Paul Lombardo knew exactly what his young ballplayers were thinking when he strolled out onto the softball diamond at Falconer for the first time as head coach a little more than two years ago.
It was written all over their faces.
"They were thinking, 'Who is this grandpa?'' he said with a laugh on Thursday evening. "I had put a lot of miles on my body, so I could understand the trepidation. And, not being associated with the school, I knew it was a little strange for them."
What was first trepidation, however, quickly became respect, and friendship; now, though, the group are undoubtedly experiencing one emotion above all - sadness.
After two years at the helm of the Falconer softball program, and after more than 45 years of involvement with area baseball, softball and officiating, Lombardo has decided to put away the fungo bat and hang up his spikes. He's finished with coaching.
"I really thought long and hard about (this decision)," Lombardo said. "When I took the job (in April of 2012), I really felt like it was a long-term thing. Nobody wants to admit they're reaching a point in age where things cause them to slow down, but I felt like my 100 percent - and I always ask the girls to give me 100 percent - this year was not what it was 23 years ago when I coached Jamestown High School (baseball team) to a sectional title.
"And I didn't feel that was fair to the girls. Mentally, I'm fine, but physically... I threw so many pitches this last couple of weeks that I don't know that the arm will ever be the same."
But it's an affliction, Lombardo says, well worth it.
"At our awards banquet (last Monday), I talked about (1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team captain) Mike Eruzione wanting to go out in a blaze of glory," Lombardo said. "I didn't know at the time - I made the decision (to retire) before the playoff run started - but it was one of those deals where you hope everything falls into place, and it did.
"It was a dream situation; a dream come true. Everything lined up the way we hoped it would. And though we didn't make states, given where we came from with the adversity we faced during the season to where we got, it was a great journey. You couldn't have scripted anything better and boy, the ride was fantastic."
It certainly was.
Leading a youthful squad that had fought well and played hard but still finished under .500 - among other obstacles, standout pitcher Abby Courtney was lost for much of Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association regular season due to illness - Lombardo's group maintained its cohesion.
A six seed entering the postseason, the Lady Golden Falcons pushed their game to another level, toppling defending sectional champion Cleveland Hill, Fredonia, Roy-Hart (for the Class B-2 title) and then, in a game played over parts of three days (due to weather) and ended in heart-stopping fashion, Eden, 1-0, for the overall Section 6 Class B crown.
As Lombardo put it at the Lady Golden Falcons' awards banquet, "Twenty-three Class B schools entered the playoffs, one survived - Falconer."
It was the second sectional title of Lombardo's career and his first since capturing the crown 23 years ago with Jamestown in baseball.
"Our whole philosophy this year was to play hard and let the chips fall where they may," Lombardo said. "Leave it all out there and let it happen. We struggled a bit during the season and I thought maybe it wasn't meant to be. But I told them when the playoffs began that everyone was 0-0 and that anything could happen. And it did."
But while Lombardo, who plans not only get back into umpiring but to also make a trip next year to Arizona with his wife, Sally, to watch his beloved Cleveland Indians play spring ball, may not be in the dugout for the Lady Golden Falcons next season, expect to see his face, and hear his cheers, whenever the squad takes the field.
"I would love to come back and see if we could finish what we started this season," he said, "but physically I feel tired. My heart is with them and I'm going to be in those stands next year as much as possible to make sure they know I didn't quit on them. They're a special group of young ladies, and I don't know if they realize that they did for me a whole lot more than I did for them.
"They took me on a great ride."