For a team returning five seniors that was coming off its fifth consecutive Catholic Academies League softball championship, Nazareth Academy had more than a few questions heading into the 2012 season.
So far, most of those have been answered … with a bullet.
Through nine games so far this season, the always-imposing Pandas have outscored their opponents by an eye-popping 89-15 margin. Before Saturday’s 8-3 blemish at Neshaminy High School, Nazareth not only had been undefeated — they were close to perfect. Four of the seven Panda victories were shutouts in which the team exploded for 45 runs, and the other four triumphs were not much closer. However, things have not come as easily for the Pandas as it may seem on the surface.
For starters, the 2011 season ended on a bit of a sour note. After losing just one game all season and wrapping up their fifth straight league title, the Pandas fell at home to Pottsgrove High School in the district playoff quarterfinals. The team had hoped to roll through the districts and prove its mettle as one of Pennsylvania’s top softball programs in the state tournament.
Instead, the Pandas packed it up early and said goodbye to seniors Alicia Keough (catcher) and Alex Stermel (first base), who were bound to play college softball at the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University, respectively. Despite returning a solid core of veterans and underclassmen, Nazareth faced uncertainties at the head of the bench, as for the second straight year the team found out it would have to start the season without longtime coach Bob Keating, who has battled a heart attack and triple-bypass surgery in each of the last two offseasons. (Keating was in good spirits when reached by phone two weeks ago and hopes to return later this season.)
Additionally, longtime assistant Joe Cipolloni, who helped guide two of his daughters from Nazareth to ongoing successful careers at the University of Virginia, left the program, leaving the reins to assistants Ray Keough and Brian Kaleese.
So far so good, as the Pandas have hardly missed a beat.
“Coaches can always feel confident (before the season), but you’re never sure until a team goes out there and executes as planned,” Keough said. “That’s sort of how we felt going into this season. It would be nice to have Bob around because he has such a presence on our program and our league, but Brian and I have been everyday coaches for more than ten years and we have a very good relationship.
“When the staff met in December to evaluate the team, the big questions were how would we continue our dominance of the Catholic Academies League, and can we fill the places of losing two all-conference players to the NCAA?” he continued. “And our answer was yes, because we fully believed that with six returning starters and a strong group of returning bench and junior varsity players we had more than enough talent to play into the summer.”
Even with the loss of the two key seniors and their head coach, the Pandas have an overabundance of talent that has made this group focused on tending to the unfinished business of last season. Junior Emily Shellenberger and sophomores Brianna Perri and Taylor Lichtenhahn have pitched like aces to the point where Keough hasn’t been able to clearly identify who his top pitcher for the postseason will be, certainly a good problem to have.
“It hasn’t been an easy answer,” Keough said when asked who has been the team’s best pitcher. “All three of them looked outstanding in the preseason, and when offered a challenge to win the starting role, all three have stepped up. We’ve rotated them on an even basis through the first nine games and have given them some JV innings to stay fresh, but they all deserve a shot to be our top playoff pitcher. The best thing about them is that all three are great girls with a strong relationship. They continue to help each other out on the field and cheer on whoever is pitching that day.”
While the fearsome Panda pitching triumvirate has done a fantastic job keeping opponents off the scoreboard, the Nazareth offense has scored in bunches to back the team’s starting pitching. Leadoff hitter and senior shortstop Mel Kaleese (Brian Kaleese’s daughter) already has committed to play Division I softball at Siena College next spring, but she hasn’t rested on any laurels at all. Through the season’s first eight games, Kaleese was batting .577 and was getting on base in nearly 70 percent of her at-bats. Not only that, but when she gets on the basepaths she’s a nightmare for the opposition, going a perfect 16-for-16 in stolen-base attempts.
“She’s the strongest player in the league and maybe the entire region,” Keough said. “She’s the most influential player on our team.”
Kaleese has had plenty of help, though, as sophomores Jillian Bovitt and Brittany Colombo have also hit at a torrid pace so far. In the season opener against archrival St. Basil’s Academy, Bovitt crushed two home runs, a double and a triple to go along with five runs batted in and four runs scored in what Keough called “probably the best single game I’ve ever witnessed.” Bovitt is batting a blistering .636 this season with 12 RBIs and eight steals; meanwhile, Colombo is hitting an even .600 with 12 RBIs, but what makes her really dangerous is her versatility at the plate.
“Brittany terrifies pitchers and corner infielders, because when she’s up there anything can happen,” Keough said. “She can hit the ball 250 feet, or lay down a bunt and beat it out with her speed. Both Brittany and Jill will be feared throughout the league for the next two-plus seasons.”
Because they have built such a winning softball tradition, Nazareth has been able to offset losses of key players to graduation by attracting tremendous talent that usually is ready to contribute right away, and in a big way at that. Not only that, but they are led by two interim coaches who know the program and players very well, meaning that a potential Keating return later in the season can make this deadly team that much more dangerous.
“We’re confident that we can win our sixth straight league title,” Keough said. “We had a small setback this past weekend against a powerhouse team in Neshaminy, but I think it can be viewed as a good loss for us because it gives us a road map of what we need to accomplish in the second half of the season. If we’re going to get through our district playoffs and into the state tournament, we’ll have to play better against non-league opponents, and this loss was a good indication for both the staff and players of what we need to do to be successful the rest of the way.” ••EndFragment