Sonoma Valley grad helps USF to NCAA tournament appearance


A breakthrough season for Ben Graff helped USF to a memorable campaign.

In his third season with USF, the All-Empire pitcher out of Sonoma Valley doubled his innings and posted the Dons’ lowest earned run average as a clutch reliever for the NCAA tournament team.

“I just tried to focus on getting a little bit better each day,” Graff said. “I was able to better handle high pressure situations. Staying confident was a definite improvement.”

The big left-hander from the start bought into the team’s approach of improving at the NCAA Division I level. The University of San Francisco program focuses on bringing in freshmen and grooming them for bigger roles in seasons to come.

“Ben’s always worked at it. He’s always had the best attitude,” said USF head coach Nino Giarratano. “We needed him to make that leap. He was the guy that gave us quality appearances all year long.”

Pitching in 24 games — third on the Dons — he recorded nearly a strikeout per inning. Batters hit only .143 against Graff, second best on the team. Graff’s earned run average of 1.44 led the Dons, the second-best staff in the West Coast Conference.

Losing weight and gaining strength gave Graff a good foundation for his successful junior campaign.

“I was able to build on that,” he said. “I gained the coaches’ trust as the season went on.”

Highlights on the season included helping the Dons finish second in the WCC regular season and tournament and getting big outs in the Oregon regional of the NCAA tournament.

“He consistently improved. And, boy, you could really see it in his game,” Giarratano said.

Pitching at the highest level of college baseball isn’t new to Graff. As a freshman he was on the USF squad that played in the UCLA regional.

“They’ve been building kind of a new tradition. It’s definitely cool,” he said. “Our goal is to get back there and go beyond.”

Work for next season begins this week. Graff is back in Green Bay, Wis., to play a second season of collegiate summer ball with the Bullfrogs in the Northwoods League.

Playing daily for two months provides valuable experience. The pace is similar to minor league baseball.

“It gives you experience against good college hitters,” Graff said. “I get a lot of work in and that trust in myself.”

The summer league also has players on a weight training and conditioning program. Pitchers go through throwing regimens.

Graff aims to get stronger and set up an opportunity to move into a starting role next season. He knows the USF coaches will put him in position to succeed and help the team.

“I’d really like to see him start and he’s going to get every opportunity to do that,” Giarratano said.

Leading as a senior is another goal for Graff.

“I’m just trying to do whatever I can with leadership, showing the young guys how we work here,” Graff said.

Also a good student, Graff contributed to the team’s 3.3 grade point average. Graff is a media studies major and is on track to graduate next year.

“This opportunity has been very special,” he said.


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