PORT BYRON — The times, they are a-changin’.
New coach. New home base. New nickname.
That’s what's ahead for baseball players from Port Byron and Union Springs this upcoming season. Purple and white uniforms will be traded in for maroon. Wolves jerseys and caps will be replaced by ones donning the Panther logo.
And instead of longtime varsity coach Dan Zdanowski calling shots from the dugout, it’ll be former junior varsity coach Bill Walter.
That’s a lot of new in a sport that rewards routine, but even with some major adjustments in store, players are leaning on the thinking that at the end of the day, it’s still the same game.
“When it comes to the sport and merging with Springs, we don’t really think about colors,” said Port Byron senior Ben Longyear. “We’re all one team.”
Since 2014, the varsity program has operated as the Union Springs/Port Byron Wolves while playing its home games at Union Springs High School under a Section IV schedule, while the JV team called Port Byron home. The teams were one of a handful of athletic programs to intermingle between Port Byron and Union Springs, a relationship in place since 2011.
A rule violation hammered down in November by the IAC, the league in which Union Springs/Port Byron competes, altered that relationship. According to the IAC, merged varsity and junior varsity teams must be hosted by the same school; because Union Springs hosted varsity and Port Byron hosted JV, the program was in violation of that rule.
Port Byron and Union Springs were given a three-year grace period, but ultimately decided that the varsity team would exit the IAC and flip to Port Byron, while JV would head to Union Springs.
Now known as the Port Byron/Union Springs Panthers, the varsity team will play in Section III’s OHSL Patriot League against Cayuga County rivals like Cato-Meridian and Weedsport. Students from Union Springs that had a short walk to the field every day will now endure a drive or bus ride over to Port Byron, a recompense of sorts for the Port Byron players who previously dealt with the back-and-forth trips.
“I played my freshmen year here (on JV),” said Kyle Bailey, a senior at Union Springs. “We have a lot of guys who have played football or whatever here, so riding the bus over here or driving over here everyday isn’t a big deal for most of us.
“The first couple times you put the shirt on it’s a little different, but you’re not really thinking about it. You’re just focused on baseball so it doesn’t really matter after that.”
Guiding that focus will be Walter, who takes over for Zdanowski after the latter accepted a position outside the school district. While Walter offers a different demeanor than the intense Zdanowski, he’s still familiar with many of the players having coached them at the JV level.
“Most of the guys I’ve probably coached at one point or another through their upbringings,” Walter said. “I learned a lot from Coach Z. I’ve been watching him and underneath him for a few years here. He set a pretty high bar … he really did.”
High bar indeed. From 2014 to 2018, Union Springs/Port Byron accumulated a 79-21 record that includes a Section IV, Class B championship game appearance in 2014. In 2016, the Wolves won their first 18 games of the season.
Last year with a roster that relied heavily on juniors and underclassmen, Union Springs/Port Byron won 13 games. Walter hopes to build on the pitching and defense, always a staple on previous teams, and mold his group into one capable of outslugging its opponents.
“Outside looking in the last few years, we had trouble scoring runs,” Walter said. “We had great pitching, great defense, but just probably averaged three or four runs a game. They won the majority of their games, but could build a little bit on their hitting.
“I expect to have a very good season. I can expect great defense, a deep pitching staff and great relief. If these guys buy into my philosophy for hitting, I expect to have a good season at the minimum.”
There might be bumps and bruises along the way. After years of familiarity with pitching staffs around Section IV, Panthers hitters will have to learn on the fly in Section III where a different style of game can be expected.
“We’re going to have to take our swings seriously like we have been and continue to work on our individual approaches and approaches as a team,” Bailey said. “I think we’ll be fine. Baseball is the same game — you still have to hit the ball, still have to catch the ball, and still have to throw the ball. If we do that, we’ll be fine."
Longyear, the team’s catcher, looks forward to ending his career from a different perspective of Cayuga County where Port Byron/Union Springs can reignite some rivalries.
“It’s going to be really fun to look forward to,” Longyear said. “The past couple years we did the Cayuga County tournament, but due to weather it hasn’t always been solidified. It’s going to be really exciting and it’s always nice to see those kids, especially in a different sport.”
For the times, they are a-changin'.