SALAMANCA — With its first victory out of the way, Salamanca already knows it’ll finish with a better baseball record than the last two seasons.
On Thursday in Ellicottville, the Warriors won their first game since re-starting their own varsity team in 2017, which followed two years in a merger with Cattaraugus-Little Valley due to low numbers. Second-year coach Mike “Smitty” Smith, the city’s mayor, knows one victory won’t make the team’s season, but a group of newcomers from last year’s modified team have Smith excited by their potential.
“We're still trying to develop leadership: we're still trying to teach our leaders to lead,” Smith said. “Because we're so young, we have some upperclassmen that are not necessarily going to get the playing time that they may think that juniors and seniors deserve because 'I'm a junior or senior.' It doesn't work that way. If you're talented, you're playing. If you help us win. It's all about winning — at the varsity level — it's all about winning.
“And the kids coming up from the modified program, with great thanks to Brian Koscielniak and I had that program two years ago, are good ballplayers. The Hoag twins (Harley and Hayden), Zaron Tucker, Shawn Bacelli, they're good ballplayers and they're going to be in the starting lineup.”
Salamanca has five seniors, led by captains Hunter McAuley and Andrew Colburn, joined by classmates Mitchell Gregory, Zach Helms and Owen Reed.
Zayne Blakesnake John Collingwood, Bradley Marsh-Oakes, Jarrett McKenna, Dylan Wheeler and Jacob Yaworski are the team’s juniors, while Lucas McKenna and Carter Stoltz are sophomores. Bacelli, Tucker, the Hoag twins and Malaki Harrison all join the team as freshmen.
Both McKenna brothers, Lucas and then Jarrett, pitched in Salamanca’s season opener, holding Ellicottville to three runs on five hits.
Smith wants to see off-the field leadership from his older players — “I need leaders out of the leaders on the field,” he said — some of whom he said were ineligible to start the season.
“That's not setting a good example It's got to be more than on the field leadership,” he said. “It's got to be academically, it's got to be being a good citizen. We're rebuilding a program and, to put it bluntly, I don't want to build it around jerks. I don't care how good of a ballplayer you are. If you're a jerk, you're not really what we're looking for, you know?”
So far, while the freshmen might not be ready to lead, Smith likes what he’s seen from the four who started the opener.
“They've held their own, certainly, in practice,” he said. “They've earned starting roles in practice in preseason, but then again preseason is inside the ACC, it's inside the batting cage, it's not live pitching, per se, on the field. But you can tell by watching those kids that they know baseball. Shawn Bacelli's an outstanding defensive catcher.”
“You can tell they know the game. You can tell Harley and Hayden watch baseball on TV. Their mannerisms, they look like ballplayers. When the pitch is in the air and the batter's starting to swing, every baseball player assumes a ready position ... your feet get wider, your knees bend, 'OK, here we go.' We have kids that don't do that. We have kids that aren't ready when the guy's hitting there, they're standing straight up. You can tell that Harley and Hayden know how to do that, and Shawn and Zaron.”
Salamanca plays in CCAA East I, “an incredibly tough league,” Smith said, against Olean, Allegany-Limestone, Gowanda, Portville and Randolph.
He admitted wins against the top teams will be hard to come by.
“I guess it's just travel considerations,” Smith said of the league. “But our goal is to make a run in the Class C sectionals. We want to have a .500 record overall, which means we've got to beat Portville, we've got to beat Cattaraugus and we've got to win our non-league games.”
At the end of the month, the team heads to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to play five games in warmer climes on spring break from April 22-26.
“We want to be ready by the first of May to make a run into the Class C sectionals. Our assistant coaches have been wonderful in preaching that. That's what we told on the bus last night, before we got off: 'the road to the sectionals starts today.' That's what we're trying to convince them. And we've got to keep our heads up.”