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Armstrong reverses roles; Clarence backstop is now mound ace

The right arm that served Mark Armstrong so well as a football quarterback and a baseball catcher is about to be heard from again.

This time from the mound, where the Clarence junior is the clear pitching ace on a team that carries more hardware than Lowe's. The Red Devils are hoping to win the Section VI Class AA title for the fourth year in a row.

Despite being aptly named, the Clarence hurler's talent didn't surface until after last season, when he started AAU ball.

Armstrong wasn't handed the ball last year because the Clarence roster was a who's-who of strong senior arms: All-WNY Zach Lauricella, Mike Elwood, Brandon Bielecki and Mike Rademacher. Instead, Armstrong, a 6-foot-4, hard-throwing right-hander, was at the other end of the battery at catcher.

Armstrong flourished playing on a top-notch AAU team out of Syracuse. Many of the coaches couldn't believe Armstrong didn't have a long pitching resume.

"His summer league coach would have to tell [scouts] he hasn't pitched much, and they would say, 'What the heck is his high school coach doing?' " said Clarence coach Dave Smith. "He had a great summer. He lit up the radar gun. He throws in the high 80s and can touch 90s once in a while. Mark never had to pitch for us. We had a lot of guys who could really pitch, and when he caught, it made our team exceptional. But he was always right there with those guys."

Before the summer was over, Armstrong caught the attention of a coach from the University of Pittsburgh, who offered him a scholarship. He gave a verbal commitment.

His final high school season has gotten off to an impressive start. He threw a no-hitter against Jamestown in a 3-0 ECIC I opener. He got the save in 13-12 win at Fayetteville-Manlius on Saturday.

Armstrong won't catch all the games he doesn't pitch, because that would be too tough on his body and arm. "Mark is a competitor, and he will be tough for anyone to handle," said Smith.

Clarence graduated a ton from last year's team, which finished 17-5 and was the No. 1-ranked large school in the final WNY Coaches poll.

"That particular class was really, really talented and really, really deep," said Smith. "They knew what it took to win ball games, but we've got some key components back, and we're hoping they can hhhhcarry on that same mindset and teach the younger guys what it takes to win."

Armstrong is one of four returning starters, along with senior second baseman Zach Zabel, who is a tough out in the leadoff spot. Smith said Zabel can turn the double play, has a lot of experience in big games and does all the little things. Zabel played on Clarence's last two Section VI Class AA championship soccer teams.

Nick Ferry plays first base, and lefty Ryan Lawrence is the No. 2 man in the rotation.

Always standing in the way of Clarence's plans is Orchard Park. In fact, Orchard Park and Clarence were co-ECIC I champs last season at 9-3. In last year's sectional final, Clarence pulled out a 7-6 win, scoring two runs in the sixth inning.

The Quakers have designs on dethroning Clarence this year with a lineup that includes second team All-WNY players second baseman David Crowley, pitcher Matt McCormick and all-everything first baseman Jim Fitzgerald.

Crowley, a left-hander who bats third, will play next year at John Carroll in Cleveland.

"Everybody wants him because he can hit," said Orchard Park coach Jim Gibson. "He's the only kid on my team who still looks he's hitting with the old bats. The ball still jumps off his bat. He's got a lot of power."

Gibson calls McCormick a "strike-throwing machine" with an outstanding curveball. He's a first team All-WNY volleyball player and a baseball all-star, but he's going to play basketball in college, either at John Carroll or Alfred. McCormick scored 749 points in his three-year varsity basketball career and said the game is his first love.

There's no better defensive first baseman out there than Fitzgerald, according to Gibson, even at the higher levels Gibson coaches in the offseason.

He's been impressed with the foul balls Fitzgerald's able to get to and the throwing errors he's saved. Gibson expects big things from Fitzgerald, who was All-WNY in football at linebacker.

"He's just a big, strong kid who loves to play the game. We expect big things from him," he said. "He is by far the best defensive first baseman I've ever coached. He's just fantastic."