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Clarence still lighting it up in softball

The softball diamond at Clarence has a new electronic scoreboard in deep right field.

She’s a beauty. Tastefully done in the school’s red and black colors, it can be seen from every angle and delivers with clarity all essential game information. But that’s not what makes it different.

Other schools may have similar lighted wizardry, but Clarence is in a league of its own when it comes to the horizontal placard that rests along the bottom of the scoreboard. It reads: “New York State Champions 2012.”

It’s well-deserved recognition for a program that, after five appearances in the state finals since 2000, finally won it all in Class AA.

The scoreboard was financed through the Clarence Softball League and the Rotary Club, two groups that have played a large role in the Red Devils’ success.

Coach Todd Banaszak said the league hosts very competitive house and travel teams that are active year round. The varsity in turn shares its pitching machine and its knowledge by hosting clinics for the younger kids. It’s a marriage that works.

This year’s team is staring down the gargantuan task of following that history-making team.

The Red Devils were hit hard by graduation as All-Western New York players Lauren Muni (RIT), Ally Gay (Niagara), Tori Nappo (Canisius) and Maureen Rogers (Nazareth) went on to college careers. The team took another hit when returning All-WNY catcher, and undeniable leader, Alyssa Dewes underwent shoulder surgery in March and will miss her senior season.

So Clarence must be struggling this year, right? Actually, the Red Devils are ranked No. 1 in New York State and in Western New York. They won Saturday’s A bracket of the Depew Tournament and the Fort Myers bracket of the recent Gerry Gentner Tournament. They beat Hamburg twice last week, but suffered their first loss of the season to Lancaster.

“They just come to play, they don’t come for any other reason, they take it serious and they listen,” said Banaszak, the Red Devils’ coach since 1992. “They want to be better. There’s no excuses, no complaining. They get a taste of winning and the new ones catch on, they just get on board. So far we’re doing pretty good.”

Helping the Red Devils weather the storm of graduation and injury has been junior pitcher Katrina Buczkowski, named MVP at the Gentner and Depew tournaments. She was called up from the JV team late last year in time to contribute in the postseason.

Buczkowski said the comparisons to last year’s team are inevitable, but in reality the teams are very different. Last year’s team had games where it scored 18-plus runs, especially in the playoffs.

“That’s just crazy,” she said. “We lost a bunch of our power hitters, especially with Dewes not playing. It’s kind of a whole new game this year. We’re not the same team, we’re a different team that can do just as well.”

The Red Devils have some depth at pitcher and have been doing more bunting and slapping than in past years, but they still like to swing away.

Buczkowski said some people associate her first name Katrina with the devastating Gulf coast storm from 2005, but said it was more likely to surface when she played on a house league team years ago nicknamed the Hurricanes.

“Every time I would go up to the plate people would say: ‘Hurricane Katrina.’ It was kind of funny, we were really young,” she said.

After physical therapy on her shoulder failed to yield significant improvement, Dewes had surgery on her right shoulder. She can resume throwing in mid-June. Dewes has plenty of softball left as she has signed with Syracuse.

“I still feel like I’m still a part of the team. I’m trying to stay active and calling the pitches,” said Dewes. “We lost a lot of really good players from last year, but Katrina has stepped up. The team as whole has come together to try and replace people who have left.”

Plenty of challenges await all the new faces on this team, none bigger than not letting down.

Banaszak said playing at a high level can be difficult to maintain. Whether the Red Devils can achieve that, is coming to a scoreboard near you.