Phil Valenti’s career at Canisius could not have veered off course any more at the start.
Coming out of Aquinas High School in Rochester, Valenti signed a letter of intent with Canisius during the early signing period in November 2011; when the Golden Griffins were still coached by Tom Parrotta. But Parotta was fired at the end of the season and Jim Baron took the job. Valenti heard from the new head coach on Baron’s first night.
For Baron the return to Western New York, where he spent nine seasons as head coach at St. Bonaventure, was a move back to his roots and he wanted to make sure Valenti committed. The commitment had some sentimental meaning to the 60 year-old head coach as well. His first job was at Aquinas High School as an assistant coach, which started a coaching career that has barely ceased since. Baron saw Valenti compete in the New York State playoffs, where he led his team the Class AA championship game. That and Valenti’s conversations with Baron made the Rochester native comfortable with honoring his commitment and staying close to home with the Golden Griffins.
Since then, the forward has been with Baron every step of the way at Canisius. He redshirted during Baron’s first season and came off the bench in his second, becoming the second Canisius played in the last 30 years to grab 10 or more rebounds in his first game.
Last season on the court Valenti was a vital bench option while playing behind Chris Manhertz and Jordan Heath. A player who could provide rebounding and a scoring punch as the Golden Griffins went to the postseason for the second straight season. However, the focus now is on the redshirt sophomore to turn those lessons from the upperclassmen into points and rebounds in their absence.
“I’ve talked to him about that, just taking a more serious approach and more mature approach,” Baron said. “He was around [Baron’s son] Billy, he was around Chris Manhertz and he got a chance to see those guys for two years because we redshirted him.”
“I like Phil, he’s from Aquinas, that’s where I started my career in Rochester. Its kind of like the next step for a young man like him to really understand what’s in front of him and to continue to grow and be more focused. I think he’s understanding that.”
Valenti knew that the team’s success this season might depend on how well he transitioned from role player to consistent starter. While his minutes have jumped this season, so too has almost every important statistic from his scoring to rebounding.
“This year there’s a little bit more on my shoulders, especially defensively,” Valenti said. “I try to get our offense going by our defense and telling the guys we have to get stops, just being the motivator. Last year we had guys to do that, because I was the young guy on the team, so this year I kind of understand how to play.”
Opposing teams have noticed Valenti’s contributions early and often. “He’s always going to play harder than everyone else on the court,” one head coach said when evaluating the Golden Griffins. Another head coach said that the sophomore has added more facets to his game, including a jab step three-pointer, which Valenti used to torture Saint Peter’s to help grab their first conference win, among others.
The Golden Griffins have also embraced a defensive philosophy in 2014-15, after being one of the conference’s best offensive teams the past two seasons. Not only do they turn teams over just under 15 times per game, but they have allowed teams to score just 61.4 ppg.
“I think guys are starting to realize that we do need to play defense every night and we can’t take nights off, especially when you’re getting into league play,” Valenti said. “That kind of gives you a good feeling, that you see guys next to you compete as hard as you compete. You don’t want to be the only guy out there working hard, everyone’s running the floor, everyone’s playing to their full ability, which we need every night.”
While Canisius’ start may be a surprise to the rest of the MAAC, and the coaches for that matter who picked them near the bottom of the league, Valenti knew the power of the redshirts he saw everyday last season. His team’s start doesn’t shock the 6’7″ sophomore, though he does see the third-year head coach teaching more on the floor to the younger guys than in previous seasons. Even with the strong start and being over .500 halfway through MAAC play, Baron is still cautious on Canisius’ potential.
“Our captains are Zach [Lewis], Josiah [Heath], [Kevin] Bleeker and you can throw Phil in the leadership role, but it’s still too early,” Baron said. “Those are the veterans that played last year, and other than that, everybody else is a newcomer, which is incredible to be honest with you where we’re at right now. That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic, but you just got to take it one day at a time.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.