer who was first scouted as a 15-year-old when McGrane went to recruit Asani Samuels, oozes talent, but an early season concussion -- combined with missing all of last year at NAIA school Wayland Baptist due to academic ineligibility -- still has him shaking off rust and regaining confidence. He did strike for the then-tying goal against Marist in the second half, a sign that his season could be turning around.

Griffs newcomer Melvin Blair sat out last season at Wayland Baptist before transferring to Canisius. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Griffs newcomer Melvin Blair sat out last season at Wayland Baptist before transferring to Canisius. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

The biggest question remains at striker, however, where Canisius has relied upon first-choice forward Mathew Santos, who scored twice in 2014 as a reserve, as well as a second-striker rotation of Francesco Strangio, Eric Ashley and Hakeem Milson, none of whom have laid claim to a starting role. After 270 minutes of conference play, the forwards have not registered a single point.

“It’s not good enough to just play well,” the fifth-year Canisius head coach reiterated after losing to Monmouth. “It’s the actual scoreboard that counts, so we’ve got to cut down the mistakes and start finishing chances. It’s simple.”

Losses to the Hawks, Red Foxes and Stags are not a season-ending calamity like they would be in most years, as all 11 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams advance to the postseason tournament this year in Orlando, where it’s held every four years at Walt Disney World in collaboration with ESPN.

Hurt during the preseason, Canisius midfielder Lucian Preis is rounding into form. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Hurt during the preseason, Canisius midfielder Lucian Preis is rounding into form. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Even with that cushion, there’s incentive to finish in the top 5 to avoid playing four matches in five days. Not that the RPI is the be-all, end-all of college soccer rankings, but Canisius sits at just No. 193, best of the Big 4, but not pretty considering there are just 206 Division I programs.

Regardless of numbers, McGrane still has full confidence that his team is gifted enough to make noise in Disney.

“Once we start clicking, we’ll be legit.”

Why they’ll make noise in the MAAC Tournament: Baudo and Blair will both improve as the season progresses; they’re too gifted to not leave their imprint on this Canisius season, especially Baudo, as 2015 is his last go-around. The leadership in the defense should keep the Griffs within fighting distance of fifth place and a bye into the MAAC quarterfinals. From there, anything can happen, particularly in a conference that should have plenty of parity.

Why they’ll sputter quickly: Scoring -- simple as that. Without Gavin Falconer, now a Canisius assistant coach, and Asani Samuels, a professional with the Rochester Rhinos, the Griffs lack a true goal-scoring threat. Snakebit early in the year, Santos shows signs of emerging, but he’s yet to strike fear into opponents. New starting right back Mitch Cancilla, a converted striker, is very green, but presently trusted more than Jake Montante.

Former Canisius forward Asani Samuels, far left, was honored before the Monmouth game for his inclusion in the Griffins 50th anniversary Best XI first team. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Former Canisius forward Asani Samuels, far left, was honored before the Monmouth game for his inclusion in the Griffins 50th anniversary Best XI first team. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Unheralded players to watch: Senior midfielder Chris Berardi (No. 18) may not be the technically smoothest player on the Griffs, but he’s ultra-fast and his motor never stops. If he’s inspired, he can really disrupt an opponent. Watch sophomores Mo Kretschmer (No. 8) and Lucian Preis (No. 2) in the defensive midfield; they’re very different players -- Kretschmer a brilliant distributor and Preis the superior athlete -- but there’s no reason both cannot be All-MAAC players in future seasons.

Get well soon: True freshman Shane Greene, the Hamburg High School graduate who won All-WNY Player of the Year honors in 2014, injured his quad in preseason and looks like a possible red-shirt candidate, even though he’s back in training.

Clarence High School graduate Chris Berardi is in his senior year at Canisius. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Clarence High School graduate Chris Berardi is in his senior year at Canisius. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Email Ben Tsujimoto at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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