North Tonawanda- The last time the North Tonawanda Lumberjacks won the Niagara Frontier League on the diamond, the seniors were only in kindergarten. The program has had its ups and downs since they won the Section VI Class A title and were at the top of their division in 2003. After a decade of a revolving door of coaches, Neal Turvey provided stability in the program. The team bought into his winning approach and the results showed. The Lumberjacks finished the 2015 campaign with a 7-13 record and advanced to the Class A-1 semifinals before they were eliminated by Kenmore East.
There’s an old saying that defense wins you games. That’s how Turvey expects his team to have strong games in the field and on the mound. With that momentum, then the offense can go to work, he said. In a press conference during spring training, Turvey said that experience is a main reason why on paper they look really good. “We have seven seniors that all played significant time last year,” he said in an interview with Derek Wangler of the Niagara Gazette last week. “They all started games for us so that’ll put us in a pretty good spot.”
Due to weather, the Lumberjacks only faced Hamburg in spring training action, but there was plenty of momentum heading into Tuesday’s game against Niagara Falls (L 7-2) and the rest of the season. Before you head out to the ball park, here are some names to keep an eye on wearing the red and blue.
North Tonawanda has one advantage with O’Connor returning to the lineup: a future Division I shortstop. The last of the O’Connor boys (Bobby and Tommy are his brothers) committed to the University at Buffalo but is definitely looking to make his mark in the Lumber City with a big senior year. O’Connor finished last season with a team-high .394 batting average along with 10 RBIs and 8 stolen bases. He also did his damage on the mound, where he finished with a 2-1 record, a 4.25 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 28 innings pitched.
Not only can he serve it, he can hit it. Willison, who wrapped up his volleyball career in October, will once again look to carry the lumber and made the full transition from catcher to the outfield. Willison finished last year’s campaign with a .375 batting average and a team-high 15 RBIs. He has also been named to the All-NFL second team in back-to-back seasons.
Another key to the Lumberjacks success will be their pitching. Along with O’Connor and fellow senior Lou Medina, Clare is looking to provide consistency on the mound. “They’re putting us in a good position where really we don’t have (one) guy, we have three guys that can go out and get the job done,” Turvey told the Gazette. Clare recorded 10 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings pitched and could have gotten more but he was able to get many batters to ground out.
To have a good pitching staff, you also need a reliable catcher behind the plate. Kraus fits that necessity easily. After he took over behind the plate the second half of last season, Kraus and the pitching department have shown great chemistry, which Turvey said is a great thing to have.
Here are your 2016 North Tonawanda Baseball Lumberjacks:
Antonio LaBarbara Junior 1st Baseman/Pitcher/Outfielder
Ben Kolbe Junior 2nd Baseman/Shortstop/Pitcher
Chris Pauline Junior Pitcher/Outfielder
Colin Hebeler Junior Pitcher/3rd Baseman/Outfielder
Collin Rambler Junior Outfielder/Pitcher/2nd Baseman
Dan Smolka Junior 3rd Baseman/2nd Baseman/Outfielder
Zach Archibald Senior Catcher/3rd Baseman
Devin Starr Senior Outfielder/Pitcher
Jason Richau Senior 1st Baseman/Pitcher
Joe Dotterweich Junior Outfielder/Pitcher/3rd Baseman
Joe Kish Junior Outfielder/Pitcher
Lou Medina Senior Pitcher/1st Baseman/3rd Baseman
Mike O’Connor Senior Shortstop/Pitcher
Nick Kraus Senior Catcher/Outfielder
Tyler Clare Senior Pitcher/1st Baseman/Outfielder
Victor Willison Senior 3rd Baseman/Catcher
Honoring The Past
This season, the North Tonawanda Baseball program will have former players or the families of former players throw out the ceremonial first pitch at their home games at Ramsay Field. Expected to throw out the first pitch for the team’s home opener against Grand Island this Thursday is Ricky Brooks (Class of 2003.) Considered by many as the greatest Lumberjack ever, Brooks won sectional titles in Football, Hockey and more importantly Baseball his senior year. He was later drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 2003 MLB Draft and bounced around the minor leagues before he retired in 2012.
Also throwing out the ceremonial first pitch is Deborah Rojek Dexheimer, the niece of the late Stan Rojek (no date has been determined.) Rojek is the only baseball player from North Tonawanda to play in Major League Baseball. When Rojek was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939, North Tonawanda didn’t have a baseball program yet. On September 22, 1942, Rojek made a memorable major league debut by scoring a run in the ninth inning against the New York Baseball Giants. After serving overseas during World War II, Rojek returned to the Dodgers. In 1947, Rojek became the lone link from Western New York to the start of Jackie Robinson’s career. In 1948, Rojek was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and flourished. “The Rabbit” led the Pirates to a fourth-place finish in the National League, had a .290 batting average with four homers and 51 RBIs. But his career was never the same after being beamed twice in one game, which sent him to the hospital. After brief stints in St. Louis, Rojek returned to the Lumber City in 1955. Rojek and his family opened Rojek’s Major Lanes in 1961. In June 1977, North Tonawanda renamed Payne Field in his honor. Rojek was also enshrined in the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame.
Here is the 2016 North Tonawanda Baseball Schedule (as of 4/12):
4/12 @ Niagara Falls
4/14 vs Grand Island
4/16 @ Dunkirk
4/18 @ Kenmore West
4/19 vs Williamsville South
4/20 vs Kenmore East
4/21 vs Niagara-Wheatfield (Sanborn, NY)
4/25 @ Lockport
4/26 vs Albion
4/27 @ Lewiston-Porter
4/28 vs Niagara Falls
4/30 vs Royalton-Hartland
5/2 @ Grand Island
5/4 vs Kenmore West (Buffalo, NY)
5/5 @ Kenmore East
5/7 @ Frontier
5/9 @ Niagara-Wheatfield
5/10 vs Bishop Timon-St. Jude
5/11 vs Lockport
5/12 vs Lewiston-Porter
5/16 vs Tonawanda (Senior Night)
5/18 @ Lancaster
For the latest on NT Sports, follow me on Twitter @theprofnt and check out the team’s Twitter page @NTJacksBaseball. Also, please check out my website dedicated to NT Sports, logsfromthelumberyard.wordpress.com