Matt Mazurek has done a lot of winning in his baseball career. The Canisius head coach believes that during any championship run, there is one singular moment that you remember, a singular at-bat or play that perfectly captures a special team’s emotional journey.

For his team, that moment came last Sunday in Pomona, N.Y., when a fifth-year senior named Mike Steffan slapped a two-run single to break a 2-2 tie and propel the Golden Griffins to the MAAC championship and a date with Miami on Friday afternoon in the NCAA Tournament.

Mazurek recalls looking over at Steffan’s family when he drove in the go-ahead runs in the fifth, the latest in a string of clutch hits this season. It seemed perfect for Steffan, who had dedicated himself for five years as a player and student at Canisius, to have that storybook moment.

“It really was,” Mazurek said Tuesday after practice at Demske. “It was awesome for Mike. It brings out the emotion in you, because you look back and see the family and the happiness of everyone involved. It’s not just that hit, it’s a microcosm of five years, especially for that kid.”

The past five years have been eventful ones for the Griffs. They won the MAAC tourney in Mazurek’s first year as head coach in 2018. They won the regular season in ’19 but lost in the conference tournament. COVID shut down the 2020 season soon after it began. Last year, the pandemic was a constant distraction and they fell short in the tournament again.

Steffan, who was a high school star at Williamsville East, has been around for all of it. The turbulence began pretty quickly — in fact, from the moment he arrived for his freshman year.

“My freshman year, my first day on campus, we had a meeting,” Steffan recalled. “The old coach, Mike McRae, walked into the meeting and said, ‘See ya guys, I’m leaving.’ He was in there for maybe two minutes and says he’s out.”

McRae had lifted Canisius to prominence during 13 years as head man. He left to be an assistant at VCU. He left behind a solid roster and a natural successor in Mazurek, a former Griffs baseball star and a member of the college’s sports Hall of Fame.

“Coach Mazurek is the one who recruited me,” said Steffan, who had two uncles (Paul and Tom Steffan) who played baseball for Canisius. “So there wasn’t any question in my head should I stick with it or go somewhere else. He had my trust and I had his trust. I knew he’d be a great fit.”

That didn’t mean there were any guarantees. Mazurek had 43 players competing for 35 spots in 2018. Steffan redshirted as a freshman. “He showed up to practice every opportunity that he could and stayed with it,” Mazurek said.

Matt Mazurek has led Canisius to two MAAC Tournament titles since taking over for Mike McRae in 2018. (Mary Margaret Johnson/News 4)

Steffan started the 2019 season as the Griffs’ No. 2 hitter, but hit only .217. The next two seasons, he was in and out of the lineup. In 2021, he contracted Covid early in the season and missed five weeks. His batting average fell as low as .167 during the year and he hit just .209 in 21 games.

There was never any question that he would return for a fifth season. Steffan knew he had more in him. So did Mazurek, who assured Mike that he would be a regular in 2022. Whether it was at first base, designated hitter or the outfield, he was going to be in the Griffs’ lineup.

“Last year, I didn’t do what I believed I can do,” Steffan said. “It was a weird year with Covid. It was up and down, back and forth. It was hard to get into a rhythm. That’s one reason I wanted to come. I wanted to prove myself and for this program that I’m capable of what I’m doing.

“I wanted to come back and play with my best friends and try to win a championship,” he said. “Coach Mazurek gave me the freedom to just go out and do my thing. It’s been fun to just go out and play baseball, to go out and do what I’ve loved to do since I was 5, 6 years old.”

It showed. Steffan established right away that this year would be different. In the opening series of the year against Pittsburgh in Port Charlotte, Fla., he went 9-for-17 with two home runs as the Griffs split four games. Steffan had four hits and five RBIs in the finale — one of three times this season that he drove in five runs in a single game.

Steffan blossomed as a redshirt senior. He’s hitting .339 with 41 runs scored, nine home runs and a team-leading 56 RBIs, which was fourth in the MAAC. He was ninth in the league in slugging (.547), 10th in on-base (.432) and fourth in OPS (.979).

“Last year was a big challenge for everybody, let alone my son,” said his dad, Jim Steffan. “So it was good to see him come back and have a very good year. It culminated in that championship game, getting a big hit at a timely moment.

“As a parent, obviously it’s awesome,” he said, “but just for the program and Canisius, because you know all the boys have faced challenges similar to what Mike has faced. To see them overcome that and achieve their goal was just awesome.”

Jim Steffan was at the MAAC championships with his wife, Sue, and daughter, Rachel, a star on the UB softball team. Mike has an older brother, Matt, who was a hockey star at Will East. Rick Ruggiero, who coached Steffan and several other players on the Canisius and Niagara rosters, was also there to root on the locals.

