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Softball / By Miguel Rodriguez: Wolverines’ postseason hopes ride on Polk’s return

Going nearly two weeks in between games usually isn’t ideal for a team heading into the postseason, but the time off could just be what the doctor ordered for the Niagara Falls softball team.

The state’s second-ranked Class AA team won its first 12 games until a hamstring injury sidelined star slugger Toni Polk. With the senior limited, the Wolverines closed the regular season with two losses, including a one-run decision to Grand Island that resulted in the teams sharing the Niagara Frontier League championship.

Polk, the Penn State commit, shortstop and leadoff hitter who’s batting .545 with an on-base percentage of .600, is day-to-day according to coach Martha Amoretti. The longer Falls goes without having to play a game increases the likelihood of Polk being able to return to the lineup.

The softball gods smiled on Niagara Falls as the Wolverines received a No. 1 seed and a bye into next Tuesday’s quarterfinals. Of course, they will have to play a tough ECIC I team, either defending Section VI champ Clarence or Frontier, but the extra time off not only gives Polk more time to recuperate but also gives the Wolverines a chance to recharge their own batteries and work on situations in practice they will likely encounter in a playoff game.

“Her rehab is coming along so she’ll be ready by the time we play,” Amoretti said.

On being the top seed:

“A little bit of a surprise,” Amoretti said. “I thought we’d be in the top three. That’s pretty good.

While one would think being a top seed would provide an extra infusion of confidence to a team that has hit a couple speed bumps, Amoretti isn’t sure about that.

“The main reason it helps is because as long as we win we’ll play at home,” she said. “I don’t know if it offers that confidence boost, other than home field advantage … I think the girls just are excited because it’s sectional time anyway.”

The Polk injury may have prevented Falls from running the table in the always tough NFL. There’s no disputing, though, that a healthy Polk improves the Wolverines’ chances of winning and advancing.

Many good Niagara Falls teams have had their seasons end a bit prematurely because the hot bats of April turn cold by late May. It’s something the Wolverines must overcome if they want to go from just being a good, solid contender to something more. Having Polk leading off the offense will only aid the quest.

“That seems to be the problem every year at this point,” said Amoretti, whose club lost to Williamsville North in the semifinals last spring. “Our bats seem to quit on us. I imagine going into sectionals, those pitchers are stronger than most of the ones we face in our league. … We’re at a little bit of a disadvantage.”

Falls has been trying to correct that.

It got some extra hitting and situational work in during a joint practice session Monday with Eden. Falls also planned to work on that against their own aces during their 12-day layoff.

Senior pitcher Jasmine Petrishin, who will take her talents to St. Bonaventure, is a power pitcher who went 4-1 with three saves. She’s yielded 23 hits in 43∑ innings and has an earned-run average of 1.13. Junior Carli Leo, who also is Falls’ No. 2 hitter batting around .400, has lots of movement on her pitches (79 Ks in 54∏ innings) and is 8-1.

Besides Petrishin and Polk, first baseman and clean-up hitter Jeri Ann Orfano also will play Division I at Niagara. She’s batting .362 with three homers. Eighth-grader Avi Peterson has provided fantastic glove work at second base and is hitting .318. She bats ninth in the order unless Polk is sidelined, in which case she leads off.

Falls has not won a sectional title in softball since the merger with LaSalle in 2000. Finding its collective hitting stroke will be the key, according to the coach.

“If our bats don’t come alive, then it’ll be short sectional play,” Amoretti said.

Class AA mayhem

Those ECIC I teams all have Falls in their sights, and the fact there was no clear-cut power in the division helps make the bracket wide open.

Lancaster is the top-ranked team in the Coaches’ Poll, but Orchard Park won the ECIC I championship – its first division crown in 11 years. No. 5 Williamsville North is also a dangerous team. Clarence, a No. 8 seed, has six returning starters from last year’s state semifinalist squad. Even Falls’ NFL rival Kenmore West can’t be discounted as it’s a No. 7 seed with a winning record playing a prequarterfinal Thursday.

“If this were horse racing, it would be a photo finish among probably nine of the 11 teams in AA,” Lancaster coach Kelly Ambrose said.

Lancaster, top-ranked in the Coaches’ Poll. received a No. 3 seed for the playoffs. Seeding aside, Lancaster may have the most feared lineup in the bracket as it began the week hitting .391 as a team.

It had already tied its single-season record for homers (14 in 1993) entering last Tuesday’s regular-season finale.

Senior Olivia Jankowski has clubbed a school-record eight home runs. She is batting .652 with 29 RBIs and a 1.303 slugging percentage.

Jankowski is one of four batting over .400. Junior catcher Chelsea Davis has three homers and is batting .492, sophomore shortstop Kara Paradowski ranks second on team in hits (38) and is batting .452. She needs two more singles to break the single-season record for singles set in 1997. Senior pitcher Kaitlin Surdej is hitting .410 and has struck out 105 batters while posting a 2.46 ERA and 13-4 record.

Grand time on Island

Grand Island’s reward for sharing the NFL title is a top seed in Class A-1.

“This is a goal we had set,” GI coach Cheryl O’Connor said. “We have a team that can perform well in sectionals and hopefully beyond.”

The table-setter for the Vikings is pitcher Alley Cutting, who has struck out 124, posted four shutouts and has an ERA of 0.75. She also leads the team with a .458 batting average. Catcher/third baseman Jenna Ness has a .976 fielding percentage and is hitting .372.

GI’s eight-team A-1 bracket includes defending state champion Williamsville South, a potential semifinal foe should seeds hold, and No. 2 Hutch-Tech (11-2).

Class A-2 could be filled with drama. Starpoint is the top seed, but Olean, which has lost only twice to teams in Western New York, drew a No. 5 seed and plays at No. 4 Iroquois on Thursday in a quarterfinal that in most years would have made for an interesting semifinal or final. Monica Moses of Olean is one of the top pitchers in the area and she’s also a solid hitter.

Class B hoopla

Think Class AA is the battle royal of sectional brackets? Then Class B-1 qualifies as the survivor series.

Depew went unbeaten in ECIC III against mostly Class A schools.

Alden, the No. 2 seed, won ECIC IV and did everything except beat defending state Class B champion Eden, which had a chance to earn a higher seed and share of ECIC IV until losing its regular-season finale last Friday to Tonawanda. Tonawanda comes into the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak.

Alden won its second division title in three years behind the strong arm of junior pitcher Laura Kratzke, who has struck out more than 300 in her career. Second baseman and ninth-grader Jenna Wlostowski is batting .455.

City Honors (10-5), playing an independent schedule featuring Class AA, A and B schools, earned the No. 3 seed in B-1. Senior Samantha Caico not only is the Centaurs’ ace but can also handle the bat in the box.

Roy-Hart’s the top seed in B-2, but Cleveland Hill is among the reasons Eden isn’t seeded higher because it swept the Raiders. Cleve Hill is seeded fourth, Akron and Fredonia are Nos. 2 and 3.

Defending champions

Class AA: Clarence. Class A: Williamsville South. Class B: Eden. Class C: Catt/Little Valley. Class D: Pine Valley.