By Brandon Schlager firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — One is the starting second baseman at the University at Buffalo. Another leads Canisius softball in home runs and RBIs (and it’s not even close). The third has started 15 games behind the plate as a freshman at Niagara University.
Their names are Ryleigh Fitzgerald, Meghan Cuda and Teresa Fleckenstein. The three played ball together at Lewiston-Porter High School in 2012, leading the Lancers to an improbable run to the Class A-2 finals, where their big-time aspirations ultimately fell short with a loss to Albion.
It’s a story of a small school doing big things, a group of underdogs who outworked and outplayed the big kids to prove that they deserve to be taken seriously.
“They put a ton of hard work in,” said rookie varsity softball coach Chris D’Anna, who replaced departed coach Nina Calarco after one season coaching the JV team. “Those girls, they all put in a ton of time and it showed on the field. … (Their story is) a great talking point and something for these girls to shoot for as motivation.”
D’Anna sees glimpses of that team whenever he watches his 2014 edition take the field.
They’re young, real young; the only team in the Niagara Frontier League that will start three eighth graders this season. And they look a lot like a certain trio of girls when they began their journey to Division I scholarships about five years ago.
Jenna Rhue, Emma Waechter and Clare Falkowski factor heavily into the future of Lew-Port softball, but D’Anna doesn’t think there will be much of a wait.
He wants to win now, and he says the Lancers have the pieces in place to do so, even if the NFL schedule looms as daunting as ever.
“Coming into this position, I didn’t really know what to expect,” D’Anna said. “I knew I was only going to have two seniors. … But I also know a lot of the girls from the JV level, so I feel really comfortable with what we have.”
The Lancers finished 2-16 a year ago and will need to replace Fleckenstein, who led the team in hits and RBIs with a .419 average as a first-team All-NFLer. So they do have their work cut out for them.
Rhue and Waechter form the heart of the Lew-Port lineup that will attempt to rejuvenate an offense that finished last in the league last season.
Rhue will start at catcher and bat cleanup while Waechter mans centerfield and hits fifth.
Falkowski is Pitcher 1-A in a two-pronged pitching rotation. She is injured to start the season, but D’Anna hopes she’ll return quickly to compliment junior Vicki Waugaman, who leads the Lancers in hits and RBIs so far this season while starting each game from the circle.
The Lancers only have two seniors in the lineup and Waugaman is one of five juniors. Starting shortstop Bailey Stayner may be Lew-Port’s best returning player.
She was an All-NFL second-teamer as a freshman and earned an honorable mention for the Gazette’s All-Area team.
Because the team is so young, Stayner and fellow sophomore Sarah Kasbaum, who plays second base, have become the tenured veterans of the team in their second varsity seasons.
Juniors Emily Mansour and Emily Bartos are the only players with more than two years of varsity experience. They will start in right field and first base, respectively.
Unlike most teams, the Lancers have managed to squeeze four games into a soggy opening few weeks. They are 2-2, already matching their win total from a year ago.
D’Anna said the team should be 4-0, with a couple tough-luck losses. He knows there will be growing pains that come with the youth, but you can’t deny that history seems to be repeating itself for The Little Program That Could.
“When you look at the NFL, I know what we’re up against,” D’Anna said. “You’re looking at model programs in this area. That’s the level that we want to be at in a few years, but that doesn’t mean it can’t start this year. We have to be willing to work harder than those other teams and do those extra things that will give us a competitive edge.
“The future does look pretty bright.”
Follow contributing sports reporter Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.