BY DAVE RICCI email@example.com
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Reading and hearing about a winning tradition is one thing. Being a part of one is another thing all together.
As the Lady Blue Devils come into the 2014 season, they have an influx of talented youth and a core of senior leaders ready to teach them what an honor it is to put on that Kenmore West softball uniform.
“We’re obviously super young,” said pitcher Charlotte Miller, who was the News 2013 softball Player of the Year. “But the young girls know tradition because they’ve watched us. They’ve watched the girls that have graduated. Great players have played here.”
Miller and fellow seniors Hannah Post (SS) and Adriana King (3B) lead the way for the Blue Devils and know it’s up to them to pass the torch to the next generation.
“Tradition is so important at Kenmore West,” said Miller. “So, yeah, we are showing them the ropes.”
Miller, who was also an All-WNY first team selection, batted near .700 for the better part of the season and shared the pitching and first base duties the past two seasons with Shelby Donhauser. But with Donhauser having graduated, the bulk of the pitching chores will rest on Miller’s capable shoulders. Miller and catcher Brianna Christopher will give the Blue Devils arguably the best two power hitters in the NFL in the middle of its batting order.
Blue Devils head coach Matt Chimera couldn’t be happier to have Post, Miller and King proving leadership and stability for the youth. But he also couldn’t help but smile when he talked about the youth of the program that includes freshmen Grace Ferguson (INF/OF), Allie Chimera, (2B/SS) Ashlynn Kaczmarek (1B/OF/P) and eighth grader Abby Borkowski (1B/3B/P), who have all cut their teeth in the Blue Devils travel program
“This is the group now, coming up, we have three ninth graders and an eighth grader we’ve been waiting since they were eight years old (for them) to get up here,” Chimera said.
Chimera added that there is also a core of girls in that same group who will start the season on JV, but are also exceptionally skilled and has the coaching staff drawing comparisons to their 2002 Class A state title team.
Lina Mirabella, Sarah Caputi and Lauren Pray also return.
Second-year coach Samantha Rajski has one basic demand of her players day in and day out: compete.
Rajski obviously has the intention of of winning every time she and her team takes the field. But she also knows that rebuilding is a process that begins with small steps.
“We talked a lot about how this year we’re looking to compete more,” said Rajski. “Last year we lost a lot of games by quite a bit of runs. So this year our goal is just to compete. Not necessarily just win every single game, it’s to compete. To have those 3-2 games. Those close games where we just fight back and forth and just become a competitive team.”
With nine returnees, the Ladyjacks know full well what is expected of them. And the effort it’s going to take to get North Tonawanda back on top of the Niagara Frontier League.
“A big thing is, this year, we have some holes to fill and some of our older players are hoping into those positions and they are willing to play somewhere else,” said Rajski. “Like Lyssa (Carlson) for example, she’s learning how to play first base. She’s been very open to it and excited about it. Which helps me as a coach that I don’t have to force someone to do it.”
Natalie Harack (2B), Olivia Miller (RF) and Lyssa Carlson (C/1B) are the senior leaders who will be counted on to set the right tone everyday and to make sure the teams stays focused on Rajski’s goal of competing everyday.
“I feel like this year we’re going to be more competitive,” said Natalie Harack. “Because we have older girls. Last year we had a lot of younger girls and only two seniors. We only have three this year but I feel like we’re a lot stronger.”
Also back for the Jacks are juniors Heather Fontana (SS), Amanda Szynkowski (CF), Sara Bunker (utl), Meaghan Danaher (catcher), pitcher Sami Whalen and sophomore Rachel Krawczyk (P/inf/SS).
Szynkowski is coming off of a solid sophomore season where she was one of the Jacks’ most consistent players. Whalen, meanwhile, saw plenty of time in the pitching circle and seems ready to take over as No.1 pitcher.
“I think this year is already easier,” Rajski said. “One, because I do know the girls and only losing two seniors helps out a lot because we don’t have to have a lot of people get used to me. They know who I am. I know who they are. I already feel more comfortable. I know what to expect. I know what I’m doing. So it’s a lot easier.”
A methodical, well organized person in general, Rajski has kicked up practices with more intense complex drills and is very happy with how girls have been responding.
“I feel like this year we’re going to be a lot better because we’re used to having Sam, now.” Said Harack. “We’re just going to improve more from last year.”
The Jacks will host the Warriors in a T-NT softball clash May, 9, at 7pm.
