Hardcore softies

— Here's a team-by-team look at the area's soft­ball teams as the sea­son kicks in­to high gear. Naz­areth, St. Hubert and Arch­bish­op Ry­an all have title as­pir­a­tions.


Spring’s ar­rival rep­res­ents one of the more ex­cit­ing times on the North­east Phil­adelphia high school sports land­scape, as area teams get to ditch the in­doors of the winter doldrums and en­gage in fierce com­pet­i­tion on dia­monds across the city.

Among them are nine North­east-based soft­ball teams hop­ing to have a ser­i­ous im­pact in the stand­ings. With the sea­son still in its early stages, all squads em­brace the pos­sib­il­ity of achiev­ing a cham­pi­on­ship. No mat­ter the res­ults, the ex­cite­ment for a new sea­son is palp­able.

Naz­areth Academy looks to con­tin­ue its an­nu­al ex­cel­lence des­pite a big ab­sence at the head of its bench, while St. Hubert, Arch­bish­op Ry­an and Little Flower an­ti­cip­ate strong show­ings in the chal­len­ging Cath­ol­ic League.

In the Pub­lic League, North­east, Lin­coln, Frank­ford, George Wash­ing­ton and Samuel Fels will battle vari­ous ele­ments in their quest for suc­cess, from league re­align­ment to re­pla­cing gradu­at­ing play­ers to coach­ing shakeups.

Need to know what to look out for this sea­son when it comes to your fa­vor­ite team? Here’s a closer look:


Naz­areth Academy

The Pan­das are the blue­print for suc­cess when it comes to North­east Philly soft­ball. Naz­areth won its fifth con­sec­ut­ive Cath­ol­ic Academies title last sea­son, but the Pan­das were elim­in­ated earli­er than usu­al in the Dis­trict I Class AAA tour­na­ment, bow­ing out in the quarterfi­nals. The team is back and fo­cused on re­gain­ing the ex­cel­lence it is used to in 2012, but they will have to do so without a key mem­ber of the Pan­das for much of the sea­son.

Long­time coach Bob Keat­ing, who has had heart prob­lems in the past, un­der­went un­ex­pec­ted triple-by­pass sur­gery in Decem­ber and won’t be able to re­turn to coach­ing un­til next month at the earli­est. Keat­ing was in good spir­its and re­cov­er­ing from a 31-day hos­pit­al stay when reached by tele­phone, but he de­ferred ques­tions on this year’s team to his as­sist­ant coaches. To make mat­ters more dif­fi­cult, long­time as­sist­ant Joe Cipol­loni resigned, but Keat­ing’s re­main­ing as­sist­ants feel pre­pared to guide the team in his ab­sence.

“We ex­pec­ted him (Keat­ing) back, but shortly after we broke for the hol­i­days we got a call say­ing he was back in the hos­pit­al,” said as­sist­ant coach Ray Keough, who will share coach­ing du­ties with Bri­an Kaleese. “It’s nice to have Bob around be­cause he has such a big pres­ence in the league and in our dis­trict, but Bri­an and I have been every­day coaches for more than ten years and we have a very good re­la­tion­ship.”

A strong re­turn­ing nuc­le­us should make Keough and Kaleese’s job much easi­er. The Pan­das re­turn five seni­ors from last year’s team and have a di­verse break­down of vet­er­ans and young­sters with four ju­ni­ors, six sopho­mores and one fresh­man.

Seni­or shortstop Mel Kaleese, Bri­an’s daugh­ter, is the lead­er of the pack. She’s a four-year starter already com­mit­ted to play at Si­ena Col­lege next year, and Keough called her the “most in­flu­en­tial play­er on our team.” Fel­low seni­or cap­tains and out­field­ers Emily Rago and Jess Woltem­ate will aid Kaleese.

