By CHRIS BROOKS, sports editor, wellsvillesports.com @iambrooksie
NUNDA — In the early-80s, a high school Varsity coaching career for one teacher in Allegany County was beginning to blossom. The embarkment on his coaching journey started with Girls Tennis — a sport that he continues to coach to this day during the Fall. Along with it for the next several years, two more routes that were added to his coaching GPS.
Softball was first, spending 18 years on the field starting in 1990 and going until his final season in 2008. The following year? — a complete Spring Switcheroo, when he and then-baseball head coach Jon Beardsley decided to trade places in the sports that they continue to coach to this day, in the final sports season of the year.
That being Bill Nolan.
Through the years, Nolan has had the opportunity to educate many, many student-athletes to great success not only from within his classroom in the halls of Fillmore Central, putting his teaching values first before implementing them inside the sports arena secondly.
Along the way, there have been countless memories, there have been ups and downs, there have been wins and losses. But one of his favorite highlights in all of his years was just simply being with the kids that he has had the opportunity to coach, and see grow right before his eyes.
Especially this season, where the team had to overcome being dealt with one of their biggest blows of the season — losing Mitch Ward to injury.
Despite it, the 13-year coach on the diamond has noticed as time went on, his team started to get stronger.
“I love being around the kids. It keeps me young, and it’s fun to go out every time to see them compete and have fun. It’s a kick, and I knew that this group was going to be gifted with talent,” he said. “We’ve had the most arms for the mound that I think I’ve ever had coaching baseball. But losing Mitch for the season was a big blow for this group. It was a ton of adversity that we had to find our way around. To have the season that we’ve had without our best player, that really says a whole lot about this team and how they’ve accepted that challenge.”
It was a season filled with trials and tribulations for a Fillmore squad that holds only four Seniors and their leadership. The rest — a young, vibrant and heavily skilled core. Mix those ingredients together in your metaphorical baking dish, and you have yourself a team that overcome anything standing in their way.
That hurdling of adversity has earned them their first Sectional Finals berth in four years. And for Nolan, it gave him a chance to lead a group towards something that has never happened in his long 40-year coaching career with the Eagles — win it all.
To do something that Fillmore’s baseball program hasn’t done since the turn of the millennium, he would have to go up against one of Section V’s Kings to ever grace the diamond — Dennis Miles, and his No. 2 Avoca/Prattsburgh Titans.
As you would expect, a ton of offense and defense between the two stout and power-hungry teams was put on full display in Nunda on Tuesday. The fireworks came early, and then dissipated into an all-out defensive slugfest until the end, with each team exchanging three runs in their first three innings of play.
The runs would then come at a premium for either side. For whoever had the final card to play, victory had awaited them. After trusting Graham Cahill with the ball after delivering one of the team’s finest performances of the season to make it to the Finals, he would help come through again for the top-seeds.
At the plate.
In the bottom of the fifth, a sacrifice fly provided the game’s final run down the home stretch. Despite a phenomenal catch being made down the right field line, Aiden Wagner tagged up at third and made his way home to score easily with Fillmore’s go-ahead run, entrusting their defense in the endgame, where they were able to gather up a quick inning of Avoca/Prattsburgh to become Class D Champions for the first time since the 2000 season in a 4-3 edging.
The victory would give Fillmore their automatic berth into Saturday afternoon’s Class D Far West Regional in Salamanca, where they now face Section VI powerhouse Clymer/Sherman/Panama for a chance at States in Binghamton.
But more importantly, the Section V Championship is the very first in Nolan’s head coaching career with any team across any sport. A wait 40 years in the making for the Fillmore coach, who says for something that he’s waited so long to experience, he knows that even though it may take a little while to sink in, it is a special moment for an Eagles team that has seen tremendous success already this year.
