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McCann finds groove and Manhattan benefits

Kevin Leighton never saw this coming.

Sure, he liked Mike McCann, his lefty-swinging right fielder. He was impressed by the youngster when he recruited him at Archbishop Molloy his senior year. Leighton saw signs late in McCann’s freshman year at Manhattan College, when he virtually forced his way onto the field.

But the fourth-year coach wasn’t expecting McCann to be leading the Jaspers in batting at .406 and hits with 39, to have six home runs (second on the club), 27 RBIs and 24 runs scored, to be in the top five of every relevant offensive statistic.

“I thought he would be a good player for us,” Leighton said, “but he’s been phenomenal.”

The coach wasn’t just referring to McCann’s contributions with a bat in his hand. He is a stellar outfielder — the sophomore has two assists and a team-high .982 fielding percentage — is a threat to swipe a base and fits into the Jaspers’ team-wide attack philosophy.

Sunday, in Manhattan’s 10-run seventh-inning in a 12-5 win over Marist, McCann beat out a fielder’s choice to continue the rally. It wasn’t a play that necessarily stood out at the time. The bases were loaded when Kevin Nieto hit a routine groundball to shortstop. McCann busted it to second, beating the throw.

When discussing McCann afterward, Leighton gushed when that play came up.

“That’s the one thing I try to hammer into the guys: ‘You can’t take anything for granted,’” he said.

McCann embodies that notion. The 5-foot-11 Belle Harbor native was a late bloomer at Molloy under legendary Coach Jack Curran, excelling as a senior. He was overshadowed on that team by second baseman and pitcher Dennis O’Grady, who made the Duke baseball team as a walk-on last year. But his talent, even then, was obvious.

“He was a quiet kid so he could almost go unnoticed on the field, but when he swung the bat, you knew he had some ability,” Curran said. “He was always a good fielder and he could run a bit so he had pretty good tools.”

“He’s got a pure swing and he’s got some power,” the coach added. “He’s making a name for himself up there and he has a chance to be a player.”

Curran shared that sentiment with Leighton when McCann was a senior at Molloy. Considering Curran’s pedigree and that two of his players, current minor leaguers Matt Rizzotti (Philadelphia Phillies) and Nick Derba (St. Louis Cardinals), also went to Manhattan, helped the Jaspers make the NCAA Regionals in 2006, Leighton went to see McCann play after viewing his tape.

The Stanners lost the playoff game, to St. Francis Prep and ace left-hander Dan Forman, a Manhattan recruit who has since left the team. McCann got the only hit off Forman that day: a double.

“We knew he would [be valuable] for us,” Leighton said. “The things we’ve seen from the Molloy kids is they know how to play, they’re brought up right, they’re tough kids, most of them. They want to win. They’re the type of kids, if you ask them to do something, they’re gonna be the first ones to run through a wall for you. They don’t give you any kid of, ‘Well, it wasn’t my fault’ or, ‘He made a great pitch’ or, ‘The umpire screwed me.’ The kids we’ve had from Molloy do it the right way.”

McCann didn’t need much convincing to head to Riverdale. He wanted to stay close to home and had heard encouraging stories about the program from Rizzotti and Derba about the coach, winning atmosphere, and family bond many of the players shared.

“Every word they were saying, I can see it all,” McCann said. “They’re dedicated to winning, that’s what they do.”

McCann is a big part of Manhattan’s hot start in league play. After a rough March when he was looking to pull everything, opening up his front side too quickly, he has found his groove. It has helped that he is one of the three outfielders the program was going with, so even during the slump, McCann wasn’t looking over his shoulder.

He was given time to find his groove.

“I’m real excited the way I’m coming and I hope it continues,” McClann said. “The way I’m playing, the way the team is playing, I can’t ask for anything more.”

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