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The Sun baseball preview: Local teams are hoping to return to the championships

LAKE SHORE 2014 TEAM — Lake Shore includes, from left, first row: Joe Bogdan, Christian Gravius and Mike Hontz. Second row: Austin Allen, Steve Budniewski, David Killian, Zach Kwilos, Matt Budniewski and Cory Fiutko. Third row: head coach Bob Kowal, Andrew McDonagh, Matt Vona, Jim Barry, Alex Whipple, Collin Fiutko and Parker Addison.
HAMBURG — After seven consecutive trips the Georgetown Cup final, Saint Francis fell just short of an eighth championship appearance, last season. With nine returning seniors from a team that lost 1 – 0 to eventual champion Saint Joe’s in the semifinals, Red Raiders head coach Paul Bartell said that the groundwork has been laid for a return to the championship game.

“We’ll be counting on our veterans to take us back to the Georgetown Cup final,” noted Bartell, whose team, which comes off a 14 – 6 season, won the title from 2007 – 2009, before losing four straight season in the best-of-three series to determine the Monsignor Martin champion.

Pitching will once again be the strength of the Red Raiders, as Andrew Krakowski, who will at play at NCCC next year, and Matt Minnick (Mercyhurst) head the staff. Fellow senior Ryan Stefaniak, an All-Western New York Second Team selection last year, will be on the bump, along with leading the outfield, and junior Mike DeLeo rounds out the top four. Krakowski, a three-year starter and Second Team All-Catholic selection, will also be a regular at third and in the middle of the lineup.

Joining Stefaniak in the outfield will be junior Joe Milkowski and sophomore Jacob Victor, while sophomore Francisco Guzman adds depth, there and as a left-handed relief pitcher. Returning seniors Brendan Haywood and Matt Unger will both see time at second base.

Trying to replace First Team All-Catholic Matt Michalski (Cortland State) at shortstop are junior Chris Shriver and sophomore Steve Mazzone. With Mike Prentice now playing at Fredonia State, juniors Tom Anderson and Eric Brennan and switch-hitting freshman Jerry Hickson are competing for time at catcher. Hickson started as quarterback for the varsity football team. Senior pitcher Connor O’Malley and junior utility player Nick Ferrino round out the roster.

In addition to playing both an out-of-league and Monsignor Martin slate, the Red Raiders will take their annual trip down to Tampa on April 9, to practice and play games in preparation for the regular season. Play down south will include a game against national power Tampa Jesuit on April 11.

Also looking to get back to a final is North Collins, but the Eagles will try to do so with another very young squad. The Eagles will feature two returning senior starters who could get back to a Class D championship game. They played in the final from 2008 – 2012, winning the title in 2009.

“We’re hoping to bounce back and compete for the division and sectional crown,” said North Collins head coach Paul Kellner, whose team lost in the semifinals to Pine Valley, which went on to win its fourth straight Class D title. “This will continue to undoubtably be challenging, with only two returning seniors.”

Those returning seniors are David Fera, the team’s starting left fielder, and Jacob Fyock, who will be at first base. There is some experience coming back, in juniors Austin Winter, a pitcher and second baseman who was a All-CCAA Division IV Second Team selection, Kyle Loretto, at pitcher and corner infielder, Chris Pulinski, in center field, and Joe English, in right. Sophomore Jake Jasinski will return to his starting spot behind the plate.

Eighth grader Brandon Zielinski saw time pitching and as a middle infielder, along with hitting clean-up last season, during a second team all-division season. Kellner said that Zielinski will start at shortstop, eat up innings on the mound and, once again, be a big contributor at the plate, helping to replace first team all-division selection Jared Keppel.

Junior David Lynch will add depth in the infield and on the mound; classmates Kyle Luther and Jacob Lyndsley will be up from the junior varsity to play outfield and freshmen Dylan Winter, Nathan Turnbull and Harley Mehnert are all looking to win a starting spot. Kellner added that he and assistant Rob Catalino are enjoying teaching the game to German transfer students Nick Willhelm, Christian Gottschalk and Ben Schubert.

