As part of the Hamburg softball team’s pregame ritual, a 2-foot-long piece of linked chain is introduced into the team huddle. Each player grabs onto the chain and a cheer follows.
The strength of that chain is going to be tested mightily this season.
The Bulldogs, last year’s New York State Class A champions, have heard the whispers.
How are they going to win with the face of their team for the last four years, Bridget Hogan, having graduated? At the beginning of the season, coaches Lisa Palma and Dave Vesneske asked the team to raise their hand if they thought they could return to states.
“Not a lot raised their hands because they’ve been so conditioned because we’ve had Bridget for four years,” said Palma. “But we told them we believe in them. Everyone is saying,, ‘You lost Bridget, you’re not going to be good.’ This year’s seniors played support roles last year and they’re really relishing stepping up. We’ve told them this is your team.”
Hogan left quite a legacy, fashioning a 17-1 record and 0.28 ERA last year on the way to being named first team All New York State and twice All-WNY. She’s still wearing purple, but now it’s for Niagara University.
Hamburg looks to make a push for a third straight trip to the final four with 11 returning players, but there’s not a lot of experience on the mound.
The pitching duties will be split between senior Sebrina Schunk and sophomore Maddy Tucker. Schunk pitched only two innings last year. She had shoulder surgery as a sophomore and was told her she’d probably never play again. She’s worked herself back and threw a complete game in her season debut against West Seneca West.
While the pitching is unproven, the Bulldogs do have plenty of leadership starting with returning captain, senior Allison Salerno.
The vote for a second captain wasn’t as obvious, but that was a good thing.
“Literally, everybody got a vote,” said Palma. “Everybody feels that everybody is a leader on this team. I told Coach V., ‘Everybody got a vote, I guess we’re just going to rotate it.’ ”
Hamburg is excited about its upcoming trip to the Morabito Tournament on May 10-11 in Herkimer. The field includes some of the top teams in the state.
Alexis Ross and Maddy Lockwood are off to fast starts with the bat. The Bulldogs’ 1-2 record is of little concern as they play in ECIC I against Class AA teams and then drop down to Class A for sectionals.
Like most teams in Section VI, they have a busy week with Frontier today, Orchard Park on Wednesday and Clarence on Friday.
“This is one of the closest teams we’ve ever had. I think they might even be tighter than last year,” said Palma. “We want to prove to everyone that just because we lost a lot of good players doesn’t mean we’re not going to be there at the end.”
Defending NYS Class C champion Frewsburg is young to say the least. Five freshman dot the starting lineup. The team is 1-6 to date and went 0-4 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Senior shortstop Emily Hair is a returning all-star, she’s been on the varsity since seventh grade.
“We’re really getting better every single day and we see them working and keeping their heads up,” said coach Jon Blanchard. “We’ve been in some nice, tight games and we’re learning how to be a team and hopefully learn how to win toward the end of the season.”
Around the horn
Eden (2-0) has some depth at pitching with sophomore Jill Murray and junior Carley Nasca. Nasca plays the outfield when she’s not pitching while Murray can be found at short.
Last year’s Class B-1 winners graduated only two starters. Murray was the ECIC IV Pitcher of the Year. Last month she fanned a school record 23 batters against Cleveland Hill, tied for sixth-most in the state.
Fredonia is off to a 6-0 start with one senior starter, right fielder Alicia Deering. The Hillbillies won CCAA I last year on the way to a 16-4 mark.
The team starts four freshmen, including identical twins Caitlyn and Hannah Cybart.
When the pair sees an opening to have a little fun, they jump on it. Hannah typically wears blue shoes while Caitlyn prefers pink. One day for practice they switched shoes and assistant coach Bob Sievert spend the first hour calling the girls by their wrong names.
“Everyone is laughing and I can’t figure out why,” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, you’re messing with an old man.’ ”
Niagara-Wheatfield’s 3-0 record includes an 11-1 win over defending Niagara Frontier League champion Niagara Falls. Sophomore pitcher Marissa Hayes, who missed the first two games with an injury, got the win in her debut on Friday, 6-3 over North Tonawanda.