Canisius’ Mike Stefan could come back for another season, but said he has already accepted a job with Microsoft. (Courtesy of Canisius Athletics)

Mazurek said he saw things coming together down the stretch. There were all these little omens, like a 99-year-old woman in a nursing home who had her hair done by the wife of a Griffs assistant coach and guaranteed victory because she prayed for the team.

But a big part of it was the team’s tight bond and competitive character. A lot of that came from the veteran leadership. Steffan said Mazurek doesn’t try to impose leadership on his team. He likes to see the guys take ownership.

“We don’t have captains on our team,” Steffan said. “We have a leadership that takes the temperature of the team and goes back and forth between the coaches and players, taking that leadership role without the title. That brings us together.

“We have a really good group of guys. Our team chemistry is high. We’re always having fun, on the field and off. We do everything together. There’s no little cliques. I can hang out and have a conversation with anyone on this team. “

Often, it’s about schoolwork. Steffan has been on the MAAC all-academic team four years in a row. He’s a finance major. The last two years, he has been involved in the Golden Griffin Fund, an investment management course that teaches students about the capital markets.

“This past year, he was a GA over there,” Mazurek said, “literally making schedules and mentoring students, some on our team. He’s like their advisor. They call him ‘Professor’ Steffan. He leaves practice early every day, then comes back to lift at 6.”

Imagine that, a player who helps drive up his teammates’ GPAs in the classroom and drives them home on the diamond. You don’t need to designate captains with that sort of leadership. At one point, Steffan was captain of the hockey and baseball teams at Williamsville East.

“Michael had outstanding leadership,” said Willamsville East hockey coach Mike Torrillo, who played hockey for the Griffs and still holds their career scoring records. “In my opinion, he could have gone on and played at the next level in hockey as well. He was that good, yeah.”

A lot of colleges give lip service to the notion of the student-athlete. Steffan exemplifies it. He said his parents emphasized academics and he had an ideal role model in his older brother.

“We’re extremely proud of him,” Jim Steffan said. “He graduated with a 4.0. To do that as an undergraduate and graduate, with the challenges of the baseball commitment, I know I couldn’t have done it. I give him all the credit in the world. Canisius has done a great job to support him in return.”

Steffan could actually come back for a sixth season, under an NCAA provision that granted all winter and spring athletes an extra year of eligibility after the 2020 season was shut down by the pandemic. But he’s ready to move on and join the real world.

“I got a job already,” he said. “I’m working in finance, at Microsoft. I’m moving all the way across the country, to Seattle. I’m a finance rotation analyst.”

He’s 23 now. It’s time. But for someone who has loved playing sports since he was a little boy, it’s difficult to step away from college baseball, knowing he could do it for another year.

“It is. It really is,” said Steffan, who fully expects to settle back in Buffalo one day. “Especially with what’s after this — working every day for the rest of your life. That’s not as exciting as it was coming out here, being able to get my Master’s and play a fifth year.

“The reason I came back is for this past week. I came back to win that ring. It went perfectly.”

He agreed you couldn’t have written a better script. Unless, of course, the Griffs pull a stunner this weekend. On Friday at noon, they play host Miami in the four-team Coral Gables regional. Canisius will play either Arizona or Ole Miss on Saturday in the double-elimination tournament at Alex Rodriguez Park.

Steffan was hoping Canisius would get placed in Miami. Talk about a perfect ending. He has Cuban roots. His paternal grandmother, Marta Uriarte, was born in Havana and grew up there before moving to the United States. Mike has relatives in Miami, including an uncle who follows him closely but has never seen him play in person.

“That’s a nice little angle,” said Jim Steffan, a management program director at Moog. “Going to Miami, which has a lot of Cuban folks, Cuban restaurants, Cubans living there. It’ll be exciting for his relatives to be on the Canisius side.”

Miami, the sixth seed in the 64-team tourney, is an iconic college baseball program. The Hurricanes won two national titles in the 1980s under Ron Fraser, who was credited with elevating college baseball in the national sporting consciousness during his 30 years as head coach.

But Canisius isn’t intimidated. The Griffs are playing with house money now. They split those four games with Pitt, one of Miami’s ACC brethren, back in February.

“When you go down South or out West, no one even knows how to say ‘Canisius,’” Steffan said. “One of our main goals is to get people to know our name. Once that happens, something special can happen. We have absolutely nothing to lose. We’re going in there playing loose, playing fun, doing our thing and whatever happens, happens.

“You never know,” he said. “If we get a few runs early and they start scratching their heads, ‘Who are these guys from Buffalo?” Then anything can happen. It’s baseball.”

Jim Steffan wouldn’t miss it for the world. He and his wife left Thursday for Miami. It’ll be great to see his Cuban-American relatives. Maybe they’ll see an upset for the ages.

“Hey, remember what Saint Peter’s did,” he said.


Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.