As the Pine Valley Panthers and coach Chris Buczek celebrated their first Class D Far West Regional championship Wednesday night at Diethrick Park in Jamestown since 2007, former Panthers coach Charlie LaDuca sat in the grandstands and admired what he just watched.
Not just because he knows most all the players from being a teacher in South Dayton, but because he watched the rich tradition he built for many years continue.
In his 23 years of coaching at Pine Valley, LaDuca accumulated 345 wins, three Far West Regional championships, six Sectional titles, was nominated coach of the year in his league 12 times and added a New York State Public High School Athletic Association state championship banner. And when he hung up his cleats in 2008, the school rightfully named the baseball field Charlie LaDuca Field.
"I'm really happy to see the tradition carry on," LaDuca said. "It was tough for me to leave, but the timing was right. I spent a lot of time building up the program. I wondered how it would work out. I told Chris it's his program and do it his way. When coaches leaves, you see another coach come in and the program crashes and burns. I'm glad it hasn't happened here. We left Chris a solid program. I am happy he has carried on the tradition we set into motion."
Since Buczek took over in 2009, he has guided the Panthers to four Sectional championship games, three Sectional titles and now a Far West Regional title. His team heads to Binghamton today to compete for another state title.
"It's not easy," Buczek said of replacing someone like LaDuca. "I think that Pine Valley and the surrounding community is what I call a sports community. For the longest time, they live through their sports and know their sport really, really well. Everyone had seen Charlie coach for a lot of years and in a successful way. They are big shoes to fill. I think as far as the winning tradition, we have been able to carry that on. I think it's just a great bunch of kids - not so much of what I am doing."
As LaDuca sits back and watches the community rally behind the 2012 Panthers, he can't help but reflect on his experience to the "big dance" in 2007 when he won a state championship.
"It was such a great experience," he said. "It was such a big part of my life. To finally get the big prize, it's a bond we will always have. I'm excited these kids get to experience the things we did."
And of course LaDuca would love to see the Panthers and Buczek experience a state title.
"I like their odds," he said. "One of the things which has worked well is their pitching staff. He has two of the best in Class D in Zack Fancher and Lyle Howard. Zack played for me as an eighth grader. I'm very excited about their chances and the fact they are going back. It gives me goosebumps to see them go. They will see they are just as good as the other two teams they face. It's all about who can execute under pressure and they did that in the Far West Regionals. I really believe they are good enough to win the state tournament. They have to get a couple lucky plays. I put them right on par with anyone they will face."
When LaDuca retired from coaching, he told Buczek it was now his team. LaDuca said he did not want anyone to give him credit for winning or losing.
"It's good to get someone younger in there," he said. "Now someone is experienceing the joy I did for so long. It's neat to pass that on. Things have worked out well. I told Chris when he first started if he could get a group of kids and get them motivated, you can go on a tremendous run. He has started that. He can definitely keep going on a huge run. The advice is he has to keep doing things the right way. He is doing that as far as the way you dress and act. The kids take pride in that and the kids take pride in putting that uniform on."