NIAGARA FALLS — The summer league season is over and now everyone can take a deep breath.
After a historic regular season run, finishing as the New York Collegiate Baseball League's top overall seed and capturing the franchise's first-ever league title, it's safe to say that 2019 was a season for the books for the Niagara Power. The team finished with a 34-12-1 record overall, including a 4-1 run in the postseason that ended with a two-game sweep of the Cortland Crush in the finals.
The 2019 season could never have happened had the 2018 season not occurred — after a brief hiatus from 2016-17, the team was brought back into the fold and rebranded. With Patrick Tutka directing the team and bringing in his staff of students from Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management and sports management program, Niagara Falls got its "Power" back.
"The redevelopment of the team, bringing it back from being an (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) team to being a team that was a non-FCA, just traditional summer league team, was a significant change between the two organizations," Tutka said.
"It allows us to have access to a different type of player. Caleb Lang, who was the coach last year, was instrumental in developing that relationship and ... making the Power a place people were willing to consider. And then (general managaer) Jeff Ziemecki and (head coach) Arthur Stenberg came in and really took it from a place that people considered to a place that people wanted to send their guys.
"The number of Division I players we had on the roster this year was immense, the number of local guys we had on this roster was significant and many (of) those players contributed and had important roles with this team. And it's the students and the organization around Niagara University that allowed for this to happen — the students who bought in and believed that this was a good thing and were willing to do the work. The energy that it took to make this happen on a day-to-day basis, it's not just a 21-home game kind of process."
Eleven Division I players, 12 local area talents and a staff of committed NU students were all contributors to the league title. It was a unique opportunity for a group of college students to get the feel of running a team before they entered the sports field after graduation
Ziemecki and Stenberg may have had the strongest hand in the on-field product, having total control over the recruitment process with this season's roster. Tutka gave credit where credit was due, acknowledging how impactful it was for the duo to construct a roster the way they did. Ziemecki is a former player for Canisius College, the president of the Niagara Jr. Thunderwolves travel organization and is currently the hitting coach at Niagara County Community College. Stenberg has coached baseball for nearly two decades, with most of his coaching stints coming in summer collegiate leagues. He was also a part of College of Central Florida's baseball program from 2011-13.
"Jeff Ziemecki brings an immense amount of talent to the recruiting scene. (He's) a guy who understands the regional baseball scene incredibly well, has relationships with all the coaches here in Western New York and further out beyond that," Tutka said.
"(He) was really able to create a strong base of talent here for the team that was Western New York-based. At one point, we had as many as 15 guys on the roster that were Western New York-based ... and that's a huge benefit for us from an attendance standpoint, but also from a talent standpoint. There's a lot of really good players in Western New York. ... And then Ted brought in a lot of guys who were national guys who really were part of the significant backbone of this team, especially the offensive side of it."
Tutka's assessment was more than fair — with local NYCBL All-Star talents and former NCCC players like Joe Barberio and Erik Johnson or out-of-state products like Adam Purdy (Lima, Ohio), Noah Almond (Raleigh, North Carolina) or Eric Wentz (Hudson, Ohio), there was a solid blend of hometown heroes and highly-regarded imports. Tutka also credited these guys for not only their on-field prowess, but for their high character and being "really outstanding human beings" outside of the game.
It may be a little too early to think about back-to-back title runs for the 2020 Niagara Power, but Tutka does have a plan in place to take steps forward for next season. He plans to sit down with Ziemecki in a few weeks time to discuss topics from the summer after letting him finish things out with his Jr. Thunderwolves season.
Things are looking up, though, with the blessing of the 2020 season and the seasons to follow already being granted by NU provost Henrik Borgstrom.
"We'll start building the roster and the coaching staff and the various pieces that go with it," Tutka said.
"I don't know what that looks like at this point. Obviously, it's not my decision completely. I am one of two people involved in that decision. We look at what's in the best interest of everyone and try to balance those things out and we go forward and start to build the roster, start to build the student staff, all the various pieces that go into making this team successful so they can continue to get better each year."