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How Matt Clingersmith turned NCCC baseball into a junior college powerhouse

Niagara County Community College’s baseball program has come a long way in Matt Clingersmith’s 11 years as head coach.

It has come so far, in fact, that it’s hard to believe where it once was.

The Thunderwolves have qualified for the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division III World Series five times in the last nine years, the only five appearances in school history.

NCCC has finished as the national runner-up twice in the last six seasons, including this past May when it won a school-record 47 games and lost to four-time defending champion Tyler Junior College of Texas in Greeneville, Tenn. The first instance came in 2012 against Joliet Junior College of Illinois.

The then-Trailblazers (the school switched its nickname to Thunderwolves in 2010) were a three-win team 12 years ago. They were miles behind nearby programs Erie Community College, Monroe Community College and Genesee Community College.

Clingersmith managed to win four games in his first season, but it didn’t take him long to turn NCCC into one of the elite junior college baseball programs in the country.

“I thought the school had a vision to no longer be a doormat,” said Clingersmith, a six-time Region III Coach of the Year. “We’ve gone from a doormat to the College World Series.

“Winning the World Series is the only thing our program hasn’t done.”

Clingersmith kept a watchful eye on NCCC long before he took the reins.

The Niagara Falls native was recruited by Division III schools and junior colleges coming out of Niagara Catholic High School in 2001. That included ECC, MCC and NCCC, which also wanted the 6-foot-5 senior to play basketball. Clingersmith was an All-Catholic player in both sports.

“At that time, they weren’t very strong in baseball,” Clingersmith said. “There was always a transition to new coaches.”

So the right-handed pitcher chose ECC. Clingersmith became the go-to guy by his sophomore season, leading the Kats to a 33-15 record and a berth in the NJCAA World Series.

He earned a scholarship to Canisius College and finished his last two years of eligibility with the Golden Griffins, but NCCC was never far from his mind.

There was a conversation that Clingersmith had his sophomore season at ECC with teammate Jeff Ziemecki in a hotel room.

“We were talking about how we could coach and build something at NCCC together,” Clingersmith recalled.

He always thought that NCCC could be developed into a winner. What he didn’t know is that he would be the one who would do it.

In 2007, then-NCCC Athletic Director Lee Wallace put his faith in a 23-year-old Clingersmith fresh off a stint as an assistant coach at Canisius College. Clingersmith brought 22-year-old Ziemecki on board to work with the hitters, while he focused on the pitchers, and off they went to try to change the program’s poor reputation.

Matt Clingersmith acknowledges that former Athletic Director Lee Wallace played a huge part in changing the culture of NCCC baseball. Wallace was instrumental in ordering new uniforms, building new dugouts and replacing a snow fence with an actual home run fence in the outfield. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Task No. 1: Keep the best local ballplayers home.

A look at the 2017 roster showed 21 of the 32 players were from Western New York. Seven were from Rochester, two from the New York City area, one from Binghamton and another from Ontario.

That wasn’t the case early on.

“There were a lot of local kids from Niagara County and Genesee County on the team, but a lot of them went away, as well,” Clingersmith said. “I thought if we just kept half these guys here, we could really do something.

“At first, we were just taking bodies to fill in uniforms and getting the right staff in place to develop diamonds in the rough. Initially, we brought in a lot of Canadians.”

To change that, they had to start beating regional rivals ECC, MCC and GCC.

“We had to make it a rivalry and beat them to get those players,” Clingersmith said. “They had a lot of success for years.”

The breakthrough came in 2008, when NCCC upset top-seeded ECC to earn the last spot in Division III’s Region III playoffs. They ended up as the regional runner-up to Hudson Valley Community College.

The Trailblazers carried their momentum into the next season by winning the school’s first regional title and advancing to the 2009 NJCAA World Series, where they finished seventh.

“That was a great feeling,” Clingersmith said. “That’s when we knew that, hey, we can turn this into something for the long haul.”

Ziemecki left after a five-year run with the program, but the local mentality to recruiting also extended to the coaching staff.

Kenmore East grad Vinny Cuviello, a member of Clingersmith’s first recruiting class at NCCC, just completed his seventh season as a pitching and bullpen coach. Clarence alum Brandon Bielecki played for the Thunderwolves in 2012-13 and continued his playing career at Canisius College in 2014-15. Jeff Pierce and Mike Brown were also on the staff this past season.

“The coaches make the players,” Clingersmith said. “Kids slowly started to buy into that and the passion for the program. We’re keeping homegrown assistant coaches and players on campus to keep that tradition going.”

The stability of Clingersmith’s coaching staff has led to the ability to consistently recruit the top available talent.

Not having the requisite grades to attend a four-year school turns some athletes toward the Thunderwolves. Playing time and the price comes into the decision-making process, too.

Matt Clingersmith on his team that finished runner-up at the 2017 NJCAA World Series: “Honestly I think we had the right chemistry last year. In my eyes they are champions. ... We were one to two arms away from winning that last year.” (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“English 101 is the same anywhere,” Clingersmith said. “Freshmen are taking core classes no matter what. So they can do that here while getting bigger and stronger. It’s smart to go that way. I did it myself, so that helps me relate to players.

“When I was recruited, I loved the school that contacted me. My mind changed every day. If I would’ve went to a four-year school right off the bat, I would’ve most likely transferred back to a junior college. I just wasn’t ready.”

It’s no different for the kids Clingersmith recruits daily.

“I think a lot of kids aren’t ready for four-year schools,” Clingersmith said. “I’ve had kids who were great student-athletes and bad student-athletes. A lot of kids just don’t know where they want to be.”

Clingersmith’s teams have been recognized several times for the highest cumulative grade-point average among NCCC’s teams, and a lot of kids have found their way on the diamond under his tutelage, as well.

The program has developed a reputation for sending kids to the next level. More than 100 have gone on to play Division I or II baseball. All but one player on last year’s team is going to a D-I or D-II school. That player is heading to the College at Brockport in Division III.

“They know. It’s in our trophy case,” Clingersmith said. “It’s easier to recruit. You’re not trying to sell it. You’ve got kids trying to come here now because of the reputation you have.

“We just signed a kid from Pennsylvania and we have a couple kids from the New York City area. It’s growing year to year. It’s easier to recruit with national exposure.”

It’s also easier for the rest of the college baseball community to keep tabs on Clingersmith.

All the success that he has had at NCCC raises the question, what comes next?

He recently received a master’s degree in sports administration from Canisius, and his 393-164-1 coaching record has him on the radar of D-I programs.

“The future for me right now, it’s really tough to tell,” Clingersmith said. “College coaches have offered me positions, but I have to think about what and where I do well. At the end of the day, money isn’t everything.”

No, winning is. Particularly winning in his own backyard.

“I would love to build a dynasty here, look at NCCC 50 years down the road and say we’ve built a powerhouse,” Clingersmith said. “That would be a dream for me.”

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