(See Steve Harrison’s photo gallery of the game, CLICK HERE)
“It may take a while for it to really sink in, but it’s a new feeling for me. I’ve never had the chance to experience anything like this before, and to do it against a coach like Dennie Miles, what an honor,” Nolan said. “I definitely enjoy it, and it’s very, very special especially with a group like these boys here. You spend the first few months with them, and then you get close. You understand them beyond baseball, from the halls in school. I’m a teacher first, and coach second. It’s nice to see them in this setting do extremely well. The winning is fun, and that’s the love of the game. I couldn’t be more proud.”
The Sectional victory for the Eagles (16-3) came into fruition after they outlasted a battle with Avoca/Prattsburgh through the early stages of an overwhelming warm and acrid evening. It found the Titans spring ahead first with Jamel Crowder’s RBI single into left field, scoring Macoy Putnam easily from third to take the lead in what was a shaky start for the top seeds.
But fortunately, it was overcome.
In the home half of the first, Fillmore countered with a massive response of their own — a Brent Zubikowski three-run nuke to deep left field, leaving the ballpark in an absolute hurry to change the complexity of the game. Nolan said as soon as that shot was delivered, it brought the team new life.
“That was huge, and you heard it immediately in our dugout. As soon as Brent hit that ball, they were right back in this game. Right back in it,” he said. “It was errors that hurt us in that first inning, and it was one of those signs where we could tell immediately how it was going to do. Errors have killed us all season, and it quickly determines if it was going to be a short or long night. When that homer was hit, it turned everything around and we never backed off.”
Although the Eagles went ahead behind Zubikowski’s blast, Avoca/Prattsburgh would remain in reach with a shot of their own off the bat of Tucker Gerych, who sent one back in the same direction to deep left field, hugging the foul pole while remaining fair to exit the park with his solo homer.
“Tucker’s struggled a lot this season, and he’s been working hard at getting better. It was nice to see him get that home run, that was his fourth. He had three early in the year, but it was a great way for him to go out as a Senior with that great memory.” said Titans coach Dennis Miles. “Haden struggled early with his control. He made a bad pitch which resulted in that three-run home run. But other than that, he settled in and he gave us a chance to win. It took us a while to find out about our pitching because Haden had thrown five innings all year last year, and Jamel (Crowder) had only thrown three innings on Varsity last year. They weren’t tested, tournaments or big games, but they both came out strong with quality outings every time they’ve gone out.”
The Titans would battle their way back into the game by tying it up in the top of the third, led by a lead-off triple from Pacey Hopkins to deep right field. With two quick outs on the board, Crowder would then score him on his second RBI of the day after a very lengthy tenure at the plate, shooting a base hit straight up the middle into center.
From that point on, it was all about defense, and for Miles, Fillmore’s was too much to crack through.
“Fillmore’s defense played well, and that’s what ultimately gave them the game. We put the ball in play a lot, and the infield made a lot of nice plays. (Graham) Cahill on the mound did a great job for them, and we were expecting their lefty (Zach) Sisson, but I saw Cahill against Finney. You can tell he’s a gutter, and he gave them the leadership you’d expect out of a Senior. He did the job. Fillmore’s played some tough teams this year, and I’ve known Bill (Nolan) quite a few years. He’s a fantastic coach and he gets his boys prepared. He did a great job getting this win.”
The defenses would begin to buckle down for the last four innings of play, with only one more run being scratched across between the two clubs. That came in the bottom of the fifth after the Fillmore defense stranded Avoca/Prattsburgh’s go-ahead runner twice in two different occasions to get off the field.
As a result, the Eagles would take the lead themselves with a pop-fly into foul territory down the left field line. It would see Macoy Putnam make a marvelous over-the-shoulder catch, but with heads-up baserunning at third base from Aiden Wagner, he tagged up and scooted his way to the plate, scoring easily to grab the top seeds the decisive run needed to go ahead with the lead.
