By RYAN PAPASERGE
OBSERVER Sports Reporter
Before his current reign as coach of the Fredonia Lady Hillbillies' varsity softball program, Joe Pucciarelli had coached Cassie Essek since she was a seven-year-old Little Leaguer. As a 10-year-old, Essek had learned enough from Pucciarelli to teach her teammates defensive alignment.
Fredonia’s Cassie Essek, a seventh-grader, helped lead the Lady Hillbillies to a share of the CCAA?Division 1 softball title.
"She was playing shortstop and at 10 years old, there was a foul ball down the left field line," Pucciarelli said. "Before I said a word, she told the outfielders to move toward the left field line. She has a really good awareness of the game that you can't teach."
It should come as no surprise that Essek was the starting third baseman for Fredonia as a seventh-grader, even if she beat out junior Margaret Wright - daughter of assistant coach Tim Wright - for the nod in the offseason.
What may come as a surprise is how Essek has managed to learn from Wright and the other veterans on the team.
"(Wright's) been phenomenal in this whole thing," Pucciarelli said. "The leadership and the class (Essek) saw from Margaret. She showed her the ropes and she lost out at the position. When we gave (Essek) the chance she performed.
"All the girls love her," Pucciarelli added. "She has a very dynamic personality. My friend told me, 'You're bringing Essek up?' and he said 'You can see, just by the way she walks, she's a player.' The way she presents herself as an athlete, she's not afraid of anything. In her first varsity game, she played literally 35 feet away from the batter. Just got right up there."
Essek performed like a player, too. When she dropped a liner against Dunkirk April 30, gasps were heard among those in attendance. According to Pucciarelli, it marked her second error of the season.
"We have them up here because we know they can play, we expect them to play," Pucciarelli said after the game regarding young players like Essek. "They have to make those plays. The more comfortable they get in those situations, the less mistakes they'll make and hopefully better things will happen."
It might be even more impressive - and a bit disheartening to foes - that Fredonia's coaching staff hasn't found any issues in pointing out Essek's flaws.
"Her knowledge of the game is unbelievable for a girl who just turned 13 years old," Fredonia assistant coach Bob Sievert said. "She's probably one of the most coachable players I've had in quite some time. If you tell her something or she's doing something wrong, she looks you right in the eye. She's never satisfied. She's always tried to get better and improve.
"She's something defensively," Sievert continued. "I haven't seen a girl play third base like this in a long time. Hitting-wise, she's growing. She's going to get stronger. Once she starts getting stronger, the hitting will come around. She's got a good arm for a girl who's that young."
Essek leads a Fredonia youth movement that includes eighth-graders Katie Webster and McKenna Leid as well as ninth-grader Savannah Rivera. It's no youth movement to Pucciarelli or Sievert, however.
"They're not seventh-graders or eighth-graders or ninth-graders anymore," Sievert said. "They've varsity ballplayers. We don't look at it like our seventh-grader made an error or our eighth-grader made an error. You're on this team. You're varsity ballplayers and we expect you to make these plays and they're getting better and better."
In fact, this season's young squad echoes back to the 2005 season when Mary Kate Bongiovanni, Anne Wasik and Katie Bartkowiak cracked the varsity roster as eighth-graders.
"When we brought them up. this group (Essek, Webster and Leid) now reminds me of that same group," Sievert said. "You can call it rebuilding, you can call it what you want. I can remember there were a lot of people who weren't happy, but that's part of varsity sports. You're going to play the best team you can put out there. You know what happened with our team? We went to States three years in a row."
The former trio made it as softball players in the college ranks. Bongiovanni played for Medaille College while Wasik and Bartkowiak started for Fredonia State.
It's also entirely possible that the next trio to wow Pucciarelli and Sievert isn't that far behind as the level of play and the level of coaching at the Little League level continues to improve.
"It started in Little League and we've been blessed to have a good Little League program through the years," Pucciarelli said. "It's going to be hard. There's going to be a lot of competition. There's only 13-14 spots (on the varsity roster) and there's a lot of players coming up. We are blessed with a lot of good coaches at the Little League level. It's amazing."
At a time where several teams in the league are rebuilding, Essek stills stands out to opposing coaches.
"A lot of teams are young this year, so I don't tell a lot of coaches (about Essek's age)," Pucciarelli said. "They ask 'What grade's your third baseman?' and I say 'Seventh grade.' They're just amazed at her awareness at the position. You can't teach it."
Essek also excels on the rink as a member of the NCCYHA Steelers' Pee Wee Division squad, showing her prowess in more than one discipline.
