PREVIEW: Niagara baseball season approaches

The Niagara University Purple Eagles baseball team is set to begin their 2017 season this weekend with a series against the Baylor Bears. Niagara will head to Waco, Texas for a three-game set on Feb. 17-19.

Niagara is coming off a 2016 season in which the team went 16-37-1, and posted a 11-13 record against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference members. Hoping to build on successful 2016 seasons are outfielder Tanner Kirwer, who posted a .327 batting average, and right-handed pitcher Matt McCuen, who featured a team-best 2.98 ERA out of the bullpen last year.

Also hoping for a successful campaign is left-handed pitcher Michael Bucci, who is one of five seniors available for head coach Rob McCoy to utilize.

“Last year we missed the playoffs by a game or two but we set some building blocks for this year and years to come,” Bucci said. “We’re looking really good this year.” Bucci appeared in 18 games in 2016, notching 13 strikeouts in 28.2 innings and finishing with a 1-2 record.

Big 12 Conference member Baylor, the Purple Eagles first opponent, went 24-29 against all challengers last season, finishing in sixth place in the conference. Returning to the Bears is catcher Matt Menard, fresh off leading the team in hitting with a .309 batting average, and closer Troy Montemayor, who recorded 14 out of 15 save opportunities and a 0.78 ERA in 2016.

“It’s super exciting,” Bucci said of his team’s upcoming series against Baylor. “Playing the cream of the crop and one of the best teams in the country always makes it a nice game for us.”

Baylor isn’t the only big-name opponent on the horizon for the Purple Eagles. On March 3-5, Niagara will play in the University of Virginia Tournament, facing the Virginia Cavaliers on March 3 and 4. The school placed second in the 2014 College World Series, before claiming the title the following year, defeating the Vanderbilt Commodores for the school’s first national championship.

“It should be exciting to play a team that’s so rich in culture and really at the top of the country in talent,” Bucci said of the eventual matchup with Virginia.

The team’s first MAAC opponent will be Manhattan College, who will play Niagara on March 25 and 26 in Fishkill, NY. Niagara must wait until Apr. 1 to host a home game, when the Purple Eagles welcome Saint Peter’s University for a two-game set. Niagara is scheduled to end the regular season with a three-game series at Canisius May 18 and 19, with the MACC Championship set for May 24-28. The club’s last MAAC North Division title came in 1997.

“When I first got here we had a much different culture than we do now,” Bucci said of the progress he has seen in the program since his freshman year. “We brought in a mental coach last year and he laid foundation for us and for years to come. We’ve blossomed and developed so much this past year and a half or so.”

First pitch on Friday is set for 7:35 p.m. After Sunday’s contest, the team heads to Norfolk, VA to take on Norfolk State for two games on Feb 25 and 26.

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