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Baseball returns to UB after a 20-year absence

    


Play Ball!

Photography by Frank Miller

By Anthony Violanti


Editor's note: Our reporter filed this story as the UB baseball Bulls were embarking on their season following training camp in Homestead, Florida. To see how the team fared overall in its inaugural season, consult www.ubathletics.buffalo.edu.



Baseball is back-after a hiatus of nearly two decades-at the University at Buffalo. And the head coach of UB's first NCAA varsity baseball team since the mid-1980s knows all about the challenges of the game. Nearly 25 years ago Bill Breene, now 46, was drafted as an infielder by the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Breene, who had played college ball at Southern Mississippi, tried out for the Cards' Sarasota rookie team in the Gulf Coast League, and that's where, he says, he learned an enduring baseball lesson: "You always have to have a good attitude." Sarasota's star player was Garry Templeton, a shortstop who went on to shine for the Cardinals and later the San Diego Padres. "I wasn't at that talent level," Breene concedes, "but I did a lot of things well. I didn't make it. But I kept a good attitude and I took everything in stride." That philosophy-a good attitude and taking everything in stride-has served him well and will be evident in his coaching style this year at UB. "I'm really excited, not just for myself but for the university," Breene says. "It's a tremendous opportunity for me because I enjoy the game so much. It's fun to be close to the kids. We're going to build this program the right way," he continues. "We may take a few lumps, but we're going to have an exciting baseball team."
     Following his short stint with the pros, Breene returned to Southern Mississippi to help coach for four seasons, eventually moving out of the dugout and into sports administration. An athletic administrator at UB for 17 years, he is eager to get back in the game.
     Breene's Bulls showed flashes of excitement during the team's spring trip to Florida, winning their opening game, against Chicago State, 12 to 10. They also played such noted college baseball powers as Boston College, Pittsburgh and Ball State, finishing 3-8 on the 11-game trip.
     "For a first-year program, we held our own," Breene states. "We weren't outgunned by anyone."
     Starting next year, the Bulls will compete at the Division I-A level in the Mid-American Conference. The team was allowed to play an independent schedule this year, instead of a conference schedule-a break for a first-year program, Breene notes.
In Florida, it was clear that experience matters, as evidenced by the performance of the Division I school athletes. "You could tell the difference in those players because they are veterans at this level. They had poise, and they had been through this before," says Breene.
"     We could have won a couple more games, but overall I was satisfied," he adds. In his judgment, the Bulls displayed quality pitching and speed but suffered from some defensive lapses and a lack of clutch hitting. "It's going to take time, but we're going to get better," he says.
     "At this level, you don't re-teach the skills of baseball. You try to refine those skills and help them get the mental toughness they need here. It's not like high school: We play 55 games, and you can't win all the time. You have to adjust and move on. You can't worry if you boot a grounder or strike out. You have to be able to bounce back."




reene thinks the Bulls have a shot at a .500 record this season. For a first-year team, that would be a major accomplishment.
     "That's what's so nice around here: Everyone has a fresh start," says pitcher Pete Selden, a right-hander who was once drafted by the Chicago Cubs. "I love playing for Coach Breene. He's a player's coach, and he really relates to us. We felt we had a lot of positive things happen in Florida."
     One plus was the pitching. "We had 10 quality starts in the first 13 games," says Breene, noting that he was impressed with pitchers like Tom Januchowski, a 6-foot 4-inch, 216-pound hard-throwing right-hander from Depew. Also showing strength on the mound were Tyler Balentine and Anthony Puccia.
     In the field, shortstop Adrian Daniels, a freshman, is a player to watch. "He's an outstanding athlete with good physical skills," Breene says. "I think he can be a quality Division I shortstop."
     Some offensive spark came to the Bulls early in the season from freshmen Brian Zelasko and Bryan Sanchez; sophomore Charlie Smilinich also wielded a potent bat early in the year.
     And second baseman Kevin Brown, who transferred from Alfred State, is "a solid defensive player who hit over .300 in Florida," according to Breene.
     Catcher Mark Vogel, who played at Erie Community College, has hit the mark with both his glove and his bat. And like most of the Bulls, Vogel has some speed on the base paths.
     "We're not a power team," says Breene, backed up by his two assistant coaches, Ron Torgalski and Dave Borsuk. "We're stressing pitching, defense and running."
     That mix worked well in the Bulls' home games at Dunn Tire Park, home of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, the farm club of the Cleveland Indians. The Bulls also played at Amherst Recreation Field and, because UB recruits players from the Rochester area, at Rochester's Frontier Field, where the Red Wings' Triple-A team plays.
     "It's a thrill for the kids to play in those kinds of ballparks," Breene says. "It's a real baseball atmosphere."
     A "real baseball atmosphere" is what UB was once known for-and, if Breene has anything to say about it, will be known for again. "There's a great baseball tradition at this school," he says.


     UB was a baseball powerhouse from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s. Coach Bill Monkarsh led the team against its Division I rivals, and nearly 50 players were drafted by pro teams during UB's baseball heyday.
     The most famous of these may have been a left-handed pitcher named Joe Hesketh, who pitched for 11 years with the Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox. Primarily a reliever, Hesketh finished with a 60-47 record. Hesketh came to UB in 1977, and in 1980 his team defeated St. John's in an NCAA Division I playoff game. At the time, Monkarsh said, "He was one of the most coachable players I ever had, and a true competitor."
     Monkarsh led the team against its Division I rivals, and nearly 50 players were drafted by pro teams during UB's baseball heyday. The most famous of these may have been a left-handed pitcher named Joe Hesketh, who pitched for 11 years with the Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox. Primarily a reliever, Hesketh finished with a 60-47 record.
     Hesketh came to UB in 1977, and in 1980 his team defeated St. John's in an NCAA Division I playoff game. At the time, Monkarsh said, "He was one of the most coachable players I ever had, and a true competitor."
     Playing at UB "turned me into a pitcher," Hesketh once said. "Bill Monkarsh and the athletics department at UB gave me the chance I needed." Breene says he heard from Hesketh that he is happy the baseball program is back. "We all are," he adds.
     The future will depend on recruiting, and UB is already making progress on that playing field. "We have to recruit to be able to compete," says Breene. "UB baseball was the place in this part of the state where the kids came to play; we want to make it that way again."
     The Bulls appear to be on their way to meeting that goal. At this writing, the team has already received letters of intent from two top local prospects, according to Breene: Nick Belicose, a pitcher from Clarence; and Joe Todoro, a power-hitting third baseman from Orchard Park.
     That bodes well for UB's baseball future.
     "Buffalo has always been a good baseball community," Breene says. "We want to keep these players here and have them at UB. That's what this program is all about."



Anthony Violanti is a writer for the Buffalo News.

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