"She's one of those natural athletes," Pucciarelli said. "She could pick up a golf club right now and shoot five over par. She's that kind of athlete."
One of Essek's fellow Little League alumnae did damage to Fredonia in a 6-5 loss to Dunkirk April 30. Emilee Hanlon, a seventh-grader, was called up from jayvee to varsity by coach John Sliwa hours before the game and knocked three hits with an RBI and two runs scored for the Lady Marauders.
"It's going to be a lot of fun watching (Hanlon and Essek) over the next five years," Pucciarelli said. "They both have their nose to the grindstone and that feel for the game at a young age. (Hanlon) deserves a little bit of publicity. She's going to be a good one."
Emilee Hanlon could be a "good one" but she's going to have to wait her turn in an experienced Dunkirk lineup, so much so that Sliwa called her back down to jayvees almost immediately after her varsity debut.
"She only played the one game," Sliwa said. "I needed someone to play in the outfield and she was my choice. She knew what her role was right when I made the decision.
"She did exactly what she was supposed to do and afterwards I said, 'Emily, thank you very much. You really boosted us a lot.' Since then, she's helped the jayvee team start to be more competitive."
Sliwa turned to Hanlon after his team struggled at the lead-off spot in previous games. The choice was easy with two older sisters - Sarah and Kati - already on the team.
"I figured she was a natural lead-off hitter so I put her in the lead-off spot," Sliwa said
It marked the first time in his tenure that Sliwa decided to pluck a seventh-grader into the varsity ranks. It wasn't the last, either. Emilee Hanlon found her way back into Dunkirk's starting lineup for Sectionals.
"We'll see what happens," Sliwa said. "We've had several eighth-graders but it's the first time we've had a seventh-grader in that position."
Much like Essek, Emilee Hanlon is also a multi-sport standout and holds the Lady Marauder indoor track record for the 1,500-meter run.
"That's enough said there," Sliwa said. "She's a high school-caliber athlete."
Cases like Essek and Emilee Hanlon are commonplace in smaller schools, where teams are understandably trimmer. Pucciarelli noted that the usage of younger players is unprecedented at this level.
"Those teams have always had seventh-graders," Pucciarelli said. "I don't know if there's been seventh-graders who've played on the varsity side (at Class B schools). It's uncommon for the bigger schools to do that. The smaller schools have done this before. Dunkirk and Fredonia haven't."
SMITH SENSES TREND
Softball isn't the only sport where the movement towards younger players at larger schools is happening.
Gowanda coach Tim Smith brought up Matt and Joe Kruszka as seventh and eighth-graders, respectively, last season. He's already seeing the dividends off the diamond.
"We had some holes to fill last year and when I assessed what we had in the program I realized (Matt) had the most potential and the tools to get the job done," Smith said. "What's impressed me the most is that as eighth and ninth-graders, they're as close to leaders on this team as we we're going to get right now, with the way they talk to each other and mix in with the entire team."
The duo is performing on the diamond as well. Matt Kruszka, now an eighth-grader, combined with freshman Shane DeLeo to toss a no-hitter against Eden April 4 while Joe, a ninth-grader, threw a three-hit shutout against Southwestern April 25. Matt also has a Sectional win as a pitcher to his credit when the Panthers defeated CSAT in the Class B-2 prequarterfinals May 21.
Matt had a big day at the plate after he knocked four hits against Dunkirk May 6.
The decision to move the brothers up was an easy one for Smith, who previously oversaw at least one Kruszka brother for six years.
"I had known the family," Smith said. "I knew (Matt) and I took (Joe) as an eighth-grader. It was a package deal. I was interested in both of them and I pretty much wasn't going to split them up.
"I think the fact that they've pretty much grown up baseball and played baseball, lived and breathed baseball, it's really showing right now," Smith added. "They've kind of been forced to, when they played out back with their older brothers, to get good quick or they wouldn't be able to hang with their brothers.
Smith noted that the youth movement on diamonds around the region could be a side effect of a changing culture. As younger players move through youth leagues and travel teams, they could be more likely to play school sports and move up the ladder faster while older players don't have that advantage. Seniority is starting to become a thing of the past.
"As kids get older, they tend to lose interest in sports," Smith said. "That's why everyone's trying to get young kids. There's more energy there, there's more passion there. I know a lot of kids always think that just because they're a senior or a junior, that means they should start and some schools still work with that philosophy.
"I've always said I'm going to work with the best nine players out there that give us the best chance to win on that day. We're to the point now where we can't really look at some of these kids like they're eighth-graders or ninth-graders. I'm looking at them as being our starting shortstop, our starting third baseman, whatever position they fit in and that's it."