With a little help

By GIB SNYDER III

OBSERVER Sports Reporter

In pro sports, when management thinks the best course of action is to bring in the best talent available rather than go with what they currently have, things can go awry and the best laid plans of otherwise smart men can quite quickly go to waste.

That was not the case for Vince Gullo when he was looking to add to the coaching staff of his Fredonia Hillbillies’ varsity baseball team, as it expanded with the additions of former Pine Valley head coach Charlie LaDuca and former Chautauqua Lake head coach Tim Cowan.

“There’s a lot of reasons this should not have worked out,” Cowan noted. “Just on paper with guys coming in with different ideas and things … I think it would have been real easy for guys to second-guess, or backstab, and there was never any of that. And I think that’s what not only made it unique, but made it so successful.”

Already on Gullo’s staff were Greg Smith and Brent Thompson, who helped the Hillbillies win a Section 6 Class B-2 title in 2011, an overall Section 6 Class B title in 2012 and a berth in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s Class B Far West Regional against Section 5’s Wayland-Cohocton, where they eventually fell in 8-7, in eight innings.

“They throw our batting practices and they are so good with the kids,” Gullo said of Smith and Thompson. “And they give a lot of one-on-one instruction throughout the year. Greg’s my right-hand man. We think very similar on the field, our strategy is the same and we bounce things off one another.

“They are so complimentary to the kids,” Gullo continued. “And they’re always positive. And what they give our program is that pat on the back to the players, encouragement and they continue to point them in the right direction.”

Also on the staff was Brian Bongiovanni, a key player on Gullo’s state championship team in 2006.

“Brian’s the best,” Gullo said. “These kids look up to him. Brian did it as a player and all these kids learned about what happened when he played in 2005 and 2006. All the good and the bad and the hard work.

“These kids this year missed their senior trip,” Gullo continued. “And they came back early on another class trip just to be there for practice. And Brian is the one who says that if you want to win, you’ve got to work and you’ve got to sacrifice. He did it, he walked the walk, and these kids wanted to be like him. And he’s so enthusiastic. He was perfect at first base as a first-base coach. He was there every practice getting these guys focused. He’s like a big brother to these guys, but he also knows how to separate being a coach and being in charge. These kids really look up to him.”

As Cowan mentioned, it could have been easy for this conglomeration of coaches to not have the right chemistry to help the players get the most out of their abilities. But Smith had a good idea of why that did not happen.

“Everybody’s strengths fell into place with getting things going in the right direction,” he said. “Both (Cowan and LaDuca) have a knack for being very approachable, and the kids picked up on that right away. (Their addition) didn’t present any kind of awkwardness.”

This year, the Hillbillies avenged their loss to Wayland-Cohocton in the Far West Regional and returned to the NYSPHSAA Class B Final Four in Binghamton. There, they again won the state title after beating Section 10’s Ogdensburg Free Academy, 9-2, in the semifinals and Section 3’s Clinton High School, 7-0, in the title game. It was in the title game where LaDuca’s worth paid perhaps its largest dividend, as Cam Voss, the Hillbillies’ lefty southpaw, and a focus of LaDuca’s coaching, tossed a one-hit shutout.

“I started thinking about (Charlie) LaDuca when we saw what Cam is and what Cam can become as a lefty pitcher,” Gullo said. “We thought what better way to have him improve than having a lefty coach teach him everything.”

“I had worked with Cam a little bit before that and Chris Saden,” LaDuca added. “And Vince had asked me a couple times before to help out, so I kind of told him this year that yeah, I would work with the pitchers. And he said if I was going to do that, that I might as well come and join them and help out as much as I can. So I upped my first aid and once I hooked up with the guys, if just became an every day thing.”

Voss improved his varsity record to 12-0, as he, along with senior Trent Thompson and junior Weston Ley, allowed just two runs each over Fredonia’s seven playoff games. And it was all thanks, in large part, to the tutelage of LaDuca.

“We talked to Charlie just a little bit before last season,” Gullo said. “And Voss set up a one-day clinic and Charlie helped him out and he realized how interested Cam was to learn. And the next time a couple of my boys stuck around after practice, so Charlie got a chance to know Trent (Thompson), Chris Saden, Nick Hart and Zach Buckley and he thought our kids were just phenomenal and he thought there was just so much potential with this group.”

It didn’t take long for assistant coach Thompson to see the value that Cowan and LaDuca brought to the table.

“I found it quite enjoyable to work with a bunch of guys that were all pretty knowledgeable about baseball,” he said. “And to work with a group of guys that were really there to help out any way they could and they didn’t have a sense of wanting a position or wanting to be in charge of something. They just kind of came and offered whatever help they could. I found that rather enjoyable and it was a fun year.”

Cowan, on the other hand, thought he would have a bit of a different role with the program.

“Tim approached me last year during Little League,” Gullo noted. “We had met each other once before and he said he had some ideas for fundraising and to run a baseball clinic. I wasn’t totally interested until he basically said that he enjoyed doing that and that I didn’t have to do too much. I looked at him and I thought about it and I asked him if he wanted to be an assistant. He thought about it for a couple of weeks and he jumped aboard too.”

Cowan’s youth clinic brought in 72 participants and, despite a couple of rainouts, the Chautauqua Country Exceptional Senior baseball and softball all-star games were a success in both Jamestown and Dunkirk.

“Very quickly that grew into more,” Cowan said of his role with the Hillbillies. “At first I didn’t want to step on any toes, especially of the guys who had been on the staff for a while. So I was sensitive to that, but there was never any issue whatsoever. It would have been very easy for them to say, ‘Look, this is how we do things, it’s been very successful, and this is how we’re going to continue to do it.’ And that’s not at all what it was like.”

For Smith and Thompson, the run to the state title carried a little more significance as each had a son on the team – junior second baseman Cody Smith and senior hurler and shortstop Trent.

“I didn’t realize how much fun I was having until we won the final game,” Thompson said. “I found myself a little bit sad that we didn’t have another game to play, so it will be a treasure.”

“It probably had a heavier significance with my son playing,” Smith added. “But just being a part (of the lives) of the kids on the team and the character that all the kids bring to the table, and being a part of that experience (was significant). And knowing that later in life, they’re going to be some pretty special adults, is a great accomplishment.”

With all of the things that could have gone wrong, but didn’t, it is easy to see why Gullo, and the rest of his staff, want this relationship to continue for at least one more season.

“I think he had faith in us,” LaDuca said of Gullo, “so I give him a ton of credit for that. And all of the guys absolutely knew their roles. There was no doubt in their minds that Vince was the head coach and he was running the show. I think all of us just felt that any way we could contribute and help him and help the kids would be the way to go.”

“I would definitely like to continue (with the team),” Cowan said. “We laid a nice ground work for things to continue. And that’s not to say that things weren’t terrific before the latest additions got here, but I think we’ve really got something unique and I would not hesitate to say special. And I think we all realize that.”