Niagara Gazette — Niagara-Wheatfield softball faces a daunting task tomorrow, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to them.
Since their 5-4 walk-off win over Kenmore West on Friday, it’s been business as usual for the Falcons, aside from a few hours of excitement while watching former teammate Caitlin Attfield play ball on ESPN over the weekend.
They carry a quiet confidence about them, not allowing their lows to become too low or their highs too high. In their minds, they’ll be facing any old team Tuesday when they head to Clarence to take on the top-seeded Red Devils in the Class AA semifinals, not a team ranked third in the New York, the defending state champions.
Much of the Falcons’ confidence comes because they know who they’ll have in the circle for their biggest game to date, even if she happens to be just a freshman. Ace pitcher Marissa Hayes provides all the assurance they’ll need for a shot to pull off an upset and advance to the sectional championship in her first varsity season.
She’s been doing it all season long.
“Marissa really has a pitcher’s mentality, where she has all this confidence, never feels pressure no matter the situation,” Niagara-Wheatfield co-head coach Melanie Proefrock said. “You wouldn’t know if she were a freshman or a senior.”
Hayes’ record this season currently sits at 11-5 as the Falcons’ ace, leading them to third place in the Niagara Frontier League. She’s struck out 94 batters over 83 innings and has surrendered just nine walks. Her 1.88 earned run average is among the best in Western New York.
She wasn’t supposed to be this good, this early. Heading into the season, the Proefrocks thought they’d have the problem of rotating three solid arms to compliment a stingy defense and an under-the-radar lineup.
But after a few games, Hayes made it impossible for them to take her out. The Falcons took off right out of the gate, and Hayes helped lead them to a key early-season win over Lancaster.
Nine games in, she all but silenced the powerful bats of Niagara Falls in a hard-luck 4-3 loss and tossed a no-hitter against North Tonawanda on May 3. That’s when the Proefrocks knew they had something special in Hayes.
“She had this growth spurt over the summer where she grew like a foot and I remember when she showed up at the beginning of the year, she looked completely different,” Jim Proefrock said. “Our pitching coach told me she’s going to be our pitcher of the future, and it was like, ‘okay, we’ll see.’
“It’s one of those things where I’m amazed at what she’s been doing.”
With six effective pitches, including a fastball that tops out close to 60 miles per hour, it’s no wonder Hayes’ transition to varsity softball has gone so smoothly. But it’s her cool, confident demeanor that leaves her coaches thinking the sky’s the limit for this freshman phenom.
“She gives you this idea that she can start and go the distance every game, even in sectionals,” Melanie Proefrock said. “She could fall behind in the count 3-0 and you still never lose confidence that she’ll get that girl out.”
It’s the reason why the fourth-seeded Falcons will have upset on their minds when the first pitch is thrown at 4:45 p.m. tomorrow at Clarence High School. As long as Hayes is in the circle, they know they’ll have a chance.
Hayes held the Red Devils, who have carried the distinction of Western New York's top-ranked team all season, to just three runs in a 3-0 loss in an early-season tournament.
The Proefrocks believe the Falcons have come a long way since then. Even though they start three freshmen, including Hayes, and a sophomore, the Falcons also feature five starters who remain from when they won a state championship of their own in 2011.
“It’s definitely not David versus Goliath,” Melanie Proefrock said. “It’s a situation where we’re real familiar with Clarence and they’re real familiar with us. There’s no surprises, no nerves there.
“We have to play Clarence just like any other team. Confidence and believing in ourselves is totally the gameplan.”
Confidence? Marissa Hayes has plenty to go around.
Elsewhere on the diamonds, another local softball team will play for its shot to meet the winner of Clarence/Niagara-Wheatfield in the Class AA finals when No. 2 Niagara Falls hosts third-seeded Lancaster.
The Wolverines saw their first postseason action Friday during a 6-1 win over No. 10 West Seneca West. The Redskins, who are ranked No. 21 in the state, knocked off Williamsville North in their quarterfinal matchup. First pitch is set for 4:45 p.m. tomorrow at Nicoletti Field.Follow contributing sports reporter Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.