The Hamburg softball team begins every game with the chant, "Who are we? Bulldogs!" Now that Hamburg knows who they are, they are about to let other teams know as well.
The Bulldogs bring an 18-0 record and the top seed in Class A-1 into this week's 37th annual Section VI softball tournament. A field of 73 teams will vie for titles in seven classes.
The signs were there early that this year was going to be special at Hamburg. In her first four games, junior pitcher Bridget Hogan struck out 52 of the first 79 batters she faced. The Bulldogs squeezed out an 11-inning win over Williamsville East. Hamburg scored two runs on a push bunt by Kallie Ramaekers to beat Iroquois, 2-1.
Hamburg has never won a Section VI title, but with most of its infield returning, expectations are high. Junior catcher Sarah Mertowski calls a solid game. At first and second are senior twins Madeline and Megan Medina, who are in their third year on the varsity. Heather Tighe returns at shortstop. New to the infield is third baseman Allison Salerno, a sophomore. The only returning outfielder is senior Melissa Roseman in center. Ramaekers starts in left when she's not pitching.
Coach Lisa Palma, now in her sixth season, is not surprised by her team's regular-season run. Last year they were four outs away from making the Class A final before losing to Williamsville East. Last year's team had just two seniors, this year there are five.
"They got rattled last year, but they've learned from their mistakes and are so much more mature," she said. "It helps to have that experience. We haven't had to change our infield. That makes a huge difference."
Hamburg won the ECIC II title at 12-0 coming off last year's fourth-place finish in ECIC I. The Bulldogs will host Kenmore East in a quarterfinal game today at 4:45 p.m.
"This team has a lot of heart. They have so much drive," said Palma. "Their goal is going to states. They pick each other up. This is the best team I've had, they get along so well and I love being with them."
Here's a look at the playoff picture:
CLASS AA: Defending champion Niagara-Wheatfield is a No. 5 seed led by all-everything shortstop Caitlin Attfield. No. 1 seed and ECIC I champion Clarence is led by Canisius College signee Tori Nappo and catcher Alyssa Dewes, who has given a verbal to Syracuse. No. 2 seed Lockport and No. 3 Niagara Falls shared the Niagara Frontier League title with 12-2 records. Center fielder Emily Belfield and shortstop Patti Burdick are keys for the Lady Lions while the Wolverines counter with third baseman Toni Polk, pitcher Kelsi Leo and shortstop Stephanie Bielec. No. 8 seed Kenmore West (8-6) lost four games by one run.
CLASS A-1: No. 1 seed Hamburg has wins over seven of the 10 teams in this class. Palma said there's no place in a one-game elimination tournament to take anyone lightly. No. 2 seed Hutch-Tech went 12-0 in Division I of the Thompson Trophy behind the strong pitching of junior Kayla Hahn. Sarah Touriello got Iroquois got off to an impressive postseason start with a no-hitter over Sweet Home in the prequarterfinals. Defending Class A champion Williamsville East is a No. 6 seed at 6-6.
CLASS A-2: Cheektowaga is the No. 1 seed among the seven teams in this class. Pitcher Jennifer Mikolajek no-hit Amherst late in the season. Yasmin Harrell would like to bring a title to the Warriors before heading off to Seton Hall. Anniella Cswaykus has been swinging a hot bat. No. 2 seed Albion won the Niagara-Orleans League at 12-2 and is 16-3 overall. Senior pitcher Jenny Knaak threw three no-hitters in the regular season.
CLASS B-1: What a battle this class promises to be between No. 1 Depew, No. 2 Dunkirk and No. 3 Olean. Depew won ECIC III at 12-0. Dunkirk and Olean finished 1-2 in CCAA I. Senior third baseman Sarah Gorski is a four-year starter for Depew, which won Class A-2 last year before dropping down to Class B this year. Olean (12-2) handed Dunkirk (13-1) its only league loss. Dunkirk junior shortstop Khee Nance had 34 hits in 14 league games, including hitting for the cycle twice. Alayna Carlson had a big home run versus Olean.
Olean likes its chances with pitcher Chelsea Calabro in the circle. Dunkirk and Olean could meet in the semifinals. Pitcher Amanda Mesi of No. 4 seed Lackawanna has more than 500 strikeouts in her six-year career.
CLASS B-2: ECIC IV champion Cleveland Hill checks in as the No. 1 seed led by Kim Rohe, who has 109 strikeouts and is batting .470. Ryan Betz is hitting .400 at cleanup. No. 2 seed City Honors won Division II of the Thompson Trophy with a 14-0 record. Senior Yanaya Hawkins has been getting the job done at catcher. No. 2 Roy-Hart, runner-up in the Niagara-Orleans League, is solid defensively and is led by Brianna Waler and Sam Brown. Defending Class B champion and No. 4 seed Falconer played Olean to 2-0 and 1-0 games. Pitcher Shelby Overturf leads the Huskies. No. 5 Wilson recovered from a slow start to finish 9-5 in the N-O.
CLASS C: Frewsburg won Class C last year and advanced to the state final four. The CCAA II champions (10-2) look to make a return trip with junior pitcher Sam Mott. No. 2 Cattaraugus/Little Valley and No. 3 Portville finished a game behind Frewsburg at 9-3. Portville senior shortstop Kayla Welty is among the team's leaders.
CLASS D: No. 1 seed Forestville won CCAA III led by pitcher Ryan Dugan and catcher Cherish Pope. Their only league loss was to Maple Grove. No. 2 Panama, No. 3 North Collins and No. 4 Ripley finished in a three-way tie for first place in CCAA IV at 10-2. For North Collins, Hannah Renaldo is solid in the circle and has good power at the plate. Panama's Amanda Marsh and Taylor Lloyd look to have a big postseasons. Ripley's standouts are a pair of freshmen, Ryleigh Hawkins and Emilee Steger.
MONSIGNOR MARTIN: The playoff champion will be crowed Wednesday when Nichols, a 4-1 winner over Holy Angels, plays today's Nardin-Sacred Heart winner.
Sacred Heart won the regular season with a 6-0 record. Freshman pitcher Maria Gabriele is 5-0 with an ERA under 1.00. She also is hitting over .500 from the No. 3 slot.