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Open Mike Column: Rivals find common ground in spring break baseball trip

Pictured above top, Frontier coach Mike Morlock speaks with his team in between innings a few years back, while above, Steve Chaffee manages a game several season ago. Next to him is Blake McLimans, who moved on to play basketball at Michigan. (File photos courtesy of Ron Larson)

When Steve Chaffee’s conversations turn to a spring break baseball trip that involves a bus ride with cross-town rival high school Frontier, it many times elicits the question — “two big rivals going down there...together?”

Rivals are often associated with having disdain for each other and being unable to stand being around one another, but that’s just not the case here.

So, while the two high school baseball teams jumping on the same bus to play games over the Easter break may surprise some, it actually makes perfect sense to the Hamburg head coach and his friend and coach from neighbor Frontier, Mike Morlock.

Not only do the coaching staffs maintain a good relationship and some of the players are familiar with one another from playing at the youth level together, but the two varsity programs will also save money on the back-and-forth bus ride and renting a facility to practice before the four-day Mingo Bay Tournament in Myrtle Beach gets underway Tuesday, April 2.

“We have a real good relationship so it was easy to put this together with (the Hamburg staff),” Morlock said. “There’s going to be 50-something people on that bus, so it will be tight quarters, but it’s part of the whole deal and everyone gets along just fine. I couldn’t be happier to be sharing this trip with Hamburg.”

For Hamburg, Frontier will also serve as a guide for this tournament after the Falcons played it in last season. Chaffee said he’s actually relying on the experience of Morlock to get him and his team through their first run in the 92-team tournament, which is competitive and at times could be somewhat overwhelming.

“I’m excited that coach Morlock has been there before so we have a guy who knows,” Chaffee said. “There’s 92 teams there and it’s a completely new experience for us. It’s a bit scary. But I know both teams are very excited.”

The teams embark on the trip late-night on Good Friday (March 29) and will then have the weekend to prepare for a Monday practice before play runs April 2 though 5 with the first three games each day scheduled and the fourth opponent on the final day to be determined.

Hamburg will play an opponent from South Carolina and then one from West Virginia before taking on Brockport High School from New York on Thursday, April 4. Frontier will meet a fellow New York State team first, before games with Georgetown High School of Myrtle Beach and the nation’s 14th-ranked team Gloucester Catholic of New Jersey.

“You go there to play as opposed to mostly practicing,” Morlock noted. “We used to go down to Florida and mainly practice. We lose these four games because they count toward our Western New York schedule but it’s a great way to start the season, spend time bonding as a team and get ready for the league schedule.”

Hamburg likes to go down south every other season for the Easter break, but the past five times it’s been for play in Cocoa Beach, which caters to teams looking for a few games, but mostly to practice and scrimmage. This will be a new experience but still one that Chaffee intends to use so that everyone can enjoy it.

“In the past, we’ve gone down south but mostly to practice; this is a tournament,” he said. “We’re not trying to win any trophies. We’re going to use it as a spring training to see who my players are. I’m going to give all of the kids opportunities and see if what the guys have been doing indoors transfers to the outdoors.”

The plans were hatched when Chaffee initially discussed with Morlock the idea of the teams heading down together the next time Frontier went to the Mingo Bay Tournament. After Morlock got back to him and said it was a go for this spring, Chaffee needed a little convincing, since Hamburg had gone south last year, but once he and the program jumped in, they did it full force.

“Mike talked me into it — he’s a great guy and great coach,” Chaffee said. “Our players and parents were on board from the beginning and have done a great job helping fund raise.”

Each program hosted highly successful fundraisers that will defray the cost of the trip. Morlock said the offseason social hosted in the name of the Frontier baseball program was “off the charts” with an incredible turnout and volunteer effort. Frontier’s event went so well that Morlock said his players did not have to pay anything above the initial down payment for the trip, which includes hotel and meals.

He even showed what a good sport he was by attending Hamburg baseball’s 10th annual spaghetti dinner last week, which Chaffee said was also quite successful as around 500 plates were served and parents were integral in the running of the auction. Chaffee also noted that the Hamburg Music Festival provided a boost by paying for the food.

This trip should now help provide a bonding experience for not just one team but two, while uniting a group of athletes from the Town of Hamburg, the Village of Hamburg, Blasdell and Lake View that because of a line drawn in the middle are better known as rivals. For six days, they’ll put any differences aside.

Morlock said those players that are not extremely familiar with each other will be by the end of this trip. “Surprisingly, not a lot of these guys have a whole lot of interaction, but that will change after a 15 or 16 hour round-trip in the bus,” he said. “We’re staying at the same hotel and I’m sure we’ll spend some time together on the beach, We’ve always gotten along with Hamburg — I’m sure we’ll be just fine.”

By the time his team gets back on the bus to head home on April 6, Chaffee said his group will be back to focusing not so much on that time with their rival and in the tournament, but what lies ahead for them once they’re back in WNY. “I’m hoping to come back April 6 and have a lot of questions answered,” Chaffee said.

Also traveling down to the Myrtle Beach area but going the route of playing more to practice and scrimmage is Lake Shore. Eagles’ head coach Bob Kowal is confident he’ll find out what he has when his team plays from Saturday, March 5 through Thursday, April 4 at the Cal Ripken Experience.

There, Lake Shore will play in two official games and five umpired scrimmages. It should provide Kowal a chance to use more players and not lose his entire non-league slate with the Eagles playing a 14-game division schedule in ECIC III.

“I like that better so that you can play your bench,” said Kowal, who will leave the trip a day early to catch a Major League baseball game before meeting back up with his team on April 6 in WNY to scrimmage Fredonia. “It’s hard to ask a kid to make the trip and then play him only a few innings.”

Regardless of the format, like Chaffee and Morlock, Kowal is just happy for the opportunity to get outside with teams having the ability to do only so much practicing mostly indoors during a cold and snowy March in WNY.


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