by Tom Utescher
Last Wednesday’s Inter-Ac League softball opener at Penn Charter pitted the Quakers against the team they’d defeated for the Pennsylvania Independent Schools championship late last May. In that contest, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy had staged a late rally, but fell short, 3-4, and PC repeated as champion after having won the league title earlier in the month.
Last week, the SCH Blue Devils broke out of a 1-1 tie after the first inning, going on to lead 5-1 in the top of the fourth and then coming away with a 6-3 victory.
Although SCH has been a solid program for a number of years, until fairly recently there was some degree of trepidation among the Blue Devils when they met Penn Charter, one of the most successful franchises in the history of Inter-Ac softball. However, last season’s upset of Episcopal Academy in the PAIS semifinals and then the close game against the Quakers in the finals changed the Devils’ perspective.
“The older leaders of the team felt confident coming back to this field, and they instilled that in the younger players,” remarked longtime SCH head coach Stephanie Mill. “The girls knew that Penn Charter is a well-coached team and that we had to be prepared to stay focused and just play our game.”
Donald “Doc” Mittica, the leader of the Penn Charter program since its inception, noted “Springside’s a very good team, and it’s good for the league overall to have better balance. I lost four good players [to graduation] and they picked up a number of good young ones and they added a very talented shortstop.”
The shortstop Coach Mittica was referring to is SCH sophomore Mo’ne Davis, the former little leaguer who became a sensation in baseball and who has now joined the Blue Devils’ softball team for the first time. Her hardball pitching talents did not directly translate to a softball setting because the throwing motion is so different, but all the rest of her skills are proving a boon to the SCH squad.
Although the team only graduated two seniors from 2016, both pitcher Madi Saltzman and outfielder Ashley Lubiski had been playing varsity ball since they were eighth-graders. In addition, the two juniors who were on the team last season did not come out for the sport this spring. This left the 2017 Blue Devils with no 12th-graders on the roster at all, but fortunately junior captains Rachel Kazlauskas, Lucy Lamb, and Kayla McTamney are all now third-year starters.
Saltzman was the primary pitcher, but McTamney saw a lot of action in the circle over the past two years, as well as playing infield. She’s throwing to a new catcher in Erin Fennessey, a freshman who has earned a starting job along with her classmate Katie Reagan, the first baseman.
There are a total of six freshmen who have made the varsity team, and although 11th-grader McTamney is unquestionably the staff ace, Coach Mill can call upon the arms of ninth-graders Alysa Akins and Becca Arnold if need be.
Springside Chestnut Hill made a spring break training trip to Orlando, Fla., while Penn Charter prepared in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Despite the fact that veteran PC softball mainstays Eileen Hennessy, Devon Loftus, Ayanna Matthews, and Zoe Neefe all left with their diplomas last June, Coach Mittica’s battery returned intact. Senior Faith Fenton still throws to junior Grace Stansfield, while junior hurler Ava Nicolucci has a good deal of experience, as well. In addition, freshman Anastasia Lewis already made some varsity appearances as a Penn Charter eighth-grader last season.
There only other ninth-grader on the 2017 varsity at this point is Madelynn Solow, a new student at the school.
“I lost my entire outfield and we’re still figuring that out,” Mittica said. “We also had to find a new third baseman, and Abby Quinn [a sophomore] is fitting in there well.”
The first batter in last Wednesday’s Inter-Ac opener, SCH sophomore transfer Steph DeAngelis, drew a walk, but PC’s Fenton struck out the next batter. DeAngelis moved to second on a hit to centerfield by her classmate, Davis, and then scored thanks to a Penn Charter error on a ball put in play by Lamb.
In the bottom half, the Quakers got a little two-out rally going with a line drive up the middle by Stansfield. Senior Abby Cohen ripped the ball through the infield and into left field, and next Fenton hit the ball to right side. The Blue Devils didn’t get the ball home in time to prevent one run from scoring, but they nailed the next runner at third, and the inning ended in a 1-1 draw.
In the next two frames, though, the visitors added one run each time up while PC went down in order two times in a row. With two put-outs from her position at shortstop during this stretch, SCH’s Davis showed that her many years of playing hardball were serving her well.
In the Devils’ half of the second, freshmen Fennessey and Reagan got on through a fielding error and a base hit through the left side, respectively. The Quakers diminished the threat with a strike-out and then a force-out at third. The visitors still had runners on first and second, though, and one run came home when Kazlauskas cracked the ball up the middle in the air.
Springside Chestnut Hill bumped its lead to 3-1 in the third stanza, which began with sophomore Colebe Oliver’s solo home run over the fence in right field.
The home team’s situation deteriorated further as the fourth inning got underway. Freshman Madi Niebish whacked a single past PC’s Fenton in the circle, then she got around to third with two outs as DeAngelis and Kazlauskas sacrificed themselves to advance her. After Davis drew a walk, she became one of two runners to score as Oliver doubled to the foot of the fence in left center to make it 5-1.
PC was able to put its second run up on the board in the bottom half, starting out once more with two outs. Fenton got on through an error, then a ball hit to right by Quinn bounced past the outfielder for two bases and a Penn Charter run.
Each team added a run in the fifth inning to put the 6-3 final score on the board. SCH’s McTamney walked and then made second as Fennessey grounded out, putting her in position to score on a double down the right field line by Reagan.
In the bottom half, PC began with a pair of outs, but then things cycled around to the top of the order and senior Brigitte Gutpelet. A four-year varsity stalwart who will play at Dickinson College, Gutpelet pounded a solo shot out of the park. This would be the final run of the game.
Kazlauskas singled to launch the top of the sixth, but three straight outs followed, and it was one-two-three for Charter on the flip side of the inning.
PC’s Lewis (who had come in to pitch in the fifth inning) returned the favor against three Blue Devil batters at the top of the seventh. With one out in the bottom half, Quakers sophomore Abby Mannion singled to center, and she was able to sneak around to third base while junior Celena Militello waited out a walk.
The Devils’ Davis backed out into shallow left field to glove a fly ball for the second out, which brought up Gutpelet. If the senior could drive another ball over the fence, PC would have the contest tied. Instead, when she made contact the ball rumbled down the first base line, where Reagan scooped it up and stepped on the bag herself for the final out of the afternoon.
Springside Chestnut Hill’s Mill is pleased at the way her young team is gelling even at this early stage.
“We have a good mix of older players and of younger players who already have good softball experience,” she commented. “We had a good spring break trip, and I think that helped bring them together.”
Regarding the contest that had just occurred, PC’s Mittica reflected “We made errors that cost us three runs. They hit balls that dropped in, and we hit balls right to them. That’s the game.”