By DOUG SMITH
Niagara Gazette — Even opening with a 300-mile change of venue, March will be hard-pressed to match the madness of Niagara University’s baseball February.
The Purple Eagles got to Tallahassee in the worst way, hammered a hurler who would later shut out the New York Yankees, and finished by scoring 40 in four games in the ballpark where a past generation believes minor-league ball was invented.
Over the past weekend, then, the Eagles’ visit to Bucknell went south, literally from Lewisburg, Pa., to Petersburg, Va.
But that was a one-throw rundown compared to the Florida fling. “You can’t believe what we did to get down there” said Coach Rob McCoy. Picked off by storms and cancellations, the Eagles bussed to Pittsburgh, flew to Houston, then back to New Orleans, then arising at 4 a.m. for the six-hour drive along the Gulf Coast. On Mapquest, it had the configuration of a Greg Maddux curveball.
Playing before nearly 7,000 fans described by McCoy as “good and rowdy, that was part of the draw,” Niagara was shut out by a top prospect for six innings but broke through in the seventh against a pitcher named Billy Strode, knocking him out after only a third of an inning.
A week later, Strode would pitch a shutout inning against the Yankees in Tampa’s Steinbrenner Field. His ERA vs. the Yankees: 0.00; vs. Niagara, 54.00.
After three respectable showings in Tallahassee, the Eagles regrouped in North Carolina’s Durham Athletic Park of “Bull Durham” movie fame.
Here, the Eagles broke out against NC Central, coached by St. Francis High grad Jim Koerner and last year one of the most improved teams in all Division I. Niagara won three out of four with a second fine outing by Drew Fittry, who had yielded but eight hits in 12 innings heading into this past weekend.
Koerner has “a real good team” at NC Central, McCoy said, “but they had a couple of players hurt. Offensively, I think they’d be an upper echelon hitting team in the MAAC.”
NU seems to have a solid mound corps with St. Joe’s grad Fittry, Niagara Power standout Jordan Schwartz and newcomer Liam Stroud, who two-hit Florida State over four innings. “I think,” McCoy said, “it’s the best team I’ve had here.”
McCoy felt his years upon realizing that many on his team had little familiarity with the “Bull Durham” movie. “We watched it on the way back,” he said. “Then it meant a lot to them.” Many (but not Base Paths) rank it among the best baseball movies ever.
The field, McCoy said, was in excellent condition, a hard-working city crew facilitating the games without a hitch. NC Central’s softball team had to cancel a tournament only a few blocks away.
McCoy and NU can only hope for the same for their own home opener vs. MAAC newcomer Quinnipiac on April 5 in their own historic site.
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