Success not a surprise for Niskayuna baseball

FILE PHOTO Coach Chris Bianchi talks to his 13U team during Niskayuna Babe Ruth Baseball practice at Blatnick Park on Aug. 12, 2013.FILE PHOTO Coach Chris Bianchi talks to his 13U team during Niskayuna Babe Ruth Baseball practice at Blatnick Park on Aug. 12, 2013.

BY MICHAEL KELLY
Gazette Sportswriter

NISKAYUNA — The history of the Niskayuna baseball program suggests it’s a surprise the Silver Warriors are playing this late into spring.

But the history of this group of Niskayuna players? Looking at that, it’s clear the surprise would have been if the Silver Warriors weren’t playing for a sectional championship this season.

“We have players here who know how to win,” Niskayuna head coach Chris Bianchi said. “They treat it as a skill.”

That’s not bluster from the Silver Warriors’ first-year head coach, whose program is seeking its first-ever area sectional title in Thursday’s Section II Class AA championship game, a 7 p.m. showdown between Niskayuna (No. 2, 17-4) and Shenendehowa (No. 8, 16-7) at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy.

Shenendehowa’s success in recent years is no secret. The reigning state champions are making their fifth consecutive appearance in the Section II Class AA title game and have won in three of their first four trips during that run.

But these Silver Warriors have a rich history of their own. A large bulk of this year’s Niskayuna team and nearly all of its seniors came up together through the youth ranks, winning one tournament after another. That group went to regional tournaments in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015. In 2013, that group won its regional and ended up making it to the semifinals of the Babe Ruth World Series.

That World Series team included current varsity players Gabe Antonikowski, Kyle Cox, Liam Davison, Ryan Dell, Ben Funyak, Conor Graham, Alec Ritzenthaler, Tyler Senecal, Dylan Sheely and Matt Toy. Other current Silver Warriors who played with that group on either the 2014 and 2015 youth teams included Angelo Spataro, Nick Insognia, Jimmy Joyce and Jake Phillips.

Oh, and the coach for those teams from 2013 to 2015? Bianchi, who coached in Niskayuna’s high school program for more than a decade before taking over the varsity team for John Furey prior to this season.

“We’ve progressed with him,” said Funyak, the team’s junior shortstop. “He’s a first-year [varsity] head coach here, but he’s not our first-year coach.”

And this isn’t a one-year wonder of a season for the Silver Warriors. Niskayuna expected to contend for a sectional championship this season, expectations built from the players’ past success playing with one another.

“Once you understand you’re with a group of guys that can win, that feeling doesn’t go away,” said Toy, Niskayuna’s senior catcher. “You’re always confident. . . . A big part of that is our team chemistry. We’ve played together for so long and we’re battle-tested.”

“That has probably been more valuable than the winning and losing over the years,” Bianchi said.

But these Niskayuna players have done a lot of winning. As they chase school history in this year’s postseason, they’re not out of their element.

“We feel like we’re in the place we’re supposed to be,” Funyak said. “This is where we should be.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Michael Kelly at 395-3109, mkelly@dailygazette.net or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.