By Brandon Schlager
Niagara Gazette — Rob Costanzo has had a goal in mind for Niagara Catholic softball since taking over as coach before last season.
The Patriots haven’t played in a Monsignor Martin Athletic Association playoff game in seven years. Heading into their final game last season against Mount Mercy, it appeared the drought would end. Win and they were in the postseason for the first time since 2006.
They lost 3-0.
But Niagara Catholic returns nearly its entire roster for this season, and the way last season ended has Costanzo believing the team is right on the cusp of competing with the larger schools in the MMA. For the first time in years, it’s playoffs or bust for the Patriots.
“We don’t have a lot of girls, but the ones we do have will be playing at the collegiate level over the next few years,” Costanzo said. “I think if we can get this program going, you’re going to start seeing we can compete with anybody."
A big reason for optimism around Niagara Catholic is its nucleus of talent in upperclassmen Frankie Costanzo, Jessica Chandler and Marissa Ruffolo.
Costanzo, a senior, is looking to nab her third straight team MVP award. A first-team all-Catholic player last season, the Patriots’ everyday catcher had 15 RBI and led the team with a .581 batting average.
For everything Costanzo does at the plate, she may be an even bigger asset behind it as she threw out 18 base runners a year ago. She will play at Division II Mercyhurst College next year, Rob Costanzo, her father, said.
With the graduation of her sister, Felicia, Jessica Chandler returns for her junior season to lead the Patriots from shortstop. Chandler drove in a team-best 25 RBI last season and led a loaded MMA with seven homeruns. She’ll bat cleanup once again.
Ruffolo, also a junior, finished her first season at Niagara Catholic with a .459 average after she transferred from Grand Island. She’ll start at first base.
“They’re really starting to bond well together,” Costanzo said. “There’s a chemistry there now that everyone’s starting to settle in.”
Senior Taylor DeVole and junior Maria Sciarrino will combine with incoming freshman Hannah Reilly to form the Patriots’ outfield.
While the upperclassmen will play a prominent role, Costanzo said it’s the incoming freshmen that have him most excited.
The Patriots welcome Reilly, Marina Campbell and Marissa Campbell for their first varsity seasons.
The Campbell twins, who also star on the school’s soccer team, will start at second (Marissa) and third (Marina) base for the Patriots. Reilly will also help the team offensively from the basepaths, a new strength for the Patriots this season, Costanzo said.
“I’m really excited about the youth on the team,” Costanzo said. “I think we’ve got a very good dynamic in that we have the speed, the bats and the gloves to really form a well-rounded team. ... Last year we went 1-4. This year we can go 1-9.”
Sophomores Leah McClaine, Christina Schulte and Jerastaysa Briggs also figure into the Patriots starting plans while TylerLynn Langer will be the Patriots’ go-to arm in the circle, sharing some time with Ruffolo.
“Pitching is going to set the tone for us,” Costanzo said. “Our staff is going to take us a long way.”
It's going to have to in a league dominated by offense. Teams like Holy Angles, who the Patriots beat last season, Nardin and Sacred Heart all look bigger, faster and stronger on paper. Costanzo thinks that might change this season.
Each year, we're gaining ground on some of the bigger schools," Costanzo said. "I think if we play the way we’re capable of playing, there isn’t anyone we can’t beat.”Follow contributing sports reporter Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.