Baron’s “junkyard dog”: Valenti’s fervor defines the Griffs

By Aaron Rispoli

Assistant Sports Editor

A collective gasp could be heard by those in attendance on Jan. 30, 2015. Canisius had won three out of their previous four contests coming into that night, in large part to then sophomore Phil Valenti’s 13.5 points per game during that time. And now the hard-nosed forward who epitomized Coach Jim Baron’s “junkyard dog” mentality, lay in agonizing pain, following an awkward landing on his ankle.

Valenti was carried off of the court to a series of cheers and whistles. The Griffs would go on to win that game against the Quinnipiac Bobcats, but Valenti’s dislocated ankle proved to be momentous turn for the worse. Canisius would lose five of their next nine regular season games without their starting forward, appearing to be shells of their former selves.

“It’s really tough watching your team work,” Valenti commented. “As hard as they work and as hard as we work together and not to be able to go out there and battle with them is tough to swallow.” Much to the testament of his indomitable spirit, Valenti was able to return in time for the MAAC tournament where he was only able to muster three points off the bench in the Griff’s loss to the Monmouth Hawks. “It’s real tough because you can’t really do the things you want to do. I wasn’t really contributing the way I wanted to,” Valenti said to Ryan Restivo of NYC Buckets. Undoubtedly, the injury provided a source of inspiration this summer for the 6’7” Rochester native.

“My ankle is good, I’m not having any problems or limitations from it. I worked hard during rehab to get it where it needs to be. I made sure to reevaluate where I was as a basketball player and look to see how I could become better. I worked on my shot a ton and started using my right hand more to become more well rounded.”

“Well rounded” is an appropriate way to describe this Canisius basketball team as a whole. The Griff’s roster is without last season’s top scorer, Zach Lewis, who transferred to the University of Massachusetts last spring. Coach Baron’s team also parted ways with Polish native Jan Grzelinksi, who opted to seek other playing opportunities. By way of graduation, Josiah Heath and Jeremiah Williams are also no longer with the Griff’s.

Granted, they are still without the decorated superstar; something we may not see for an extended period of time. But this new team is a unit of wide ranging abilities and playing backgrounds. The new roster includes the likes of Ronnie Gombe, a sophomore forward from Kenya as well as Malcolm McMillian from Central Connecticut State, who was the team’s leading scorer in their first exhibition game against Ryerson University.

In total, the Griff’s roster is made up of seven players who have never played in a Canisius uniform. Coach Baron hopes that his veteran leaders will step up and help smooth the transition of these new players, as he commented during Wednesday’s media day.

“The guys that have been on this team, their leadership, the way they go about their business is hugely important. I can’t stress it enough, guys like Phil (Valenti) and Bleek (Kevin Bleeker) have to be there. Guys that have been in the program with us.”

Valenti recognizes that there exists a multitude of question marks surrounding this Canisius team. But as Coach Baron commented, “I am a big believer in taking care of yourself. You can’t worry about what the other teams have,” the same sentiment is shared by his players.

Valenti insisted that the more prolific teams in the MAAC are not even on his mind to begin the season. “We just gotta be ‘junkyard dogs’, as Coach says. We don’t worry about the other teams as a player I know coach doesn’t worry about that stuff, either. We’re not talking about what players are on this team or who’s ranked where, we really just focus on going out there and competing every game.”

Canisius is not going to turn heads with their gaudy play, that much is certain. This team is not comprised of elite-caliber talent, in the traditional sense at least. But if any group were to overachieve, why not this one?

“I like our numbers and I like our athleticism. That allows you, No. 1, to work. It allows you to improve. Now we can get our defense going, we can pressure, we can up-tempo. They’re more my kind of guys, because they’re junkyard dogs,” Barron told the Buffalo News.
These “junkyard dogs” will open their season tonight at Hofstra University. The first of 31 games on the schedule for the Griffs. But, as they will tell you, the only game on their mind is the one in front of them. When a reporter asked Valenti on media day how he thought Canisius would match up against other teams this year, he paused for a brief moment, flashed a wry smile and said: “We’re gonna be fine.”

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