Despite key losses, Nazareth firing on all cylinders

Naz­areth pitch­er Taylor Lichten­hahn de­liv­ers a pitch in Sat­urday’s game at Ne­sham­iny.


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.” ••


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