Updated: Aug 20, 2019
By Matthew Ondesko - Managing Editor Photos courtesy of Niagara University
Some things are just meant to be. Like be a Yankees fan, or always wanting to go to Notre Dame. Those are things that are instilled in you at a young age. It could be as simple as a family member going to a certain school or liking a certain team.
It just fits.
So when Niagara University baseball player Michael Gabriele was looking at colleges during his time at Canisius High School there was only one school he wanted to attend: Niagara.
It’s kind of a family tradition to wear the Purple and White of Niagara. His dad played baseball there and his older sister plays softball. While Gabriele says there was zero pressure for him attend to the university, it makes life a little bit easier in the house.
“It’s an honor to be able to continue the family line of ball players at Niagara. Ever since I was a kid my dream was to play baseball at Niagara University. When I was given the opportunity through an offer from coach McCoy, I couldn’t have been happier,” stated Gabriel. “There was no pressure from my family in choosing whether or not I should go there because I had it in my mind that my future was at that school. However, if I had decided to go somewhere else, my family would have supported me regardless.”
It has definitely been Niagara’s gain. A star pitcher and infielder while playing at Canisius High School, Gabriel has taken to the college game. Eased in during his freshman year, Gabriel could show that he could play - and that led him to a bigger role last season.
As a sophomore, Gabriel showed he could handle college pitching, and became a big part of the what the Purple Eagles are trying to do. He was key to McCoy and his staff as Gabriel was able to play all-around the infield.
“Having played second base, shortstop, and third base at this level, it was definitely an adjustment getting used to the strength of guys. Staying in front of the ball is way more important than it used to be,” stated Gabriel. “Getting a little taste of what it’s like to play at a Division I level as a freshman was huge in my development as a sophomore. Being around the older guys on my team at the time definitely helped instill in my mind what is needed to be successful and also opened my eyes on what needed to be improved upon in my game.”
While Gabriel has excelled in the more expanded roll, there is still a little part of him that wishes he was on the mound. While at Canisius, Gabriel dominated hitters in the Monsignor Martin, a Catholic wood bat league.
When he got to Niagara, he was able to get on the mound his freshman year and against local rival University at Buffalo. There he realized that it might be better to stick to the infield and work on his game.
“Pitching always had a soft spot in my heart and I got a chance to throw a few innings against Virginia Tech and University of Buffalo my freshman year,” stated Gabriel. “The results weren’t necessarily what I wanted them to be and while the goal is to be successful at everything you do, I see it as a positive because at that point I knew that my future was as an infielder. Coach has also thrown me a few bones in practice letting me throw a few live innings in scrimmages so I’ve had fun with that.”
It was agate that even Gabriel didn’t know how it would translate coming from high school. The Monsignor Martin is the only league in Western New York that uses wood bats. Over the years, the league has become more of a pitching dominate league - especially during the cold WNY spring.
Using a wood bat doesn’t have the same pop as using aluminum. The speed of the ball is different as well, and infielders need to be on their toes more than say the ball coming off the wood.
It was an adjustment that Gabriel had to get used.
“Playing against high school players using wood bats is way different than college players using metal bats. The speed of the game isn’t even in the same ballpark. The main thing that helped me adjust to this was my mental game. As a team, we hammer home staying present each pitch and slowing the game down through controlled breathing. That helped me more than anything physical,” stated Gabriel. “As an infielder, my footwork needed improvement and my attack mentality as well. In high school, it’s easy to get away with sitting back on the ball, but at the collegiate level, guys are better, faster, and stronger. You have to do everything you can to get them out.”
It just isn’t the wood bats and the speed of the game that players like Gabriel need to get used to. It’s also the wonderful WNY weather. Playing baseball in the Northeast means playing in all type of weather conditions.
It could be 60 degrees one day and 35 and snow the next. For ballplayers like Gabriel routines are important. Gabriel wants to make sure he is doing the same routine not matter what the weather might be.
“My routine stays the same no matter where I’m playing. While weather is something that you can’t control, routines are something that you can. If you are inconsistent with your routine, you start to play inconsistently,” stated Gabriel. “My pregame routines, my routines out on the field, my routines at the plate, and my postgame routines all stay the same no matter the weather. The only thing that changes is we might hit indoors instead of outdoors if it’s snowing before the game.”
His routines certainly worked well during his sophomore season. Now he hopes to take the success he had last year and bring it into 2019.
That means working hard during the offseason to make sure he worked on the little things that will help him be successful. That includes changing his swing up a little.
“After having a fairly successful sophomore season, I’ve looked at what I did well and what I did not so well,” stated Gabriel. “I was a good fastball hitter, but this offseason I’ve geared up for breaking balls, pitches down in the zone, and tweaking my swing ever so slightly to allow for more extra base hits.”
A Niagara man through and through Michael Gabriel is proving he belongs in the Purple and White.