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Thursday, February 29, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

‘This year is really special’

Softball eyes the MAC Tournament despite reduced field, recent failures

<p>Senior catcher Olivia Kincanon takes a hack during a game last season.&nbsp;</p>

Senior catcher Olivia Kincanon takes a hack during a game last season. 

As a catcher, Olivia Kincanon has a view of the entire field.

But this season, she has her eyes set on something bigger: the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

Kincanon, who hails from nearby Lancaster, NY, has spent four long seasons trying to become an impact player behind the plate. She’s had her highs — but also her significant lows.

Which is why this confident senior started to waiver when asked by The Spectrum about the possibility of making the conference tournament in her final season.

“I would get insanely emotional if we got [to] that point,” Kincanon said, her gaze turning momentarily serious. “I really think if that were to happen this year, you might see some tears. You might see me get emotional. It would mean a lot.”

UB’s softball program hasn’t enjoyed a lot of success historically, but 2022 may finally be the year the Bulls get back to the MAC Tournament for the first time since 2014. Through the first three weekends of the season, the team is 7-7 — not the best mark in the conference, but far from the typical losing record that has come to define the program. (It took the Bulls 12 games to pick up their first win in 2021.)

UB’s success this season is nothing to scoff at: the Bulls defeated a Power Five program in Penn State for the first time since 2014; picked up victories over multiple southern schools who have year-round outdoor practice facilities; and are receiving contributions from just about everyone in their lineup.

But it’s not just the on-field success that bears this out.

It’s also the camaraderie of this group of players.

“I think it’s knowing we have each other’s back and the team chemistry,” Kincanon said when asked what is different about this year’s team. “This year is really special. We’re always doing everything together. Everyone is very close-knit. On the field, we have each other, but off the field, too.”

The Bulls love music, listening to everything from “old-time bangers to some old 2000s hits,” Kincanon said. Practice is a good case study in this: the first order of business is to crank up the volume on some motivational tunes.

But it’s not just these music sessions that get them going. “The van rides on the way there, even in the dugout, we’re all going around [to] each other, high-fiving, doing all that,” Kincanon said.

Alexis Lucyshyn, a junior pitcher from Calgary, Alberta, says the team’s morale has been “really good” this season. In sports, coaches often say that winning cures all. This may very well be the case for the Bulls, who seem rejuvenated after their early-season success.

“[We’re all] competitive,” Lucyshyn said. “Everyone’s ready to play. We’re focused and determined. Even during the week, coming to these practices, everyone is really ready to keep working. Having those wins on the weekend is pushing us to do better.”

Lucyshyn may just be the most valuable player on the team this season. She currently leads the Bulls in batting average, home runs, runs batted-in and hits. She also leads all pitchers in earned-run average, strikeouts and wins.

Not too shabby for the 2021 first-team All-MAC selection.

“Just keeping calm,” Lucyshyn said, when pressed about the keys to her success. “I know when I’m pitching in the circle, everyone’s there to do their part on defense. Staying calm during those at bats, even those 2-0 [counts]. Just doing my part to help the team in any way.”

Mike Ruechel, the team’s fourth-year head coach of four years, says he is impressed with what he has seen from his team in February and March.

“I think it’s important, not only to win, but to show growth from game to game,” Ruechel said in the Murchie Family Fieldhouse, UB’s indoor practice facility. “The whole preseason for us is developing to a point where we can be successful come conference time. We are at a little bit of a disadvantage going from inside [practicing at the fieldhouse] to playing the southern schools. To go down there to compete and win some games is a huge plus for us.”

The Bulls have enjoyed success for a number of reasons this season, including strong pitching — Lucyshyn, freshman Marissa Calloway and sophomores Martha Balthasar and Julia Tarantino all have sub-four ERAs — good team defense — “the defense is now helping them [the pitchers] out,” Ruechel said — and clutch hitting.

But the word “confidence” was used more than any other to describe why the Bulls have had the success they have had against southern teams. It’s not only winning games this season that is turning heads; it’s that they’ve even been competitive in games they’ve lost.

“I think it’s a confidence thing,” Kincanon said. “They’re all going in there and having one heck of a season. The defense is helping too. They’re not afraid to throw it, because they know they have everyone behind them. Our bats are helping, too.”

Everything seems to be clicking at once, which is no coincidence. The Bulls attribute their success to hard work and proper player development, something they hope to put to the test next week in Lexington, KY, when they face SEC powerhouse Kentucky.

“Skill-wise, these kids are developed,” Ruechel said about his team. “We’re getting some better players coming in. With the few transfer kids, it kinda helped us. We’re definitely more advanced at this point than [at any point] since I’ve been here.”

Ruechel recalls playing the University of Louisiana at Lafayette last season, where his predecessor, Mike Roberts, was the associate coach. He says Roberts told him, “You guys are much better than when I was there.”

But for all the early-season success the Bulls have enjoyed, not all is easy in the Queen City.

For more than a decade, the MAC held an eight-team, double-elimination tournament in Akron, OH. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference eliminated postseason tournaments in all spring sports. Conference leadership reversed course in May 2021, when it reinstated the tournament.

But only four teams will make it this year, and the tournament will be hosted by the highest seed, rather than at a neutral site. This makes it much more difficult for teams to sneak into the tournament. The Bulls would likely have to go at least 17-13 in conference play to achieve their ultimate goal.

That hasn’t deterred players from dreaming big.

“The goal is to make it to the MAC [Tournament],” Lucyshyn said. “That’s been our goal since the day I’ve been here, working toward that.”

Kayla Sterner is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at kayla.sterner@ubspectrum.com

Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at justin.weiss@ubspectrum.com


JUSTIN WEISS
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Justin Weiss is The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.


KAYLA STERNER
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Kayla Sterner is an assistant sports editor at The Spectrum. She is studying communications with the hopes of being a sideline reporter. In her spare time, she can be found in the gym, watching football or vibing to Mac Miller. Kayla is on Twitter @kaylasterner. 

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