North Collins will move into Chautauqua Cattaraugus Athletic Association East II, which was part of a realignment, putting it with league favorites Pine Valley and Cattaraugus-Little Valley, along with up-and-coming Ellicottville. The Eagles will also take on Class A’s Lake Shore and Springville-Griffith Institute and Class B’s Dunkirk, Eden and Gowanda.

“Our overall record may not be outstanding this season, but we are playing this schedule with the big picture in mind: to make necessary improvements we need to make us playoff ready, with hopes of competing for the big prize,” said Kellner, whose team is slated to host Pine Valley on April 2, in an early-season test.

This season will be the first time in his eight years heading Lake Shore that Bob Kowal will be without either of two of the baseball program’s best players, Jason Radwan and Christ Conley. It will also be one of his youngest teams, coming off winning a second division title in three years. Only three players return that saw at-bats last season, and to make things a little more complicated, Lake Shore, like many other Western New York teams, hasn’t gotten outside for a true practice yet, during a cold and sloppy early spring.

“It’s hard to tell what we have just yet,” said Kowal, who has three seniors and four juniors, on this year’s squad. “If there was a team that ever needed to get outdoors, it’s these guys.”

Lake Shore will try to replace all eight of its division all-stars from last season, including Conley, now a freshman playing Division I at Canisius College. Senior returning players are Jim Barry and Matt Vona, while the sophomore trio of Alex Whipple and twin brothers and newcomers, Collin and Cory Fiutko, will also play roles for the Eagles.

Barry, a third baseman, will be at the top of a pitching staff, which may be the strength of this team, according to Kowal. Vona will play second base and pitch and Whipple, who was called up last season to play third, can also contribute on the mound. Collin Fiutko will move into the team’s everyday shortstop spot and versatile Cory Fiutko will pitch and play some catcher and outfield.

Other newcomers include junior Parker Addison, who returns from a broken collarbone to play in the infield and pitch, and junior Steve Budniewski and freshman Andrew McDonagh, both of who can pitch, play first base or catch. Kowal is still putting together his outfield, but he said it should include junior Joe Bodgan and senior Mike Hontz. Junior Chris Gravius will throw in relief.

With 11 players at the varsity level as of now, Kowal said he may call up players from his junior varsity roster, from time to time. He said that sophomores Austin Allen, Zach Kwilos and David Killian could contribute.

Kowal said that, because Erie County Interscholastic Conference III, as a whole, lost most of its top players, he can see his team competing, as long as it develops throughout the spring. Next year, Lake Shore will be back up playing in ECIC II. And there’s no Radwans, who went on to star at Saint Bonaventure, as of yet, to help in the transition.

“We better appreciate this season because we’re back in ECIC II next year,” Kowal noted. “Cheektowaga and Springville should be tough this year, but there shouldn’t be anyone who’s overwhelming. It gives us a chance.”

Lake Shore was slated to open the season on April 1 at North Collins; the league season is scheduled to start April 4. Kowal said he hopes the first game will not be the first time his team is out on a field this spring, but seeing that it snowed several inches last weekend, it is not out of the question.

Eden is slated to return four-year starters Brad Palmertton and David Baskerville, along with some top players from last season, Brian Losel, Jake Schlegel and Declan Pierce. The Raiders should be a division contender in ECIC IV, after going 7 – 5 and then suffering an early playoff exit, last season.

Palmerton is a middle infielder and pitcher and Baskerville will also see time catching and pitching. Both are big hitters in the lineup. Baskerville also is part of a national-qualifying Junior Sabres 16-and-under hockey team that’s playing this weekend in Green Bay. Pierce will man center field; Losel is a lefty hurler and first baseman; and Schlegel, a third-year catcher.

Look for more on Eden baseball in further editions. The Sun could not reach coach Eric Cooper by deadline.

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