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Orchard Park baseball, softball have stately aims

Pitching and hitting have carried Orchard Park baseball and softball to a place neither team has gone in decades – the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association final four.

No wonder their accomplishments last Saturday afternoon filtered into many a conversation during prom later that night.

Baseball will be making its first trip to the state semifinals since the late 1980s, while softball heads to its first final four since 1994.

“It was the talk of the dance,” said Quakers softball co-coach Josh Dannecker. “I think it’s an exciting time when you can have two teams competing for a state title. The school seems to be behind the effort.”

Orchard Park isn’t the only school beaming with pride as the scholastic sports season hits the home stretch. Section VI is sending six teams (three baseball and three softball) and many other individual athletes to state competitions this weekend.

The baseball tournament takes place throughout the Binghamton area starting at 1 p.m. Saturday with OP facing Section II champion Saratoga Springs at Union-Endicott High School in Class AA. In Class A, Hamburg resumes the quest for its first state title in baseball against II-Queensbury at Maine-Endwell High School. In Class D, Westfield takes on III-Oriskany at Conlon Field at MacArthur Park. Winners advance to their respective championship games at 4 p.m. Saturday at the same sites as the semifinals.

The softball tournament takes place at Moreau Recreation Park in South Glens Falls, with semifinal games slated for 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. OP (17-6) plays the later semifinal and faces Clarkson South of Section I in Class AA. The winner advances to the 5:30 p.m. championship game.

In Class A, Starpoint, making its first final four appearance since 1986, faces VIII-Clarke at 9 a.m. At the same time on an adjacent field, Alden takes on II-Ichabod Crane in Class B. The Class A and B finals are at 1:30 p.m.

Competition at the track and field championship meet at the University at Albany begins for more than 120 Western New Yorkers at 11:30 a.m. Friday. The two-day event also includes the Federation meet, which pits public school athletes against qualifiers from the Catholic High School Athletic Association meet and New York Public Schools Athletic League. East Aurora’s Sophia Tasselmyer (3,000-meter run) and Alden’s Hailey Rospierski (high jump) return to the event as defending state champions in Division II.

The USRowing Youth Nationals run Friday through Sunday in Sarasota, Fla. The two-day girls’ state golf tournament begins Saturday at SUNY Delhi.

During Jim Gibson’s early years as Orchard Park’s junior varsity baseball coach, the varsity Quakers made three straight state final fours, with the late Bob Barrows leading the program to its only state title in 1988.

While OP has remained one of the top baseball schools in the area, its path to states kept running into a road block until this year.

“We’ve always been in the mix but hadn’t been able to knock the door down,” Gibson said. “This year is different. … This is a team that’s been building to this.”

The Quakers have reached this point because of pitching. They have a lot of talented arms on the staff and most of them are fresh for this time of year because Gibson rarely let any of his six top pitchers go beyond five innings.

That pitching depth proved key in the Far West Regional win over McQuaid. Any time McQuaid had a chance to break the game open, it didn’t because Gibson was able to use one of his top three pitchers – with Jacob Lewis working out of a bases-loaded jam during his 1∑ innings of work and Andy Sipowicz earning the win in relief. Ben Wereski earned the start for OP, going 4∏ innings.

“All our kids are fresh,” Gibson said. “We’ll pitch who we need to pitch in order to get to that second game.”

OP struggled with the bats against McQuaid but still pushed across enough runs to get the job done.

“But we hit the ball like crazy at practice Monday,” Gibson said. “Hopefully we had a slump we’re coming out of.”

Hitting like crazy is the M.O. of OP softball this postseason. The Quakers have averaged 13.5 runs per playoff game. A big reason for that has been the play of their cleanup hitter, senior first baseman Sara Kubik, who is batting .465 with 33 RBIs.

“The girls are doing a great job getting on base and she’s knocking them in and that’s really helped us,” said Dannecker.

Kubik (St. John Fisher) is one of five seniors who will play in college. Shortstop and fifth-year starter Shaye Swiatek (.367) is heading to Albany, catcher Katie Weimer (.585, 46 RBIs) is committed to the University at Buffalo, fifth-year second baseman Rachel Johnson (.477, 36 runs) is going to Washington & Jefferson and second-year starting pitcher Molly Hennessy (.394, 2.80 ERA) is headed for St. Bonaventure.

Getting to this point is something Orchard Park has been working toward since co-coach Brittany Bonetto took over in 2011 after the program went 2-12 in ECIC I. The Quakers have posted winning marks each year since 2012, culminating with the big breakthrough this season. They won ECIC I for the first time since Bonetto’s playing days in 2004.

Bonetto handles the offense, Dannecker said, while he deals with pitchers and catchers.