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High School Softball: Second trip to state tourney yields title

The state champion Hamburg softball team includes, from left, kneeling: Sarah Mertowski, Ashley Jablonski, Audrey Weiss, Bridget Hogan, Leah Jones, Allison Salerno, Melissa McCaffrey and Sabrina Schunk. Standing: assistant coach Mike McFadden, Maddy Lockwood, Selen Oz, Maddie Tucker, Kendra Quinn-Moultrie, Heather Haberman, Heather Tighe, Alexis Ross, Ally Agate, Kailee Ramaekers, Maddison Ciccarella, Rachel Watson, head coach Lisa Palma and assistant coach Dave Vesneske. (Photo by Linda Palma)
Hogan’s big hit, experiences of last year propel Bulldogs

When Hamburg took to the field in the state semifinal this season, it wasn’t the same team trying to feel out its new environment on the big stage like last year.

The Bulldogs were determined to be the aggressor and respond to whatever adversity came their way on Saturday (June 8) in Queensbury. They wouldn’t let play be taken to them; instead, they were to take the play to their opponents.

So, when Bridget Hogan stood at the plate in an extra-inning scoreless semifinal with two outs, the tying run in scoring position and a chance to win the game, she seized the opportunity, even though Tappan Zee was trying not to give her that chance.

On the third pitch of what was a planned intentional walk, which would have loaded the bases, the Hamburg senior saw a hit-able ball that got a little too much of the plate and she swung away, connecting on a base hit into right field to score the winning run.

“I couldn’t believe it happened,” Hamburg head coach Lisa Palma said. “The other team’s coach and their pitcher had a meeting before Bridget came up. The girl seemed like she never intentionally walked someone, so (assistant coach) Dave (Vesneske) told Bridget, ‘If it’s over, step into it.’ The pitcher left one a little over the plate and Bridget smoked it into right-center. Bridget is smart and clutch and she’s been there before.”

“All year when I was intentionally walked I’ve never actually tried to swing — when I was young I used to,” Hogan said. “Mr. V goes, ‘if you could hit it, do it.’ I had the go ahead, so I just stood there waiting and the pitch was there.”

At that point, it seemed there was nothing the Bulldogs couldn’t accomplish. They marched into the final less than an hour later against defending state champion Sayville and overcame a pair of one-run deficits to pull out a 5-3 win and bring Hamburg home a state title.

It was a state title at least two years in the making. After experiencing the program’s first sectional title last year and making it all the way to the state tournament, before falling 2-1 to Jamesville-DeWitt in the semifinals, Hamburg brought back six starters, brought up an array of role players and was determined all season to get back and finish the season the right way.

“The first year was more of a learning experience for us,” said junior third baseman Allison Salerno, who shared the captaincy with seniors Kailee Ramaeker and Hogan. “We’ve been dealing with pressure the whole season, like every game, so we kind of knew how to deal with it by the time states came around.”

Playing a difficult regular season schedule against the largest schools in Western New York helped when Hamburg was in a 1-1 extra inning game in the Class A-1 final against West Seneca East, and then when it trailed 2-0 to Starpoint in the Class A crossover final.

The Bulldogs took a few knocks during the regular season in finishing tied for second in ECIC I, but it only better prepared them for those tight situations they overcame to get back into the state tournament and reach their ultimate dream.

“We’ve been in a lot of close games and we knew how to keep calm and cool even if we got behind or didn’t score any runs at first,” Hogan said.

The Bulldogs exhibited their resolve to be state champions, but after it actually happened, even they found it hard to believe. After some celebration, the team jumped on a bus to head back home and arrived at the high school to a police and fire escort and fans waiting with signs and cheers even though it was almost midnight.

“At first, it was so surreal,” Palma said. “Even after the game and celebrating, some of the girls were saying, ‘I can’t believe it, is it really happening?’ I think it started to sink in when we saw the welcome home from family and friends. I saw girls crying who don’t ever cry. The girls were on Cloud Nine.”

After a seesaw first five-and-a-half innings of play in the final, Hamburg came up with more two-out heroics in the sixth as Salerno delivered on a single down the first base line to score what would be the game-winning run.

Sarah Mertwoski scored to give Hamburg that 4-3 lead after reaching on a one-out error, and moving over to third on a two-out hit from Maddie Tucker. Hogan, who pitched a four-hitter with six strikeouts, drove in an insurance run with a base hit that plated Tucker.

“I told them, it’s like a 0-0 game, start over and the past is the past,” Palma said. “In the top of the inning, you can tell they were getting excited and were like, ‘six outs.’ So I tried to keep everyone calm.”

Hamburg’s excitement had stemmed from eighth grade sensation Heather Haberman sending a two-ball, two-strike pitch over the centerfield fence, scoring Ashley Jablonski, a pinch-runner for Hogan who delivered a two-out single, to put the Bulldogs up 3-2 in the fifth.

But Sayville’s dangerous bats had an answer as the opportunistic offense scored once to tie the game at three apiece, taking advantage of two hits batsmen that inning and some frustration on the mound from the usually calm and collected Hogan.

Sayville broke a scoreless tie in the top of the third with one run and after Hamburg tied it in the bottom of the inning, got the lead back 2-1 in the fifth. After walking home a run in the sixth, Hogan got out of the inning’s bases-loaded jam after a strikeout during a nine-pitch at-bat and getting a fly out to Leah Jones in centerfield.

After Sayville had runners on base in the first six innings, Hogan retired the side in order in the seventh for the first time to close out the title.

“We knew it would be a much different game in the final — Sayville may not have pitched as well but they had powerful hitters,” Palma said. “They had put a bunch of runs up and constantly had runners on against us. We had to overcome some errors and mistakes, too.”

The drama of the semifinal built in the eighth as Tucker, who would score the lone run of the game, started a two-out rally with a single and moved to third on a double from Salerno, setting the stage for Hogan’s game-winning hit. Hogan also threw the shutout on the mound.

“It was crazy,” Salerno said. “I’ve told Bridget every time she gets intentionally walked that she should try to hit it, but it’s obviously a joke. This time, she listened.”

The semifinal game, originally slated for 9 a.m., started two hours later, due to poor field conditions after it rained the entire day before. Palma said although they didn’t get notice of the delay until 11 p.m. the night before, the team was prepared for what could lie ahead after driving down through rain the day prior.

They went to the opening ceremonies on Friday, had a team dinner and then woke up the next morning at 6 a.m. with intentions to stick with the original gameplan.

Coaches and players still went to the Adirondack Sports Complex early and instead of getting right on the field to play, did some warming up and cheered on fellow Section VI squad Frewsburg in its game.

The state final started 2 p.m. shortly after Hamburg’s extra-inning semifinal. But these Bulldogs were far from rattled or thrown off their games, even during what Salerno called a very long day.

“The coaches didn’t change our wake-up call and we were out the field before anyone else,” Hogan said. “I think that was definitely helpful.”

It was a sign of a seasoned team and one ready for what lay head — taking the next step to a state title.

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