By Marshall Haim
Assistant Sports Editor
The first month of the softball season is one the most grueling portions of the entire year. It calls for long bus (or plane) rides while playing in a plethora of games during a single weekend.
Luckily for the Canisius softball program, the last two weekends featured beautiful weather in North and South Carolina. With the exclusion of the first weekend, where the Griffs played in a dome, they have played games in an average of 57 degrees.
“It definitely helps us mesh together as a team,” said junior pitcher Erika Mackie on playing in the fair-weather states. “We have eight freshmen, so working with them and working together in the ideal climate helps. Playing against high-level teams will help us in the future.”
The Griffs played four games in a two-day span last weekend in the Upstate Classic in Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina. Friday’s games saw the Griffs defeat Dayton and Furman in Greenville before dropping Saturday’s games in Spartanburg, 30 miles west of Greenville, to Dayton and USC Upstate.
Lauren Castro had a career-day against Dayton on Friday as the sophomore utility player recorded six RBIs, while hitting her first collegiate grand slam in a 12-4 mercy-rule win. Castro leads the entire MAAC with seven doubles this season. She also relieved starting pitcher Madi Weathers in the circle, throwing 3 1/3 innings.
Castro has not been 100 percent healthy since she arrived on campus last year. After undergoing an operation during the last semester break, the California native has reached a step closer to being to completely healthy and it has showed.
She currently hones a batting average of .293. Eight of her 12 hits so far this season have been extra-base hits (seven doubles and the grand slam).
“I wish I was 100 percent, actually,” Castro said. “Coming up on a year of still not being where I want to be is frustrating, but coming into the fall I should at least close to 100 percent.
“It’s a step closer, but I’m still not able to run as much as I would like to. I had so many things done and it should take three months to fully heal. I’m doing as much as I can until I can’t anymore.”
In Friday’s finale against Furman, the Griffs drew first blood in the first and only extra inning besting the Paladins, 3-0. Mackie, named the MAAC’s Pitcher of the Week on Wednesday, struck out a career-high nine batters while allowing just six hits. She currently leads the pitching corps with an ERA of 2.95.
The left-handed hurler became the second Canisius player to earn MAAC Pitcher of the Week honors this year, joining Weathers. It’s the first time in Mackie’s collegiate career that she has earned the weekly award, despite being named the conference’s Rookie of the Year in 2015.
“It means a lot,” Mackie said on earning the award. “It’s a nice recognition, but it’s not something that I necessarily need. It’s good to win and do well with the team, and have fun playing.”
The offensive success from Friday did not carry over to Saturday, as the Griffs dropped both of their games.
Denver Keller drove home the lone run with a RBI single in an 8-1 loss to Dayton. Sami Sharkey, Lindsey Silfer and Keller combined for six of the Griffs’ nine hits.
Defensive miscues in the final game on Saturday plagued the Griffs, as Canisius committed four errors. Silfer led the Griffs offensively going 4-for-4 at the plate. Mackie threw her third complete game in four appearances, marking her fifth such game this season.
The Griffs kickoff their spring break early, spending nine days in Florida. Canisius begins its residency in the Sunshine State participating in the Under Armour Showcase in Tampa. The Griffs will face five different opponents over a three-day span. Friday’s opponents include Central Connecticut State and Butler, and fellow Jesuit school Holy Cross provides the opposition on Saturday. Canisius will also do battle with South Dakota State on Saturday prior to playing La Salle on Sunday.
The Griffs return to the field for a doubleheader in Fort Myers on Wednesday, facing the nation’s top-ranked team, Florida State. They will play Florida Gulf Coast after their match with the nation’s top squad.
“Playing the number one team in the country is super exciting for us,” Mackie said. “It’s a game that we hope to do well in. It’s also a game that you are going to talk about the rest of your life.”
If Florida State remains the nation’s top ranked team by Wednesday, it will mark the third time in this academic year that a Canisius team will play the nation’s top ranked team in a particular sport. Hockey (North Dakota) and men’s lacrosse (Denver) have been the others.
“I think teams are all pushing to go to the next level,” Coach Griffin stated. “Nobody wants to be mediocre. Every head coach is trying to put their team to play big teams, so when they do go onto the postseason they have that experience.
“That’s something Coach (Mike) Rappl always did. He always wanted us to play big-time teams early in the season, so when we went to the NCAA Tournament we were ready for it. I see men’s lacrosse, basketball, and hockey; they’re always challenging themselves in the schedules. I want to do the same.”
Canisius will remain in Fort Myers to participate in the Battle at the Beach Tournament next weekend. The Griffs face Cleveland State, for the third time this season, before playing Iowa State on Friday, Mar. 17. The Griffs close out the Florida road trip with games against Drexel and Florida Gulf Coast on Mar. 18.