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Open Mike: Hamburg softball leadership core had greatness written all over it early on

Pictured above top, Bridget Hogan delivered the game-winning hit against Tappan Zee in the semifinal, and directly above, Hamburg closes in on the state title recording the first out of the inning on a ground ball and throw hauled in here by first baseman Audrey Weiss against Sayville. (Photos by Linda Palma)

Before coaching the senior leadership core of this year’s Hamburg varsity softball team, Lisa Palma’s first interaction with some of them was when they played for her modified field hockey team.

Palma saw something special in them, even back then. Palma was on to something very big, but even she could not imagine what was in store.

Critical connections were being formed that would lay the foundation in breaking new ground for the Hamburg High School athletics program.

“They’d basically run the team themselves,” said Palma, the varsity softball team’s fifth-year head coach, who still heads modified field hockey. “I knew with this group they’d do great things.”

She reconnected with them as freshman and sophomores, this time on a varsity softball team beginning a rebuilding process.

Players from those modified field hockey teams such as Bridget Hogan began playing varsity softball as a freshman and the likes of Heather Tighe and Kailee Ramaekers made their debuts as sophomores.

After Hogan and company took their knocks during her freshman year and the team was off to a winless start through five games to the 2011 season, Hamburg reeled off big win after big win and surprisingly made it all the way to the sectional semifinals that season.

A year later, the Bulldogs would show signs of greatness in winning a first sectional title for the program and making it all the way to the state semifinals.

It was in this very column just about the same time last year that Hamburg was lauded for its achievements of last season and it was noted that 2013 looked to hold even bigger feats ahead.

As it turned out, this softball season would be unprecedented for the school. The Bulldogs became state champions after winning twice Saturday (June 8) in Queensbury. They beat Tappan Zee 1-0 in an eight-inning semifinal before a 5-3 victory over defending state champion Sayville.

All season, with a target clearly on their back, the Bulldogs came through time after time to bring the greatest of honors to the school, athletic program and community.

“These girls are going to wake up the rest of their lives as state champs,” Hamburg athletics director Pat Cauley said. “That’s big. They’ve shown it’s possible to be from here and win the whole state.”

Palma’s seniors were integral in leading a deeper group than in year’s past. Hamburg could pitch, play defense and come up with timely hits. The offense was also aided by a number of quick players with the ability to pinch run and help play small ball.

While Hogan may have been the star, Ramaekers, Tighe and Sarah Mertowski, all three-year varsity players, were reliable veterans that always seemed to make a key play or be in on a rally. Audrey Weiss stepped into a pivotal starting role as a senior.

Junior third baseman Allie Salerno led off and had clutch hits throughout the playoffs, while Leah Jones stepped into an important role in center as a junior. Heather Haberman, just an eight grader, would wind up coming through with an enormous two-run homer in the state final.

“I’ll never forget any one of these girls,” said Hogan of the group of 19 girls who traveled with the team in the postseason. “I’ll tell my kids about this one day when I get older. It’s just awesome — the team came together and we did it. We believed and it happened.”

The contributions from so many seemed endless but it’s the seniors that will always hold a special place in the heart of Palma.

“They’re sophomore years, I started to see that this group really has the potential,” Palma said. “Of course, we had Bridget but everyone — Kailee and Sarah — contributed. I’m so happy I got to do this with this class. It’s great to see the girls go out like this.”

And the softball seniors weren’t the only ones to lead their teams to special seasons. Also this spring, the girls lacrosse team won a Section VI title, the girls volleyball team did the same back in the fall and the basketball team played for a sectional title in the winter.

Then there was that field hockey team, with many of the same players who stuck with it since Palma coached them at the modified level, some continuing to play softball too, that enjoyed another big season, though they did not repeat as sectional champions.

“We had such an outstanding school year and spring (also with boys lacrosse reaching the state semifinals, baseball playing for a sectional title and two school records being broken in track),” Cauley said. “Our goal is to continue this and continue to develop an athletic tradition. We want Hamburg to be known as a program that plays quality athletics and does it right.”

While many associate the best of Hamburg athletics with its lacrosse teams and rightly so, it turned out to be the Bulldogs’ softball program that brought the school its first official state championship.

Coincidentally, Hamburg’s softball coach is a former college lacrosse player from Niagara University, even though Palma did play some softball in high school. But she said there wasn’t a place then for a smaller, slap hitter, so she switched sports to play in college. But her passion has always been softball and it’s come out in full force with this program and its players.

She acclimated herself back to softball with the help of assistant coach Dave Vesneske, who taught her and the players so much about the game and its tactics. She calls bringing him on to the coaching staff as one of the best moves she made. Palma also credited the great support from parents. A coach, even at the scholastic level, can’t always say that.

This exemplary group, with some of its core first showing its potential as upcoming modified field hockey players, has wound up setting the table for what Hamburg hopes to accomplish regularly with its athletics teams.

“My question is, ‘who’s next?,’” Cauley said. “These girls showed the way and represented us so well. We’ve got the best player in the state (in Hogan) — I haven’t seen anyone better. Even in defeat, the defending state champions said about Hamburg, ‘what a class act.’”

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