BUFFALO, NY -
2018 was one of the most successful years in the history of Canisius athletics and there’s a new trophy in the Koessler Athletic Center to prove it.
Canisius won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament championships in baseball and men’s lacrosse as well as regular-season titles in men’s basketball and women’s lacrosse. Canisius also claimed the Canal Cup over Niagara University. The win marked the Griffs eighth consecutive win in the annual Battle of the Bridge series. which measures overall athletic supremacy between the two long-time rivals.
Those awards are proudly displayed in the college’s Athletic Hall of Fame trophy case but there’s one more on a shelf above them – Canisius’ first-ever MAAC Commissioner’s Cup, awarded for all-around excellence in men’s athletics.
“It’s a terrific accomplishment for our teams because every one of them had to perform well for us to pull it out,” Athletic Director Bill Maher ’89 says. “To win it for the first time was remarkable for us and I’m really proud of the accomplishment.”
The Commissioner’s Cup is usually won by the same handful of top-spending schools. The MAAC hands out three cups a year – one for men’s sports, one for women’s sports, and an overall conference champion. Canisius had never won one despite competing in the MAAC since 1989, longer than every current athlete has been alive.
“MAAC administrators, President Hurley and the vice presidents, they certainly understand the importance of this win,” Maher continues. “Even more meaningful was the appreciation we received from our peers in the industry who understand, ‘Wow, that’s really hard to do. And for a school like Canisius to get there, that’s a great accomplishment.’ ”
As if winning championships isn’t hard enough, a number of factors increase the degree of difficulty for Canisius to win an award like the Commissioner’s Cup.
- There’s no way around the first obstacle, which is spending. Schools that spend more on athletics and fund the most sports have the best chances of winning a cumulative award like this, especially given the way the scoring system works. While points are awarded for each sport in the MAAC, teams are only scored on their top six point-gathering sports, plus men’s basketball. That means schools that field the most teams have more margin for error because their lowest-scoring teams won’t enter the equation.
- Hockey. The MAAC hasn’t sponsored ice hockey since 2003. That means Canisius’ third-most expensive sport doesn’t count toward the Commissioner’s Cup, even though the team placed second in Atlantic Hockey and earned a national ranking during last season.
- Consider that three of last season’s titles were won by first-year head coaches – Matthew P. Mazurek ’06, MS ‘12 (baseball), Mark M. Miyashita ‘03 (men’s lacrosse) and Allison K. Daley ’11, MS ’13 (women’s lacrosse), all of whom were Griffs themselves.
- Canisius had 219 athletes earn conference all-academic honors
All these accomplishments in 2018 make the Commissioner’s Cup that much more impressive.
“Canisius is not towards the top of the conference in terms of our investment, obviously; Quinnipiac and Monmouth are far and away ahead of us,” Maher says. “That’s why when we win something like this, it’s much more appreciated because of the ‘overachievement,’ as I would describe it takes to accomplish that.”
Canisius ranked eighth among MAAC schools in total athletic spending in 2016-17, the most recent year for which government data is available, and each of the three years before that. Quinnipiac and Monmouth have been the MAAC’s top spenders every year since joining the conference in 2013. Monmouth won its fourth consecutive overall Commissioner’s Cup last year, but the fact that Canisius ended Monmouth’s string of men’s titles was certainly not lost on those around the conference.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of resources,” Rider University Athletics Director Don Harnum says. “For someone like us or Canisius to sneak in and steal part of it from them is a pretty good accomplishment.
“At the mid-major level, you’re going to be good in a sport for a cycle of two of three years and then there’s a rebuilding year,” he adds. “For them to be that strong on the men’s side across the board in a single year is pretty darn impressive.”
Here are the points for each sport
• The men’s soccer program started off in fall 2017 with a run to the MAAC semifinals, which earned 12 points in the Commissioner’s Cup standings.
• Men’s basketball brought in 11.75 points for its share of the MAAC’s regular-season title – Canisius’ first since 1993-94.
• The men’s lacrosse program’s run to the conference tournament championship earned 11 points.
• Eight points earned by men’s cross country
• Seven from men’s swimming & diving
• And then 5 from men’s golf meant the Commissioner’s Cup race came down to the final event of the season – baseball.
Canisius was seeded third in the conference tournament but Coach Mazurek’s squad went undefeated through the double-elimination tournament and beat Monmouth 11-0 in the clinching game. The win earned Canisius 16.5 points in the cup standings and gave the Griffs 71.25 total – just enough to edge out Monmouth, which finished second at 70.0.
“It’s a pretty amazing feat when you think about it,” Mazurek says. “We clearly have less resources than a Monmouth or a Quinnipiac but we work harder I’ll say that pretty adamantly. We work harder at the little areas to try to be bigger than we are.”
One underrated and large piece of the puzzle for Canisius is academics.
Not only has the Athletic Department found that athletes outpace the general student body in the classroom, Mazurek says his program and others often set rules for grade-point average that go above and beyond department-wide standards because grades go hand-in-hand with athletic success.
“I can go back years and look at the performance on the field and the performance in the classroom and there’s a correlation,” explains Mazurek, who spent 12 years as an assistant before becoming head coach. “There aren’t many guys in our program who have been all-conference players and underperformed in the classroom. Our best players succeed in both disciplines. It shows you they can manage the workloads. The guys who struggle in the classroom usually struggle somewhere on the field.”
Canisius enjoyed much success in the classroom in 2018, a feat called impressive by a rival athletic director.
“It sends the message that resources are important but not as important as having the right leadership and having the right coaches,” says Harnum of Rider University. “At the end of the day, when the ball is thrown up or the puck is dropped, no one is thinking, ‘They spend more than we do, they pay their coach more than we do, or we have a 3.5 GPA but they have a 2.2.’ You have to find a way to compete and Bill (Maher) has done a good job creating that culture there.”
Story by: Nick Veronica '13