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High School Sports: Championship-caliber teams differ in spring break plans

Drew Bassini and St. Francis play in a competitive tournament in the Tampa-area, which includes a game against the nationally-ranked Jesuit Tigers, over spring break. (File photo by David Eckhardt)

Two local teams with championship aspirations are spending their spring breaks differently.

The St. Francis baseball team, which returns eight of nine starters from a Monsignor Martin Georgetown Cup finalist team that finished 18-6, prepares to take on nationally-ranked Tampa Jesuit during a spring training tournament over the Easter break.

Meanwhile, state semifinalist Hamburg, which brings back six of nine starters and should be a more deep team than the one that went 21-1 last year, is taking a different approach to spring break by enjoying a little down time and preparing mentally for what it hopes will be a season that extends even further into June.

St. Francis, which among its returning players will bring back its top five pitchers from 2012, should once again be among the best in Western New York and will quickly find out how it stacks up outside the area, as well.

As part of its annual trip to Tampa, Fla. for what head coach Paul Bartell calls a “mini-spring training” in preparation for the season, his team will participate in the Tampa Jesuit Easter Invitational Baseball Tournament from April 2-5.

The host school is a national high school baseball power playing in a $2 million high school stadium at Hyer Family Park and annually sending multiple players on to high profile Division I baseball schools. Last year, 2012 USA Today National Player of the Year Lance McCullers was drafted 41st overall by the Houston Astros.

This year, the Tigers remain among the elite, ranked 19th in the nation. The Raiders will take their shot at them, opening the tournament against the hosts on Tuesday, April 2 at 7 p.m. Bartell said St. Francis will be a heavy underdog but it looks forward to playing such an elite opponent.

“Our young men have to approach this game as an opportunity to compete at a high level,” Bartell said. “What I ask and require of our players is for them to compete. The challenge is to individually and collectively raise our level of competitiveness. Good things can happen when you leave it all out on the field.”

In addition to participating in this tournament, the Red Raiders will practice and scrimmage in the Tampa-area to ready themselves for a very challenging Western New York schedule that includes Orchard Park, Clarence, Aquinas, Dunkirk, Mercyhurst Prep (Erie, PA) and Monsignor Martin rivals St. Joe’s — last year’s champion, St. Mary’s and Canisius.

“Playing a tough schedule helps our team and individual players improve and maximize their potential,” Bartell noted. “It’s a reflection of our goals as a baseball program and as a school to meet challenges and be successful while doing so.”
Pictured left, Bridget Hogan, who helped Hamburg reach the state semifinals, will have a light schedule during spring break before a season with high expectations. (File photo courtesy of David Eckhardt)

The Hamburg softball team will also have a very challenging schedule, playing against Class AA size teams in moving up to ECIC Division I, before being back for the playoffs in Class A, which the program won for the first time last season.

But head coach Lisa Palma is OK with many of her players vacationing with their families during the break, especially since most of her team consists of seniors with their final opportunity to do so before they go off to college.

Palma will run some practices over the break, but she admitted only about half of her team will be present.

“There’s a fine line between being a hard-line coach and encouraging them not go away and trying to be understanding. It’s hard,” Palma said. “You want them to be dedicated and keep them here but most parents are always working around softball for the benefit of the team.”

She hopes sometime in the future to use the spring break as a time to travel down south to play in a tournament.

In order to do so, the program is building up its fund base with such activities like the one it ran last Wednesday, bringing the Sabres Alumni to Hamburg for a basketball game against the district’s teachers. Palma said the event was a big hit and very entertaining as the former Sabres also signed autographs for the many children in attendance.

“It was a great event and widely well-received around the community,” Palma said. “I think it also encouraged our female teachers, who thought it would be very competitive, to come out and participate. It was nice to see little kids running around, trying to get Rob Ray’s autograph and autographs from all the former Sabres.”

Despite taking a little break for Easter, Palma wants to make sure her girls are ready to play once they get back and she doesn’t see that as a problem. With a senior-laden team that came a run away from the state final, she knows they’re a hungry bunch ready to take another step for the program.

And what better way to start then against Clarence. The state champion from Class AA will meet the team that came so close to doing the same in “A” on Friday as the two teams are now division mates.

“We’ve got to be ready to play when they get back from break,” said Palma, who also has a scrimmage planned with Eden on April 8. “I’ve told them I want them competing and no job is safe.”
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