Photos by Jerry Sullivan
By Jerry Sullivan
BINGHAMTON — Afterwards, someone in the press box said they ought to make it into a movie. It was that good a story, that compelling a script. Of course, the Hollywood people might turn it down as too outlandish.
Dennis Crawley, a beloved high school baseball coach contracts ALS, a degenerative nerve disease that has killed 26 people in his family. He takes experimental drugs, fights to stay in the game. Two years after his diagnosis, he’s still coaching, hobbling around on crutches to run his team.
The Wildcats get to the NYSPHSAA tournament for the first time in history. They win a semifinal in a wild, eight-hour game truncated by rain, forcing Crawley to use up his two top pitchers and go with his third guy in the final.
Depew gets a solid game from No. 3 pitcher C.J. Kanick in Saturday’s title game at Binghamton University. But they’re losing in the bottom of the sixth, 4-1, just six outs from the end of the dream. In the dugout, Crawley stands up on crutches and tells them to keep believing. The hits will fall.
Catcher Tyler Karnyski pulls his teammates aside as they get ready to hit and says, “Why are we down? We have six outs to go!”
Naturally, they rally, scoring four runs in the bottom of the sixth to beat Lansing, 5-4, and win the state class B championship — the first for Depew and the first state baseball title by any Section VI team in 10 years.
“When we were down and kept calling each other together and talking, I had no doubt we were going to come back,” Crawley said during the victory celebration at the shiny new Binghamton baseball complex. “No doubt.”
It was easy for an objective observer to wonder when they fell behind 4-1 to a gritty Lansing team. Depew hit the ball hard all game, but time after time the baseball wound up in an outfielder’s glove. Crawley told them to keep at it. The hits would fall eventually.
But it was wild pitching that was Lansing’s undoing in the four-run sixth. Lansing also had to go deep into its bullpen. Ryan Pettograsso-Houk, the starter, tired in the sixth, walking the first two hitters and giving up an RBI hit to Daniel Reese — who would figure prominently in the story later.
A wild throw on a force play cut the deficit to 4-3. Karnyski singled and Lansing went to its bullpen. Logan Mayo wasn’t the answer. He walked two men, sending in the tying run. Then he hit Eric Woodley with an errant slow curveball, forcing in the go-ahead run.
The game wasn’t about to end without another dramatic twist. Zak Sperger, Lansing’s top player, doubled down the line to start the top of the seventh. Crawley had told Reese, a sophomore, to be ready. He brought his 10th-grader, barely warm, into the tightest spot in Depew baseball history.
Reese was ready. He retired the first two hitters on routine flies to Jacob Scibetta in right. Then the lanky righty snapped off a gorgeous curveball that Avery Wells took for a third strike. Reese hesitated for a second, as if in disbelief. Then he heaved his glove in the air and the celebration was on.
Crawley gathered the players around him after the medal ceremony. He thanked them, told them. “You guys worked so hard and you deserve this,” he said. “You guys did this, not the coaches. Give yourselves a round of applause.”
He thanked his coaches — Pat Ball, Steve Kolbert, and Tony Sekuterski, his old friend who saw the talent in Crawley as a young American Legion coach. Sekuterski said they teach the same stuff as other baseball coaches. But this group of boys took everything they taught them to heart and ran with it.
The result was one of the finest seasons in local baseball history, a 25-2 season for a team that lost in the sectional crossover a year earlier and wasn’t going to be denied this season. Crawley, two years removed from his ALS diagnosis, drew strength from this team. His indomitable spirit lifted them, too.
“You’re kind of right, because I’m fighting, and they see it. It’s emotional,” he said, his voice cracking a bit. “They did a great job. I’ll see it until the end. I coach for the kids. That was all the kids. They did it all. I sat in the chair right there. That’s all I did today.”
He sat on a chair at the end of the dugout during games. Crawley no longer performs the physical tasks of a coach, like visiting the mound and hitting infield. He imparts his vast knowledge of the game to his players. His very presence establishes an unconquerable culture of belief.
How else to explain Reese, a kid so young he still has braces, walking into the toughest situation imaginable and saving the biggest win in school history?
“It feels great,” Reese said. “C.J. is a great teammate, so I wanted to have his back. I came out there with no outs and just gave myself that chance. I stayed calm through the whole thing. It was deep breath, after every pitch. Coach would always tell me to keep my composure, and I did.”
Deep breaths, kid. Every breath is precious in this life, as Crawley well knows. A baseball game doesn’t mean so much in the end. But it sure feels good to win, to see young people come through for you, for themselves, for their school.
Every team has its own identity, but there will never be another like the 2023 Depew baseball team. Crawley said he’ll miss this bunch, which made history and is going to receive a police escort back to town late Saturday night.
“Yeah, I really will,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll be back next year. I’ve only got four seniors. I’ve got a lot coming back. If I’m able to coach, I will. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Really, there might be more to the story ahead. But how in the world could you top this? A movie could barely do it justice.