The Canisius College softball team arrived in northern Florida on Wednesday for the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. They quickly discovered that their home city had become an object of national sympathy and concern.

“Someone at the hotel asked me, ‘Where are you guys from?'” Griffs head coach Kim Griffin said Thursday afternoon from Gainesville. “I said ‘Buffalo, New York.’ Normally, the reaction is ‘Oh, it snows a lot up there.’

“Instead, it was ‘Wow, was that shooting close to you?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it was, actually’.”

The tragedy Saturday hit close to home for the Griffs. Early that afternoon, Canisius beat Siena to win the MAAC title and a trip to the NCAAs. Not three hours after the final out at the Demske Sports Complex, the word came of a mass shooting at the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue, a short walk from the field.

Soon, the community and the world knew that 10 East Side residents, all of them Black, had been gunned down in Tops by an 18-year-old white supremacist.

“It felt kind of surreal,” Griffin said. “We had just celebrated winning a championship on our field. I was hanging out of my porch with a couple of friends and the news starting coming in.

“So we went from celebration mode to ‘How did this happen? It was so sad and a lot to take in all at once, going from such a high high to a low low. I almost felt guilty, like I shouldn’t be celebrating because there’s so many people in so much pain.”

When Canisius plays host Florida in its first game at 4:30 on Friday, they’ll be playing for their school and a city. (Courtesy of Canisius Athletics)

Griffin lives on Glendale Place, next door to the Canisius campus. She said one of the women who was killed lived 10 houses away from her. Jennifer Warrington, a pharmacist in Tops who was shot in the head in the attack and survived, is the cousin of one of her close friends.

“I had dinner with them on Sunday and she told me that,” Griffin said. “I couldn’t believe it. So, it’s so personal; it’s all right here. But we’re also focused on games and regionals and championships. It’s hard to take it all in.”

Life goes on in the midst of great tragedy. The Canisius contingent carried a community’s grief and sadness to Florida, along with their softball hopes, dreams and gear as they prepared for their first NCAA Tournament trip in 13 years.

But first, the team reached out to the suffering East Side community. Alexis Churchill, a senior pitcher from St. Clair, Mich., organized a food drive. The team collected groceries and cases of water and brought the donated goods to the Buffalo Fridge distribution center on East Ferry Street before leaving for Florida.

Matt Reitnour, associate athletic director for communications, had decals made for the Griffs’ batting helmets. The decals, which were designed by Crossbar Athletics, read “Buffalo Strong” in the team’s gold and blue colors.

Local product Gianna Fazzolari made the all-MAAC team. (Courtesy of Canisius Athletics)

Gianna Fazzolari, the all-MAAC catcher from Newfane, said the decals are a fitting reflection of an unheralded softball team from an underdog city.

“We are such a strong community, Buffalo deserves to be here,” Fazzolari said from Florida. “Everything we do, all the emotion we carry on this team, is for our city. I feel like everyone looks down on Buffalo. At Canisius, we are Buffalo. We are here with those people. We play for those reasons. Softball is way more than a game.”

Griffin, the second head coach in the history of a program that became a powerhouse under Mike Rappl, shares those sentiment. When Canisius plays host Florida in its first game at 4:30 on Friday, they’ll be playing for their school and a city.

“I’m always proud to represent Buffalo,” she said. “It’s my hometown. I know our girls feel the same way. They love being a positive thing to showcase Buffalo. But I think now people are just going to associate Buffalo with the shooting, and that’s really sad.”

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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.