As Kevin Hufford recalls, Erin was 9 or 10 at the time. The Huffords were watching a women’s professional softball game. Mike Candrea, who had coached the U.S. national team to two Olympic medals, happened to be sitting next to them.

When the game ended, Kevin turned to Candrea and asked, ‘What’s the best advice you can give to a guy who coaches kids her age?’

“Teach them to love the game,” Candrea replied.

That was never a problem for Erin, who loved softball from the moment she dashed onto the field to play tee ball with her sister, Bridget, at age 4. It helped that softball was a way of life for Kevin, who is the head coach at St. Mary’s and owns Softball Central, the pre-eminent softball club in town.

Erin became one of the top players in Western New York. As a high school senior in 2017, she was named Monsignor Martin Player of the Year for league champion St. Mary’s, where her mother, Missy, is a volunteer assistant for Kevin and all-around team mom. Talk about love of the game.

“It’s definitely been instilled in me from a very young age,” Hufford said Tuesday at Canisius College, where she’s a star outfielder for the Griffs. “At 10U, I was playing on a house league and two travel teams. So it’s pretty much been all softball all the time. But it’s awesome and I love it.

“When I was younger, my dad helped me grow to love the game before I grew to be good at the game. Even if I had a bad day at the field, I still enjoyed it. It’s always been like that. Now, with it being my last season, he tells me to play for that little girl who loves the game.”

Hufford, who leads the MAAC in batting at .384, said she plays every game as if it’s her last. She feels a sense of urgency as the end of the season, and her career, comes near. She’s a graduate student and fifth-year standout for a Canisius team that is 27-16 under head coach Kim Griffin and leading the MAAC standings at 14-4.

The Griffs have a one-game lead over Fairfield in the loss column with two games left in the regular season. By winning the league, the would earn the right to host the MAAC Tournament and a chance win the title and an NCAA berth for the first time since Mike Rappl was coach in 2009.

Canisius reached the MAAC title game a year ago at Demske, but lost the final to Manhattan, 6-3. They were without their top pitcher, Orchard Park native Megan Giese.

The Griffs are on a roll, riding a seven-game winning streak into this weekend’s regular-season finale at home against Niagara.

“We’re definitely building up to a championship,” said Hufford, a lefty who leads off and plays left field. “You can feel it at practice, in the dugout, at games, in the locker room. Losing that championship game, we came back with a fire under our butts. We all felt it, losing that game.

“It’s giving me chills.”

Erin Hufford leads the MAAC in batting at .384. Her .437 on-base percentage is the best of her career. (Canisius Athletics/Tom Wolf Imaging)

Winning the league title and going to the NCAAs used to routine at Canisius, which won the MAAC regular-season or tourney title (or both) in 17 of 18 seasons from 1993-2010. Rappl built the greatest Division I dynasty in the modern history of Western New York college sports.

Rappl, who is in the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, retired after the 2014 season. Griffin, who played softball at Cleveland Hill High and Mercyhurst College, moved up to the head job after serving as Rappl’s assistant for seven years. She admits he was a tough act to follow.

“Yeah, there was definite pressure,” Griffin said. “Not just based on the success he had, but the fact he was the only head coach in program history. He started Canisius softball in 1977.

“So to me, it was like, ‘This was his life’s work and he’s entrusting me with it.’ That was an honor. But I felt more pressure than a lot of people feel coming into their first head-coaching job. So yes, it’s always been there. Some of the pressure is pressure I put on myself.”

Griffin won 26 games her first year and was named MAAC Coach of the Year. Griffin’s Griffs reached the MAAC final in 2016 — with a losing overall record — and lost. They dipped the next three years, however, and finished 14-31 overall in both 2018 and ’19 — Hufford’s first two seasons.

“You don’t see the flowers the day you plant the seed,” Griffin said. “We were planting seeds during those years and we weren’t seeing the flowers. But now that’s what we’re seeing, that we’ve put down these strong roots and we trust that process.

“We spent a lot of time building these women up as leaders and giving them the skills they need to go through the conflicts and the drama and the inevitable things that happen when you put young people together on a team.”

One flower has bloomed every spring. Hufford, who had offers from Tennessee and Florida Atlantic out of high school, has been a consistent performer from the day she arrived on campus at Canisius.

“You don’t see the flowers the day you plant the seed,” said Canisius softball coach Kim Griffin, whose team is flourishing ahead of the MAAC Tournament (Canisius Athletics/Tom Wolf Imaging)

Hufford was first-team all-MAAC as a sophomore. She hit .434 in the 2020 season, which was curtailed in mid-March by the pandemic. Last season, she hit .359 and was second team all-league. This year, she could be player of the year. She leads the conference in batting average, runs per game, on-base percentage, triples and steals.

But it’s also her selfless leadership that has lifted the Griffs to their most victories in 12 years. Hufford is a perfectionist, as competitive as they come, but she didn’t even know she was leading the MAAC in hitting.

“She doesn’t pay attention to that part,” Kevin Hufford said. “She had a great day at the plate early this season and they lost. I said, ‘You’re seeing the ball great today.’ She’s like, ‘Big deal, we lost.’ I told her, ‘Buddy, every once in awhile you’ve got to take a minute to have some satisfaction in your own accomplishments.’ She said, ‘This is a team sport, Coach.’”

Griffin said Hufford has been the consummate leader on a team with 15 freshmen and sophomores. Erin actually coached a couple of her freshman teammates at Softball Central when they were younger.

“Erin’s been so important in that process,” Griffin said. “Everywhere we go, she comes with energy, with a passion and a love for the game that’s unmatched. I think I’ve coached two or three players in 15 years who have that same passion and love for the game, whether it’s a good or bad day.

“Having a leader like that is so huge,” Griffin said.

“I feel like a big sister sometimes,” Hufford said with a laugh. “It’s awesome. At first, it was like ‘Whoa.’ There’s five of us (seniors) and 11 freshmen. It was kind of crazy the first couple of weeks, explaining this is what we do, this is what we’re going to focus on. It definitely all worked out.”

Of course, it’s also vital to have your leader set the tone on the playing field. Griffin favors a fast, fundamental squad that wins with defense and pitching, one that isn’t overly reliant on the long ball. It’s a philosophy she learned as an assistant under Rappl.

Erin Hufford has 53 hits this season. The school record is 70. (Canisius Athletics/Tom Wolf Imaging)

Canisius is third in the MAAC in ERA. They’ve allowed by far the fewest walks in the league. On offense, they’re first in runs per game, on-base percentage, triples and steals — a reflection of Erin Hufford.

“We know we have a fast team,” said Hufford, a two-time MAAC all-academic who is studying applied nutrition in graduate school. “So, once we get our runners on, our biggest thing is to put the pressure on the defense. We don’t try to hit the ball over the fence every time we swing. We work to make contact and move runners. It’s really fun.”

Hufford’s father, who has coached a lot of softball players in his time, says Canisius has the best chemistry he’s seen in Erin’s tenure there. It must give him great pride to know his daughter is a big reason, that his little girl grew to love the game and to be very good at it, and a fine teammate, too.

“I don’t know what changed and why that chemistry is so much better,” Kevin Hufford said. “But I’ll tell you, when they win, they win together, and when they lose, they lose together.

“I’m really hopeful that I can get some bonus softball this year,” he said, “because I’m really not ready for it to be over.”

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.