Niagara Gazette — Niagara-Wheatfield softball coach Jim Proefrock often thought about what his team would be like without Caitlin Attfield.
Vastly different was the obvious answer, of course. But he imagined the inevitable, when his 2012 New York State player of the year and three-time All-Western New York shortstop would eventually depart for college.
Would it open up the eyes of those who only saw the Falcons as a one-dimensional team, one that would fold without its shining star?
Attfield was one of a kind, but Proefrock knew all along that his team went much deeper than one player. After all, life without Caitlin Attfield didn’t have to be a bad kind of different.
“You can never replace a Caitlin Attfield,” said Proefrock, entering his third year as Falcons coach alongside his wife, Melanie.
“But I think so many people focused so much on how great of a player Caitlin was that they sometimes lost focus on the rest of the team that is incredibly talented as well.”
With Attfield down in Alabama, hitting leadoff and playing shortstop for Division I University of Alabama at Birmingham (she’s batting .345 with a .409 on-base percentage to lead the first-place Blazers in at bats, hits and runs through 37 games), the remaining Falcons will get their chance to soar this season.
Niagara-Wheatfield’s roster still features five of nine starters from the 2011 Section VI championship squad that made it all the way to the state semifinals. Even more of them have the taste of the Falcons’ season-ending loss to powerhouse Clarence in the Section VI Class AA semis last year lingering in their mouths.
While the Falcons also lost second-team All-Niagara Frontier League first baseman Lauren DeVantier, their lineup is still fortified by seniors Laura Crooks and Ali Gonyea, each with four years of experience driving Attfield around the varsity basepaths.
Crooks, who will patrol center field and bat third, earned first-team All-NFL accolades last season with a .453 average and 25 RBIs. Gonyea will start at third base and hit cleanup.
Crooks is committed to play at Division II Edinboro College next season, Proefrock said.
Two more seniors, Alyssa DePetris and Megan Maranto, will help lead an experienced core. DePetris will take over for DeVantier at first base while Maranto, second-team All-NFL last season, enters her third season as starting catcher.
“Alyssa is a hard-working kid, a standout defensively. We’re expecting a lot of big things from her,” Proefrock said. “... and I think (Maranto) is probably the best catcher in the league.”
Attfield’s departure of course posed a few unanswered questions for Proefrock regarding the makeup of his team.
One of those questions was who would fill the gaping void at shortstop. Proefrock thinks he found his answer in junior Katie Mazierski, who moves over from second base after hitting .324 with two home runs and 21 RBI last season.
Two more juniors, Bri Krawczyk and Nikki Jacobs, round out the Falcons’ group of upperclassmen that will support an influx of promising freshmen.
Lexie Gibson, Marissa Hayes and Danielle Chatten were all standouts on Wheatfield’s JV squad last season, where they had been playing since seventh grade.
“We’re anchored by seniors who are setting a great example for the underclassmen,” Proefrock said. “To be honest with you, all three of our freshman could have been brought up last year as eighth graders if the team hadn’t been so deep.”
Despite the depth, this year’s preseason rankings pegged Wheatfield below teams like Lancaster, whose season ended at the hands of the Falcons last postseason before they beat the Redskins again last week.
Yes, Attfield helped the Falcons reach new heights. But Proefrock thinks they may just be starting to take off.
“Just because everyone sees that we don’t have Caitlin, they think we’re not going to do anything,” Proefrock said.
“I’m fine with them thinking that.”Follow contributing sports reporter Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.