Thursday April 11, 2013 | By:Michael J. Petro | Sports
Third-year starting shortstop Heather Tigue is among six starters back from last year’s state semifinalist team. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)
Hamburg advanced almost as far as a high school softball team can go at this level. In fact, the Bulldogs went further than any other team in school history as a state semifinalist.
So, when head coach Lisa Palma actually tells people that her team may be better this season, naturally they react with astonishment.
“People are like, ‘Really?,’” Palma said. “Our core from last year, many of them are now seniors, so we’re very experienced. They got a taste of it last year, so they can pass that experience on to the new juniors coming up.”
Also, what seems to be driving this team to be even better than last season is that its in search of redemption. Hamburg lost by just one run in the semifinal and had its chances late in the game.
“They feel like they have some unfinished business,” said Palma, whose team didn’t lose all year until the state playoffs, finishing 21-1. “They left some stuff on the table last year and they would love to claim the state title this year.”
A reason for those lofty goals is the return of All-Western New York First Team selection Bridget Hogan, who was so dominant last season. She hit .423 and recorded 155 strikeouts in 88 innings pitched.
The Niagara University-bound hurler also tossed a solid game, along with going 3 for 4 with both of the team’s RBI in a Far West Regional game 2-1 win over the state’s defending champion in Class A. Palma said Hogan is even more driven this season as the senior spent the offseason getting herself in tip-top shape.
“At the coaches’ meeting, I was being asked, “Didn’t she graduate?,’” Palma said. “Even after getting a scholarship, she’s fully motivated — she worked out with a personal trainer and is in great shape. She’s on a mission.”
Returning along with Hogan are fellow seniors Heather Tigue, a three-year starter at shortstop and another key piece to the middle of the order, Sara Mertowski, a catcher who creates a solid battery and calls the pitches behind the plate, and Kailee Raemakers, an ECIC II First Team selection, who made a number of clutch grabs in left field last year.
Also returning to starting spots are a pair of juniors in Allison Salerno and Leah Jones. Salerno played a solid third base and contributed at the top of the lineup, while Jones will move from right to center after last year starting the play that resulted in throwing out a runner to preserve the Far West Regional game for Hamburg.
Moving into the three starting spots vacated by seniors are freshman second baseman Maddie Tucker, who helped provide a spark last year after being called up during the playoffs, along with senior first baseman Audrey Weiss. Juniors Kendra Quinn-Moultrie and Maddie Lockwood should share time in the outfield.
The Bulldogs should be a much faster team, and with additional bench depth, Palma believes they’ll be able to play more small ball this season to help manufacture some offense. Her assistant, Dave Vesneske, has been very helpful in implementing this style of play.
“We’ve gotten better at it since Dave has come on,” Palma said. “We didn’t have the bench depth to do it as much last year, but we now have 16 girls on the team and all are worthy of playing time. Being able to use pinch runners in situations will help tremendously.”
Last year, Hamburg played in an ECIC II deep in pitching talent, but this season, it moves up into the largest ECIC division, which always presents a little more of a challenge. But it’s also an opportunity to play all of ECIC’s Class AA teams twice before moving back into “A” for the playoffs. The competition level may become priceless for a team looking to exceed even what was close to a perfect season last year.
“Last year, we wanted to play some of the bigger schools,” said Palma, whose team got a test right off the bat, hosting Class AA state champion Clarence on Wednesday (April 10). “It can’t hurt us (playing up a division); it can only help us. These teams have more top players and are the cream of the crop.”