In 2015, in his first season as Hamburg High’s head baseball coach, Derek Hill got the Bulldogs to the Class A state semifinals in Binghamton. Orchard Park made it there, too, in Class AA.
On the Friday night before the semifinals, Hill was spending some time with his buddy, Chuck Senn Jr., the head coach for Orchard Park. Hill played baseball at little Cattaraugus High for Senn’s father, Chuck Sr., who recently retired with 604 wins, third in Section VI history.
“We were sitting up there on the balcony,” Hill recalled, “and Chuck said ‘We should soak this in. You think of all the games my dad has won, and he never got here. You’re never guaranteed this moment.’”
Hamburg and OP both lost the next day. No Section VI team has won a state baseball title in A or AA since Orchard Park did it in 1988. Hill found out that making a run wasn’t as easy as it seemed in his first year. But after a turbulent two weeks, Hamburg is finally back to the Final Four.
On Friday at 4 p.m. at Union-Endicott, the Bulldogs will face Calhoun, a Section VIII school from Long Island, in the state A semifinals. If they win, they’ll move on to the championship game at 1 p.m. on Saturday against either Averill Park or Maine-Endwell. (The core of the Maine-Endwell team, by the way, is a half dozen boys who were on the squad that won the Little League World Series championship in 2016.)
“So, here we are seven years later, making our return trip,” Hill said this week at Hamburg High. “You started to wonder, ‘Is it going to happen again?’ So, we’re so thankful.”
They have a lot to be thankful for. As Senn told Hill on that balcony seven springs ago, a lot has to fall your way on any championship baseball journey. But Hamburg found its way to the state finals in the most improbable and emotionally conflicting manner imaginable.
Two Sundays ago, at Niagara University’s Bobo Field, the Bulldogs lost the overall Class A title to Iroquois, 5-3. At least, they lost on the field. As it turned out, Iroquois hurler Cam Fuer had exceeded the state’s pitch count limit before facing the final hitter.
That made Fuer an ineligible player. Under state rules, Iroquois had to forfeit. Hamburg was the champion by default. Can’t win for losing? It was quite an emotional tableau at Bobo Field after the forfeit was confirmed. Hamburg was hardly in a celebratory mood.
“I think we spent the first 36 to 48 hours after that game trying to sort out the emotions, trying to move past that guilt,” Hill said. “Then basically, I told the boys, ‘Sometimes life comes at you real fast and you have to learn lessons that you don’t think you’re maybe ready for.’
“I said, ‘You’re earning your doctorate level education in what we call focusing on the things you can control.’ So many of the things that happened that day were out of our control.”
Pat Cauley, the Hamburg athletic director, had to deal with the aftermath. Cauley, who played on state champions in baseball and basketball at Sweet Home in 1983-84, felt bad for the Iroquois kids. He also knew there was pressure on his own players to move past their own guilt feelings.
“They told me I was grumpy all week,” Cauley said. “I said, ‘You know why I’m grumpy, because I know we’re the best team!’ We played really well over the last five weeks, outside of that one game.”
A few days after the Iroqouis game, they decided, “That’s it.” Time to move on. Time to do what any competitive team does, toss aside the emotions and deal with the matter at hand: The Class A Far West Regional last Saturday against Webster Thomas of Section V.
“We said, here are the facts,” said Hill, a math teacher. “‘The facts are, we have an opportunity to go and represent Section VI. We believe in this section with all of our heart, and we’re going to represent them with all our heart. I don’t know what Section V is sending over, but they’re going to get the very best of us.”
Senior Evan Chaffee, who will pitch at Alabama in the SEC next season, said he gave the same message to his teammates. Regardless of the circumstances, they were representing Section VI and had a responsibility to rise up and play their best baseball in the Far West regional
“We knew we were representing something bigger than just Hamburg,” said Chaffee, who is hitting over .500 and leads the Bulldogs in runs scored. “In the past, Section V has usually beat us up pretty good at all levels. So, we knew we had something to prove.
“We never felt like the underdog,” said Chaffee, who grew up in the Hamburg program when his father, Steve, was head coach. “We felt we were going to take care of business and represent the section the way it should be done.”
Hill had another reason for concern. Hamburg’s junior prom was on Friday night before the Far West Regional. “In coaching worlds,” Hill said, “that’s a nightmare.”
Cauley could tell you all about it. Sweet Home’s senior prom was the day of the state title game in Glens Falls in 1983. Three starters and a top reliever stayed home from the state tournament. Sweet Home went on and won the Class A state championship without them.
The Far West Regional was in Grand Island last Saturday, so there was no problem in getting the players there. Hill wanted the juniors to get there well-rested and ready to play.
“Of course, we had the noon start, which means we wanted to start batting practice at 9 a.m.,” Hill said. “We appealed to those kids: ‘Guys, if you give up a little on the prom side of things and show up to play your best baseball on Saturday, I promise you there will be no regrets.”
‘We’re going to sacrifice a little bit on Friday night to be ready to go on Saturday and hopefully take this community on a big ride.”
And boy, were they ready. Hill saw it in that batting practice Saturday morning. His guys were primed and ready to show that they deserved to be there. They danced all over Webster Thomas, beating them 13-1 in five innings due to the mercy rule.
Chaffee, who is 6-1, 180 pounds, went 3-for-3 with three runs and three RBIs. He said it was important for the Bulldogs to show they were worthy, to obliterate once and for all any remorse over the Iroquois win.
“I felt to win convincingly like that was big for us from a confidence standpoint,” Chaffee said, “but also to show everyone, ‘We’re legit. We’re a team that can play and play with confidence.”
Now they have a chance to become the first team from a Section VI large school to win a state baseball title since late in Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
“It’s like that last chapter at the end of a book,” Chaffee said. “It’s the way you imagined it, that storybook ending. So, I’m hoping we can complete that last chapter. Growing up, being in that dugout, it was my dream to play in big games like we’re going to have this weekend.”
Hill, 42, played junior-college college baseball at Morrisville and played on the club team at Houghton. He took a job at Hamburg right out of college. This is his 20th season with the baseball program. He was the JV coach under Steve Chaffee and was co-coach with him for a time.
Steve Chaffee was the best man at Hill’s wedding. Hill has four children, the oldest in kindergarten. The two families are very close. Hill has known Evan his entire life, watched him grow up to love baseball and become one of the top recruits this area has seen.
“He grew up in our dugout with his dad coaching,” Hill said. “We had our banquet last night and I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m up here talking about Evan being a senior. He’s literally been to every banquet since he was 2 years old.’ You take it for granted that he’s always going to be there.”
Of course, he learned long ago that you never take anything for granted, especially in high school baseball. These state championship runs don’t come along that often. You think of all the teams that fell short over the last 34 years. Maybe this is Section VI’s time, controversy and all.
“The way we look at it,” Hill said, “is we’re due.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.