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Moments from the 2017-18 season: Niagara baseball punches ticket to the postseason

NIAGARA UNIVERSITY ATHLETICS

baseballNIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. -- It was the top of the ninth inning at the newly renovated Bobo Field. In its final regular season game, the Purple Eagles baseball team held a 3-0 lead over the Manhattan Jaspers. After splitting the first two games in the series, the winners of game three would punch their ticket to the MAAC Championships. 

A swinging strikeout and a ground-out for Manhattan put two outs on the board. The postseason was in sight for the Purple Eagles. An RBI single from the Jaspers put them down by only two runs, 3-1. Matthew Brash pitched 8.2 innings, fanning eight batters and allowing only four hits and one run. After the Jaspers scored, Brash was relieved by Tyler Howard. After a spirited round of applause for Brash, the crowd at Bobo Field went silent, knowing what was on the line, but NU held steady.  In the final play of the game, the Manhattan batter reached base on a fielder's choice, but the Purple Eagles made the play at second, tagging the runner out, earning the final out of the game and a spot in the postseason.

The crowd erupted. The team went wild. It was an emotional day on Monteagle Ridge. It was the first time the Purple Eagles had qualified for the postseason since 2006. Twelve long years they had waited, but a belief in themselves and their process ended the 2018 regular season on the highest note possible.

The Purple Eagles made their way to Staten Island, N.Y. for the MAAC Championships a few days later. The excitement was palpable as the team entered Richmond County Bank Ballpark, home of the Staten Island Yankees, for its first game of the tournament, which coincidentally was against crosstown rival Canisius, adding an extra layer of emotion to the matchup. The Purple Eagles fought hard but, after winning their annual Battle of the Bridge series with Canisius during the regular season for the first time since 2006, they fell to the Griffs, 5-4, in the first game of the tournament, moving them into the elimination bracket.

In the first elimination game of the tournament, Niagara took on the Marist Red Foxes. Marist jumped out to a 6-0 lead through the first seven innings of play. The Purple Eagles began to claw their way back late in the game, but it was not enough to overcome the Red Foxes' lead and Marist took the game, 6-3. Though Niagara was the first team eliminated from the tournament, spirits were still high. A trip to the postseason was a testament to the hard work put in during the season and to the full belief in the values the coaching staff had instilled in the team. The Purple Eagles left the stadium with confidence, knowing it wouldn't be long until they were back again.

The Purple Eagles went 24-27 in 2018, tying for the sixth-most wins in program history. NU's 13-11 conference record was its best since 2010, when the team also went 13-11. The Purple Eagles went 12-5 at home, their best home record since the 2006 season (12-5).

Multiple players highlighted a strong season for the Purple Eagles. Shortstop Greg Cullen led the nation with a .458 batting average and .556 on-base percentage. He was named the MAAC Player of the Year, as well as being named to the All-MAAC First Team and to four All-America teams (Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, ABCA/Rawlings, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, College Sports Madness). Cullen was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 15th round of the MLB Draft. Left-handed pitcher Cody Eckerson finished a strong career on Monteagle Ridge, going 4-5 in 2018 with 87 strikeouts in 74.1 innings pitched. He broke the Niagara baseball career strikeouts record against Marshall on March 9, finishing his career with 264 total strikeouts. He also holds the records for games started (47), shutouts (five) and innings pitched (258.1). Eckerson signed a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels in early June. Outfielder Trevor McCauley and third baseman Owen Dziados were both selected to the All-MAAC Second Team, finishing their careers at NU on a high note.

Rob McCoy enters his 11th season as head coach of the Purple Eagles in 2019. NU returns 24 letterwinners, including first baseman Peter Battaglia, second baseman Michael Gabriele, catcher Joseph Tevlin and pitchers Zachary KolodziejskiTyler Howard and Matthew Brash.