By Jay Young
Joe Mistretta has been coaching baseball for a long time - 32 to years to be exact.
Joe Mistretta coached the Cassadaga Valley Cougars to their first Section 6 baseball title since 1958.
P-J file photo by Scott Kindberg
This spring, courtesy of a group of young men from Cassadaga Valley Central School, was one of his most memorable seasons ever.
"Our kids were just relentless,'' he said. ''They never quit, they played so hard and with so much pride. We weren't the best team, but we never gave up.''
And, in the process, the Cougars overcame injury and position changes to claim their first Section 6 championship since 1958.
In truth, Mistretta had plenty of reasons to end the 2014 season without claiming his first sectional title.
At the start of the year, junior Matt Heath suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder, forcing him to move from his normal spot in the infield to the outfield.
"We obviously overcame quite a bit of adversity," said Mistretta.
That may be an understatement. Not only was Heath forced out of his usual position and playing with an injury, but catcher Tyson Gugino started out the year with a nagging ankle that only got worse.
"Our catcher had a very bad ankle and decided it was time to get it operated on (early in the season), so we had to switch some people around and do the best we could," said Mistretta.
Even without the injuries, Mistretta did not start the 2014 season with the sort of high-octane roster that was going to blow other teams away. In fact, it was not until the midway point of the year that the Cougars really started to look like the team that walked away with a Section 6 plaque from Diethrick Park after downing Westfield, 7-3, at Diethrick Park.
During an early stretch of games, Cassadaga Valley lost a close 7-6 contest to Falconer, a 15-4 meeting with Brocton, and was routed 12-0 by the same Westfield team that it would go on to face in the Class C title game.
"Our kids just did a tremendous job of battling and overcoming the adversity,'' Mistretta said. ''We played most of the year that way and it wasn't until about the middle of the season that we caught fire and started hitting the ball a lot more.''
Before they would meet the Wolverines again in Jamestown, Cassadaga Valley dropped another game, but in a much different way. In their second meeting of the year Westfield snuck by the Cougars 3-2, and that was enough for Mistretta to see the writing on the wall.
"We saw Nolan Hunt both times (during the season), and having seen him two games already we knew what to expect," said Mistretta.
Hunt carried the Wolverines on the mound all year, and was named to the All-State Class C second team for his efforts.
But by the time Hunt took the mound against Cassadaga Valley for the third time, he was facing hitters who knew what was coming.
In their sectional championship game, the "kids got extra-base hits when they knew that certain pitches were coming,'' Mistretta said. "In that game, we put the pressure on them and took the lead early in the game.
"That's the way we play all the time and we were fortunate enough to be successful. It was a credit to the kids.''
While a lot of teams are carried by one or two players who step into leadership roles, Mistretta credits the Cougars' success to a broader approach.
"We don't have captains," said Mistretta. "Everybody is their own captain. If everybody leads themselves in the right direction with respect and enthusiasm and pride, then we have 11 captains on the field."
Having that everyman-as-his-own-captain mentality meant that when times were tough for the Cougars, there was not a whole lot of finger pointing going on. The attitude of Mistretta's team never changed despite the ups and downs that come with any high school sports season.
"They had the most unbelievable attitude. It was a pleasure all year just to coach those kids," said Mistretta.
Helping this year's Post-Journal Coach of the Year to success in 2014 were assistants Todd Fryberger and Tim Wissman.
"I can't thank them enough," Mistretta said.