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  • Jerry Sullivan

Wesolowski a natural behind the plate

Feature Photo by Shawn Turri

By Jerry Sullivan

Ella Wesolowski had no interest in catching when she started playing softball as a little girl. Chasing around in the dirt, all that equipment? Who needed that?

But one spring day, at the start of workouts for the Amherst Lightning in the 10-and-under league, the head coach told Ella he had no one to play catcher. Would she like to try the position?

“It was more a rhetorical question,” Wesolowski said, looking back.

The coach in question was her father, David, a former star pitcher at Williamsville North who played in the Florida Marlins system in the late 1990s. Watching Ella play catcher today, seeing how she commands the position, you figure her dad might have seen the limitless possibilities in her from the start.

He was right. She settled into her new position like an old, familiar chair. “I was the only catcher for awhile and just fell in love with it,” she said. Wesolowski was a natural, and became one of the best girls ever to play the position in Western New York. She made the Williamsville East varsity under former head coach Chris Durr in the seventh grade. By the sectionals, she was starting. There was no holding her back.

In the eighth grade, Ella was the starting catcher for a Flames squad that went 27-0 and won the NYSPHSAA Class A championship. In the state semifinals, she hit two home runs to launch Williamsville East to the final.

Photo by Jerry Sullivan

Imagine that, a 13-year-old earning the trust of her coach and older teammates to run the game behind the plate. Wesolowski says she’s always enjoyed being the intellectual heart of the defense, with the action unfolding in front of her.

“Yes. I love having the ball all the time,” she said. “I also love pumping up my teammates. I love being the first one pitchers see when they get a nice strikeout to celebrate. I love commanding the field. Before every pitch or after every out I’ll go out and say, ‘OK, two outs, outfield throw home, or whatever.’”

“I just love being the one everybody can look at as the leader,” she said, “and I guess it comes from loving the sport, too. There’s many things that can happen as a catcher. Every single pitch, you get to throw the ball, and I like doing that.”

She has done it for more than five seasons at Will East, which begins the Section VI playoffs at 5 p.m. Thursday in search of a fifth straight Class A-1 championship. The Flames won the A-1 title a year ago under first-year coach Brianna Clark, but lost to rival Williamsville South, 1-0, in the overall A championship game.

Wesolowski, who was the New York State Class A player of the year as a sophomore and junior, said it would “mean everything” to win a fifth straight sectional title (there was no sectional playoff in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic).

“I have goose bumps right now just thinking about it,” she said. “Knowing you made it that far with your team, that the whole team has worked so hard to get there, is just amazing. It’s so much fun to do that. Especially my senior year to finish with that five in a row would be incredible for the program and the team.”

Another state title would be a crowning finish to a great high school career for Wesolowski, who will play for Mississippi State in the SEC — the best college softball conference in America — next season.

Speaking with this poised and well-spoken young woman, you wouldn’t suspect she has struggled with social anxiety in her life, and that she suffered through a self-described “mental block” during her junior season a year ago — when she slipped back to a .339 average after hitting .500 as a sophomore.

“It’s not as bad as before, but I still deal with social anxiety,” she said. “I remember in sixth grade, I was at Rite Aid with my dad. He told me to pick out something and I completely had a meltdown. It was like if I were to pick the mint over the bubble gum, the whole world was going to end.

“From there, it started to get worse and worse. I received some help in therapy, but after a certain amount of time, it was like ‘I don’t want to go back there. It’s where my problems are all boxed up’. I started to deal with it more myself and I think I just grew out of it a little bit.”

Being a 13-year-old on a varsity softball team actually helped. It was intimidating being around older girls, but being accepted and a vital part of a team helped combat any anxiety. So did going around the country as part of travel teams, especially the prestigious Top Gun program in the Midwest.

“Traveling has really helped me,” she said. “I’ve been forced to meet new people. The social anxiety over time has gotten a lot better since I’ve traveled and I’m really grateful that I’ve had those opportunities.”

It’s remarkable to hear a high-schooler be open about her battles with anxiety. That shows you how far we’ve come as a society in addressing anxiety and other mental issues. Several Major Leaguers went on the injured list early this season and listed “anxiety” as the reason. Many people suffer from it.

“Especially in society nowadays,” Wesolowski said. “It’s very common with social media and everything. Standards that everybody holds you to, it’s awful.”

Ella said she felt the pressure after committing to Mississippi State. She was going to the mighty SEC! How could anyone get her out? But she had her worst year, statistically, as a junior. It didn’t help that teams were happy to walk her.

“It was a very stressful year,” she said. “I started out the year doing pretty well, then all of a sudden there were a few games where I went oh-for-something, didn’t feel my swing was good and honestly, it traveled through the entire summer, even in my travel ball. The constant feeling of failure kept spiraling.

“I hold myself to a really high standard. I just couldn’t understand why I was working so hard and not getting the results. I think last year, I was too worried about my stats. Being the Mississippi State commit, if I don’t perform, people are going to think badly of me. I felt extra pressure on me, but I also think I was dealing with that mental block with hitting.

“This year, it’s been a lot better, because I’ve really been working on the mental side of the game and realizing that, ‘OK, even if I have a bad game, take something good out of what I did.’ I got to be on a softball field and have fun with my teammates. This is my last year.”

Wesolowski has been solid for a Will East team that carried a 13-5 record (10-2 in ECIC) and No. 2 seed into sectionals (sister Abby is the starting second baseman and bats third ahead of Ella in the order). She was a force, defensively and offensively, in Tuesday’s nine-inning loss to Will North in a non-league regular-season finale.

Photo by Jerry Sullivan

Ella laced a double during a Flames comeback and her deep fly was caught against the left-field for the final out of the game. She also walked three times, proof of opponents’ reluctance to give such a feared hitter anything good to hit.

Wesolowski is on the All-American Watch List by Premier Girls Fastpitch; she will be one of 40 seniors who will take part in the High School All-American Game on ESPNU on July 29.

Later this summer, she’ll head to Starkville for her freshman year at Mississippi State, realizing a dream she’s had since she was 8 to play in the SEC. Ella attended Mississippi State camp in the summer after her sophomore year with one of her Top Gun friends and was smitten with the place.

“It felt like home,” she said. “All the coaches, the culture there is amazing. I love the southern culture. Everybody’s super nice. You feel like family when you’re there. That’s how I felt at Top Gun and I felt the same way at Mississippi State. “I had some amazing other colleges I could have attended. But in the end, I love challenging myself. That’s another reason why I play the sport. You’re failing, what, 70 percent of the time? But it’s an amazing feeling when you’re playing with your teammates and you’re succeeding that 30 percent of the time.

“I wanted a chance to challenge myself in the SEC as well.”

She’ll be one of the younger players on a Mississippi State team that was the only one of 13 in the SEC to miss the NCAA field announced last Sunday — after reaching the NCAA tourney in nine of the previous 10 years.

Wesolowski is undecided on a major with plans to study criminology, kinesiology and nutrition. After college, she’s likely wind up as a coach. She’s done some coaching for 21 Outs, the new softball facility on Roll Road in Clarence, and helps her uncle’s team in Amherst. And after six years behind the plate, Wesolowski is like another coach on the field for Williamsville East.

“The more I coach, the more I fall in love with coaching,” she said. “Being around the younger girls reminds me of when I was younger, and why I still play.”

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