It wouldn’t stop the Titans from continuing to apply a bit of pressure coming down the stretch against the Eagles, putting a pair of baserunners on to start the sixth inning, ultimately being left on after three consecutive outs including back-to-back strikeouts for Cahill. In turn for the Titans defense, they collect a 1-2-3 of Fillmore in their term of defense to send the action into the seventh for last-ups.
Pacey Hopkins gave Avoca/Prattsburgh one final chance with a two-out single into left, but in between a Damon Potter catch in right field, a Jude Beardsley snare at second base off a line drive and a Zach Sisson game-sealing catch in foul territory, the Eagles of Fillmore laid claim to their first Sectional Championship in 22 years in an amazing battle.
“Dennie Miles is a legend, he’s a champion and he knows how to coach his kids,” Nolan said. “He’s been doing this for ages, and he gets all the credit for that. Because of it, they stayed right with us until the end. The catch in right field by Potter, Jude catching a big line drive right at him, and he has a great glove there. And then Zach ending the game with his catch. It’s what these kids are capable of. When they focus on what they have to do, they pull together. That’s what they did to end this game.”
Nolan added in on Cahill’s two magnificent starts of the season for the Eagles, following up with a four-strikeout, one-walk complete game by holding Avoca/Prattsburgh to just five hits. The Fillmore coach says that “I didn’t expect it because he’s had a sore arm for most of his career, but to have the energy to go two straight starts for these guys, is absolutely incredible. Two starts in five days, and he gave us the best game we’ve had all season against Finney last week. He sets an example with his leadership, and I cannot applaud him enough for it, for what he’s done for this group. He is outstanding.”
Cahill would go on to earn MVP honors from Section V in the Class D Tournament. On offense, Beardsley led the bats with two of the team’s nine total hits. Sisson and Wagner each had a double.
For Avoca/Prattsburgh, Abbott struck out five and walked three before Crowder added in two strikeouts in relief. On offense, Putnam and Hopkins — the top of their lineup, combined to record the remaining four of the team’s five hits aside from Gerych’s second inning home run. The season has reached its conclusion for the Titans, as they wrap up with a record of 16-7 overall through a third straight trip to the Sectional Finals
Miles says that although it’s disappointing to go to the Finals three straight years, dropping the last two, the future remains bright for a team that will lose just four Seniors at the end of the school year just weeks away, in Gerych, Ashton McMahon, Sam Patterson and perhaps one of their more pivotal pieces to their puzzle — Pacey Hopkins
“As our Superintendent Steve Saxton says, ‘It’s one step at a time.’ That’s the motto I’ve had for the last three years, and we’ve been in the Finals three years in a row, and unfortunately have lost the last two,” the Avoca/Prattsburgh coach said. “Especially with the young kids, somehow we have to get them thinking more about baseball instead of March to May. It has to be year-round. We have to instill in them that they have to do more if we want to keep having successful seasons. All in all, this was a great season. We were 2-3 at one point, and then went 14-4 to finish.”
As for his Seniors, Miles thanked them for their contributions, adding that “we lose four good seniors in Tucker, Ashton, Sam Patterson and Pacey Hopkins. Pacey had a whale of a season for us to get here. We’re certainly going to miss them going forward not only with their baseball ability, but with their leadership. We have a lot of kids coming back, and we’ll have a much clearer look at how things will look next year.”
The Eagles are not quite done with their baseball journey. On Saturday, it rambles on to the Class D Far West Regional in Salamanca, where they now face the Clymer/Sherman/Panama Wolfpack for a chance at the State Final Four in Binghamton on the line.
First pitch is slated for a 12 p.m. start.
Avoca/Prattsburgh 111 000 0 – 3 5 3
Fillmore 300 010 X – 4 9 4
A/P – Haden Abbott (LP) (5K, 3BB), Jamel Crowder (6) (2K), and Ashton McMahon.
FIL – Graham Cahill (WP) (CG, 4K, BB), and Alex Ellsworth.
Chris Brooks photo gallery HERE: