Look out, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The Canisius Griffins are flying.
The Griffs men avoided the drama of their first two conference matches with a 5-0 trouncing of Niagara University in the annual Battle of the Bridge rivalry meeting Wednesday at Demske Sports Complex. The Griffins haven't lost to the Purple Eagles since 2013 - they're now 2-0-2 in that span after dropping the previous six clashes.
"There's always a lot of meaning to beating Niagara - they're our biggest rival," Canisius head coach Dermot McGrane said after the match. "You might look at their record coming in (1-6-1) and our record coming in (7-2-1) and think it's going to be an easy game, it never is.
"I [coached] at Niagara before, now I'm at Canisius - the same thing happens every year. Throw the records out the window, it's always a tough game."
Although he's seen his share of promising games unravel, McGrane may have given his foe a little too much credit. Niagara was mostly played off the pitch Wednesday; Bill Boyle's side mustered 10 shots with only two on frame, was out-possessed by a fair margin and rarely strung together passes in the attacking third. Only two close chances in the first 20 minutes would have swung the game in their favor.
The Griffs' Filippo Tamburini and Alex Grattarola scored first-half goals before the floodgates opened in the final six minutes, with Canisius potting three goals. Senior goalkeeper Marco Trivellato registered his third clean sheet of the season, needing to make just two stops.
Despite applauding Niagara for their effort, Canisius midfielder Will Pauls was grateful for less of a barn-burner than the 2-2 draw against Siena and 3-2 overtime road win against Fairfield.
"[Tonight] wasn't so hard on the legs, and it wasn't coming down to the last minute where we had to get a goal," Pauls explained. With the emphatic win, Canisius improves to 2-0-1 in MAAC play, good for third place behind 3-0 Rider and Manhattan. Niagara falls to 0-2.
*1-0, Canisius, 11': What a find Filippo Tamburini has been for Dermot McGrane. A long restart from Lucian Preis found Grattarola for a first-time volley. The well-hit shot clanged off the side of Niagara defender Borna Juracic before falling to the Italian freshman, who cut his shot across his body and by Steve Casey from close range.
*2-0, Canisius, 23': The connection happened twice against St. Bonaventure and once against Central Connecticut State, and the Bjarki Benediktsson-to-Alex Grattarola combination proved it could translate to MAAC play when the lefty's in-swinging corner met the French defender's run for a powerful header high into the net.
"I try to move a lot in the box, try to avoid getting grabbed by the jersey," Grattarola said of his strategy for winning set pieces. "I'm looking at the ball and running into space and making the header."
The 6'6 junior didn't hit his growth spurt until he was 16 years old - "I was little when I was 14," he said - which could explain his unnatural smoothness on the ball for someone his height. Grattarola wasn't bred as a center back, either, developing as a midfielder in his hometown of Le Lavandou, France.
"Last year our center backs were scoring every goal, and our center backs are still scoring goals," Pauls remarked, with a laugh. "And now our forwards are scoring goals - it's nice that they're going in from everywhere."
*3-0, Canisius, 85': The Griffs held their two-goal edge until Niagara pushed numbers forward over the final 10 minutes, and Canisius capitalized with odd-man rushes. McGrane's side broke out on a 3-on-1 rush, with just converted forward Hector Solorio back on defense.
Melvin Blair led the counter, drawing the Purple Eagles defender before laying off to Troy Brady, sprinting along on his right. The Griffs' leading scorer clipped his left-footed shot over the diving Casey for his eighth tally of the season.
*4-0, Canisius, 86': Clearly inspired by his first of the game, Brady wasn't done. A ball bounced high in Niagara's 18-yard box, with Matt Krucko-Moeller on the shoulder of the Grand Island forward. Brady used his strength and center of gravity to shrug off Krucko-Moeller before beating Casey cleanly to his near post.
"We let Niagara hang around, then we just caught them on some counter attacks when they went to three in the back, which they had to do to try to get a goal back," McGrane explained.
*5-0, Canisius, 89': Holding midfielder Will Pauls does much of the dirty work; the New Jersey native transitions the ball from the defense to the midfield, often switching the point of attack and working feverishly to avoid conceding possession. So, midway through his second year at Canisius, it was deserved that he scored his first career goal.
"It absolutely felt like it was a long time coming," Pauls said. "I haven't had that many chances so it was good to put that one away."
"With like 2:15 left, I told Melo [Blair], 'Give me the ball, I want to get my first career goal,' so he found me and I was lucky enough to put it away."
Much of the fanfare in the post-game team huddle centered on Pauls' first marker.
"It shows the respect he's got from the boys when after the game I brought up that he scored a goal and that's what all the cheering you heard was about," McGrane said. "Everyone is excited that he scored a goal."
— Canisius Mens Soccer (@GriffsSoccer) October 5, 2017
*Unsung hero: Although Benediktsson's switch from left back to the middle - due to the ineligibility of Italian recruit Alessio Atzori - has meant fewer runs forward, the Boston University transfer has acclimated well after an up-and-down start.
"I thought Bjarki had a phenomenal game in the back," McGrane commented. "He won everything down the middle, won some great challenges and his services have always been good."
*Niagara's standout: If it wasn't for Niagara's goalkeeper, the score could have been 10-0. Seriously.
"Steve Casey had a phenomenal game for Niagara," McGrane praised. "We had three or four where we got through on him - I thought with a little chip we'd put it in, but he stayed big. He blocked Filippo, he blocked Brady, did Melo and Hunter - he's had a very good game. Another one that Lu headed back post - Steve has a great game every time he plays against us, every time."
The Williamsville South alum, who's suited up the last three seasons with FC Buffalo, made 11 saves, tying his career-high mark set against Canisius last season.
*What's ahead: The Canisius head coach isn't concerned that the lopsided rivalry win will get his side too big-headed. A trip to Quinnipiac, the preseason favorite who's struggled so far this campaign, awaits the Griffs on Saturday.
"I think we learned not to get ahead of ourselves from the Binghamton result," McGrane said of the 5-1 loss in non-conference play. "At that point we got a little bit full of ourselves, but that brought us crashing down to earth.
"We understand every game in the MAAC is tough, and it becomes tougher now because we've got a target on our back, where other teams are going to step up - they're game to play you because you do have a good record and maybe you're seen as one of the teams to beat, and that makes it more challenging."
Canisius: Marco Trivellato; Hakeem Milson, Bjarki Benediktsson, Alex Grattarola, Nick Szabo; Melvin Blair, Will Pauls, Lucian Preis, Manuelle Cavazzoli, Troy Brady; Filippo Tamburini. Subs used: Hunter Walsh, Evan Walsh, Wes Rider, Eric Strauchen, Mitch Cancilla.
Niagara: Steve Casey; Matt Krucko-Moeller, Konrad Zydowicz, Borna Juracic, Hector Solorio; Mackenzie Roach, Bauti Pedezert, Jordan Acevedo, Zulfikar Karimi, Josh Tufino; Luca Pacheco. Subs used: Sergio Lujan, Asante Carroll, Kyle Walters, Owen Carter.