As the Lady Warriors go into the new season, collecting more wins and playing more consistently are obviously at the top of the list. But the main motto Tonawanda is rallying around this season is “beat Alden.” After dropping both regular season games to their ECIC IV rivals last year, the Warriors saw their season end after Alden eliminated them in sectionals.
“We sat down our first day of varsity practice and we put up a chart and we set goals for this year,” said second-year coach Kim Fox. “And they’re very first goal was we want to beat Alden. They beat us three times last year. Twice in the league and once for sectionals. They’re just excited to hopefully get some more wins under their belts this year.”
Returning senior Becca Toth (P/OF) agreed with Fox and said that earning a win over Alden would be a big step forward for the program.
“I’m really focused,” said Toth. “I’d love to beat them. More than anything.”
Though Fox lost six players to graduation she has been very happy with the way the five returnees have taken charge from Day One as they try to show the younger girls the ropes.
Graduating that many players, the Warriors have the challenge of filling spots. But the pitching circle isn’t a concern as the Warriors return Toth and Rachel Allen and welcome junior Haley Slater from JV.
Allen was the No.1 pitcher last season, but after an injury cut her season short, Toth picked up the bulk of action and was the pitcher of record when Tonawanda gained its first win. Now with Allen back, and healthy, and the added experience Toth has from last season and the addition of Slater who was dominant on JV, the Warriors have the deepest staff in the division.
“It’s gonna be nice to have not only Rachel, but two other girls who can give her some good support,” said Fox.
Slater will not only add to the rotation, she can play third base and provide a strong presence in the middle of the batting order.
“Haley has a big bat and she is going to be one of our biggest offensive players,” said Fox.
Alex Tyler (C/1B/2B), Sydney Myers (catcher) and Maddie Oliver (OF) also return to help lead the incoming group six new players. “The more you stay positive, I feel, the more you are going to win,” said Becca Toth. “If you go into a game on a negative note then you’ll start bringing people down and you might just bring the entire team down.”
Without question, the work ethic is there. But the Lady Bulldogs know this season is about taking that work ethic and talent and translating them into more wins in the standings. Senior co-captains Gabbie Johns (catcher) and Julia Snitzer (2B/SS) lead a lineup that features seven seniors.
“It’s time to start winning some games,” said new varsity coach Chris Robey, who previously coached the Lady Bulldogs JV team. “So they’ve been working hard.”
Robey has the plus of knowing the girls as they came up through the system and he has experienced coaching the Ken East girls varsity soccer team. Still, Robey knows this new coaching position could present new challenges because players will be seeing him in a different light. But Robey stated the players have made his transition to varsity extremely easy.
“They all know what they expect of me and what I expect of them,” said Robey. “They’ve been doing a great job. We have a great core of seniors. I have seven seniors this year. Our captains have great leadership (skills) they’ve been doing an awesome job so far. So they’ve actually made my transition from JV to varsity a smooth one.”
Seniors Allison Johnson (1B/3B) and Monica Caruana (CF) will also be key for the Bulldogs, while Courtney Creasey and Krista Cornell will handle the pitching duties.
Two seasons ago, the Bulldogs pushed eventual Class A champ Hamburg to extra innings before losing in semifinals. Snitzer said the sting of that one-run loss, combined with falling short of expectations last season, is driving everyone to work harder this year.
“We have so many seniors this year so we have a lot of motivation,” said Snitzer. “Everyone wants to work for the seniors and all of the seniors want to work hard for the team so that we can go as far as we can this year.”
The numbers, and optimism, are on the rise for the Lady Hawks. Coach Gerry Sullivan said with 33 girls trying out for the team this season, some veteran leadership and an strong incoming core of young players, there is a lot to be excited about.
The Hawks will look to co-captains senior Kelsey McCarthy (1B) and junior pitcher Meghan O’Sullivan to lead the way for a young varsity team that includes three freshmen and a sophomore.
“That’s absolutely correct,” said coach O’Sullivan. “Both of them have been playing a lot, longer than just in high school. They are true leaders on the diamond and on the bench and are true role models for these (younger) players. They play hard and do good things.”
Sophomore Emily Dunn will get the start at second base while freshmen Maggie Pezino (catcher), Madison Janson (SS) and Caitlyn Persisco will also be in the starting lineup, as O’Sullivan looks to build around them. O’Sullivan also feels that having younger girls on varsity will inspire his JV players to work even harder, because they see it is possible for underclassmen to make varsity.