Senior Katie Mazierski, the only player left from the team that went to states three years ago, returns for her fourth year starting in the infield. The Falcons are still a young team with three seniors starting. “We’re still trying to work out the kinks and bugs like everyone else is from not being on a diamond much of the spring,” said co-coach Jim Proefrock.
• Hamburg and Sacred Heart will play in the prestigious James “Ace” Morabito Memorial Invitational Tournament at the Mudville Softball Complex in Herkimer.
The event is in its 33rd year and is the longest-running tournament in the Northeast. The Bulldogs and Sharks will play two games on Saturday and two on Sunday.
Mudville is a five-diamond complex that sits on 10 acres of country property owned and operated by Perry and Kathleen Novak. The complex has grown considerably over the last 13 years when Perry constructed the first backstop made from telephone polls and chicken wire. The couple hosts tournaments every weekend and have helped raise over $100,000 for a variety of charities.
Niagara-Wheafield, Dunkirk, Gowanda and Jamestown have played in previous tournaments on the site this year.
“We want to be a destination for softball teams,” said Perry. “It’s Americana. It’s got that old Rockpile kind of atmosphere. It reminds you of something from your childhood.”
Starpoint junior Allison Block has given a verbal to Canisius. The Spartans are coming off a 20-win season and are defending Class A-2 champions. … Frontier’s Melissa Woods, a four-year starter, has committed to Merychurst. … Lancaster, now in its 40th season, hopes to return to the Class AA final led by outfielders Julie Sortisio and Olivia Jankowski and Kara Paradowski, the first starting freshman shortstop since 2005. … Cheektowaga’s Danielle Szymkowiak is a three-time all-league selection. … Cleveland Hill’s Emily Maziarz and Haille James both hit over .400 last year as sophomores. … Lake Shore’s Jessica Ackley has 185 strikeouts entering her junior year. … Kelsee Soule of Albion is coming off a .480 season which helped her earn all Niagara-Orleans League. … Jackie Zwicker had a breakout season last year as an eighth-grader leading Maryvale in all offensive categories. … Melissa Stewart had 10 wins for Lackawanna a year ago. … West Seneca East has a solid core in its infield with Brittany Schuster (3B), Rachel Funk (C) and Brittany Nawatzki (SS).
News from WNY diamonds
• Pam Amabile and Pete Scott are the Section VI inductees in this year’s third annual New York State High School Softball Hall of Fame. The June 21 ceremony will be held at the Mudville Softball Complex in Herkimer. Induction is based on what a coach or player did at the high school level.
Amabile was a standout pitcher for Frontier, graduating in 1977. She led the Falcons to the Section VI Class A title in 1975, the first year of the tournament.
Scott served as Section VI co-chairman and Depew’s coach. The 18-member class represents teams across the 11 sections of the state as well as the Catholic and PSAL.
Previous Section VI inductees are coach Larry Lash of Wilson (2012) and North Tonawanda player Kim Frizzel and her coach Tom Murphy (2013).
The guest speaker will be Sarah Jane “Salty” (Sands) Ferguson, who played the last two seasons in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which existed from 1943-1954. She appeared in the movie: “A League Of Their Own.”
• Immaculata coach Ray Hennessy has left to become a volunteer assistant under Mike Rappl at Canisius College. In his 10 seasons from 2004-2013, Hennessy posted a 137-75 record with many of the wins coming against larger schools.
The Bears had won just two games in the three seasons prior to Hennessy taking over. He will be succeeded by Harry Martzolf.
Hennessy’s daughter, Molly, has transferred to Orchard Park. She won her debut on the mound holding Grand Island to two hits with 11 strikeouts.
The Immaculata Tournament has been cancelled.
• Grand Island junior P/IB Alley Cutting has given a verbal commitment to Kennesaw (Ga.) State, a Division I school in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Cutting joined the Viking varsity as an eighth grader. She is an honor roll student and a three-time selection to the Niagara Frontier League all-star team.