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Bona drive brings cries of 'play ball' to Katrina kids The children of Hancock County, Miss., now know that someone cares

St. Bonaventure senior Josh Koszuta never set out to save an entire Little League. Or two. Maybe even three. But it seemed every time he picked up the phone someone was stepping up to the plate with another donation.

Officials at the Lou Gehrig Baseball Association in Amherst chuckled when he drove up in his Cavalier. Uh, you're going to need something a little bigger than that.

The Buffalo Police Department told him to come on down. Ellicottville High School had some things it could part with. The Warren, Pa., recreation department was in. Bona alum Tom Lagasse, who'd gotten word of the drive, met Koszuta in Syracuse to transfer all the goods he'd collected around Bristol, Conn. On it went.

For a week Koszuta and his girlfriend, Ryan Nicole Hasper, stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to organize and inventory the results. Let's see, that makes 852 balls, 260 baseball helmets, 170 baseball bats, 113 sets of shin guards, 109 softball bats, 91 chest protectors, 82 gloves, 30 equipment bags and eight pairs of cleats. Oh, yeah. Don't forget the pitching machine.

Was this nuts or what? It was nuts, all right. And yet so typical of what's been happening at St. Bonaventure, where assisting the victims of Hurricane Katrina has evolved into a campuswide endeavor.

Over spring break, 287 students, faculty and staff organized by finance professor James Mahar journeyed to Hancock County, Miss., to help gut homes and hasten a rebuilding process that continues to loom as overwhelming. Picture it this way, Mahar said, a one-mile strip from Olean to North Tonawanda with nary a structure left standing.

Koszuta, a physical education major from East Aurora, asked Mahar if there might be something he could do in advance of the trip. Donations had already been solicited to replace the essentials. Mahar suggested collecting baseball and softball equipment. Why not return a shred of normalcy to the lives of the children in coastal Mississippi?

Plant a seed and sometimes you end up with a beanstalk that reaches to the sky. Earlier this month the RV, driven by Olean resident Millie Williams, arrived in Hancock County with a trailer in tow. League officials were thrilled. This would help get them back on its feet. Not so fast, they were told. The semi will be down in a couple of days.

"We thought if we could supply two teams with equipment it would be a success," Koszuta said. "We ended up with a lot more than we expected."

It wasn't long before everyone in Hancock County knew of this small New York university with the biggest of hearts. Residents were stopping them on the streets, expressing their gratitude.

"I'd heard of St. Bonaventure, but I don't think any of the children or the people in the community had heard of them," Herb Sires, president of the Bay St. Louis softball league, said by phone last week.

It's going to happen. They'll be playing softball in Bay St. Louis later this spring, baseball in neighboring Waveland. Players have begun to register. It's looking like interest might be at an all-time high.

"Basically because of the hurricane we lost everything," Sires said. "We had no insurance. The tax base is totally gone. There are no businesses to pay taxes to fund things like Little League. This saved us."

What matters most of all, Sires said, is that the children of Hancock County now know that someone cares. It hasn't been easy for them, he said. The media has focused much of its attention on the cities of Biloxi and New Orleans, which is 50 miles to the west.

"That actually was the most important part," Sires said. "Most media coverage was about New Orleans, Biloxi. Hancock County felt forgotten. When this happened they knew they'd become as important as other children on the news."

"These kids, I can't imagine just sitting around, coming home from school and not being able to really do anything," Koszuta said. "The parks are all destroyed, trees laying on the ground. They can't go in the water on the Gulf Coast. That's off limits."

At least now they'll have their softball and baseball.

Koszuta said he couldn't have done it alone. Carrie Jackling played an instrumental role. The school's softball team held an equipment drive before one of the basketball games. Once something like this takes off it's impossible to keep track of everyone who's pitched it.

What Koszuta knows for sure is come this summer he'll be headed back. He's been invited to help coach, or umpire a few games. He'd like to take the people of Hancock County up on their offer.

But that's only part of it. See the devastation first-hand and you feel compelled to do something. Koszuta can't wait to get back to work.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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