The first time Jim Mauro tried to recruit Justin Santonocito back in 1997, things didn’t work out for the then Niagara University baseball coach.
Mauro lost out on the services of the then Monroe Community College third baseman to Mercyhurst College because Mercyhurst had more of what Santonocito needed (scholarship money) than Niagara.
Little did the two know that their paths would cross again some 21 years later with the roles sort of reversed: Mauro looking for the right man to become just the fourth baseball coach in the history of Canisius High School's varsity program, and Santonocito trying to convince the Crusaders’ athletic director that he indeed was that coach.
“I felt in talking to Justin, I knew he was passionate about the sport,” Mauro said recently. “But in our meeting he said he’d have no interest in any other high school job.”
“Canisius is the epitome of Western New York baseball,” said the 42-year-old Santonocito, who owns his own baseball school in Blasdell, Academy Stars. “I just think there’s so much tradition at that school. It just seemed to be a step up from any other program I remember watching in Western New York. They just seemed to do things differently. Only three coaches in the history of the school. … The kids were always respectful.”
If any player steps out of line these days, it’s Santonocito’s job to correct that problem since that’s one of the responsibilities associated with working his dream job.
Santonocito’s first season with the Crusaders is going well. The man, who has taken the reins from retired Bryan Tenney, holds the same job as Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famers John Barnes and Connie McGillicuddy.
Canisius takes a 7-7 overall record into Saturday’s nonleague game in Erie, Pa., against Cathedral Prep. The Crusaders then return to action at 4:30 p.m. Monday at defending Georgetown Cup champion St. Francis in Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association play.
While the Crusaders’ overall record is a byproduct of a young team taking its lumps during its annual trip down South, Canisius is 5-2 in league play with wins over St. Francis and — most importantly — rival St. Joe’s.
After coaching his first game against St. Joe’s, a 5-4 win by the blue and gold, Mauro said later that night Santonocito sent him a text capturing the spirit of coaching in the rivalry game: “It was everything I had hoped for.”
It’s the reason Santonocito wanted to get into scholastic coaching during the spring.
Santonocito used to be a part of the scholastic season during his days as a student-athlete at Bishop Timon-St. Jude and West Seneca East. Though he’s lived his dream of running his own baseball academy since 2001, he kind of missed being part of the spring season.
Of course the only way he was willing to coach high school baseball was if he landed his dream job. When Bryan Tenney decided to call it quits following last year, the window opened. Mauro selected Santonocito over seven other highly-qualified candidates.
“I think he’s a great teacher,” Mauro said of Santonocito’s coaching. “He’s more let’s play loose. Let’s have fun. He wants them to play the right way which fits in to how Bryan wanted them to play so he’s fit in well.”
While Santonocito coaches travel teams for his own academy, springtime baseball in Western New York is a bit different than the travel-league-summer circuit. Summer league teams are geared more toward showcasing individual players to recruiters than winning, he said. The spring is all about the team stringing together as many ‘Ws’ as possible.
That is what Santonocito has quickly learned since succeeding Tenney, who guided Canisius to 13 Georgetown Cup championships over 25 years.
The Crusaders aren’t the only team in the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association that wants to win the Cup. But they are the only perennial contender with a new coach.
“There’s more meaning in these games because you see these boys five, six, sometimes seven days a week, he said. “You feel like a true team. You want to win for each other.”