The Pan­das also have three re­turn­ing pitch­ers ex­pec­ted to make big im­pacts in sopho­mores Taylor Lichten­hahn and Bri­anna Perri and ju­ni­or Emily Schelle­m­ber­ger. Keough said there was not ne­ces­sar­ily an “ace” pitch­er, but that all three have been suc­cess­ful when their turn comes in the ro­ta­tion. On of­fense, the Pan­das are very sol­id one through nine, in­clud­ing sopho­more power threats Jill Bovitt (second base) and Brit­tany Colombo (third base). As Keough said, “There are no real weak spots in our lineup.”

Keough knows he and Bri­an Kaleese have big shoes to fill in Keat­ing’s ab­sence, but he ex­pects the win­ning tra­di­tion of the pro­gram to carry the Pan­das far this sea­son.

“A his­tory of win­ning has helped us at­tract win­ning play­ers,” Keough said. “They ex­pect to win. They all have tre­mend­ous drive and fo­cus, and their hard work and de­term­in­a­tion makes our job as coaches much easi­er. In their minds, they fell short last year, and with all of the tal­ent this team has, they def­in­itely want to get back to the dis­tricts and win the whole thing.”



St. Hubert

Naz­areth isn’t the only team set to fol­low up on un­fin­ished busi­ness, as the Bam­bies of St. Hubert also ended the 2011 sea­son with a dis­ap­point­ing taste in their mouths.

Per­en­ni­al con­tenders to claim the Cath­ol­ic League cham­pi­on­ship, the Bam­bies were upen­ded in last sea­son’s title game by Lans­dale Cath­ol­ic. Yet they are re­turn­ing many tal­en­ted play­ers from last year’s squad who will try to get Hubert back to where the team feels it be­longs.

The Bam­bies bring back top pitch­er Erica Ragazzo­ne, a ju­ni­or who also is one of the team’s most feared hit­ters. She is es­pe­cially fo­cused, par­tic­u­larly be­cause she got the loss in last year’s cham­pi­on­ship des­pite throw­ing a no-hit­ter.

“The way last year ended left a bad taste in our mouths, no doubt about it,” said head coach Dave Schafer. “We felt that what was ours was taken away from us, and our goal is to re­gain that.”

Join­ing Ragazzo­ne in the middle of the lineup will be re­turn­ing All-Cath­ol­ic second base­man Gabby DeLeo, while ju­ni­or center­field­er Claire Al­minde will provide quick­ness at the top of the or­der. Seni­or catch­er Jess Mish­in­ski re­turns after miss­ing most of 2011 to in­jury, while seni­or Gel Clark will move from catch­er to first base. Ju­ni­or Jess Grzy­wna re­turns to man third base, while seni­or left­field­er Meg Mat­thews and sopho­more right field­er Brit­tany Smith rep­res­ent the team’s best con­tact hit­ters.

If that’s not enough for op­pon­ents to deal with, the Bam­bies boast her­al­ded fresh­man Jazz Ort­iz, who brings a strong bat and a fine glove to the all-im­port­ant shortstop po­s­i­tion.

“There’s a ton of po­ten­tial here,” Schafer said. “We stack our non-league sched­ule so that we can be ready when the Cath­ol­ic League games start. We know there’s a lot of good teams in our league, so we feel as if we have something to prove. It’ll be a real dog fight, but the good thing about this team is that we usu­ally peak as the sea­son goes on, so I ex­pect us to only get bet­ter as we pro­gress.”

Arch­bish­op Ry­an

The Rag­dolls are also a team with something to prove, which al­ways seems to be the case as the neigh­bor­hood rivalry with St. Hubert in­tens­i­fies. Ry­an lost to the Bam­bies in the Cath­ol­ic League semi­finals last sea­son, but Rag­dolls head coach Andy Hafele said the team has re­turned even more en­er­gized for the 2012 cam­paign.

“We have good bal­ance,” he said. “We have a few re­turn­ing seni­ors, but there’s a good mix­ture of sopho­mores and fresh­men that we ex­pect to con­trib­ute. We think we’ll be right there in the end.”

Hafele said seni­ors to look out for on this year’s team are out­field­ers Heath­er For­ward and Megan Wolf, as well as shortstop Alyssa Gos­podarek. Fel­low seni­or Tiffany Di­Mat­teo will round out the team’s out­field, while re­turn­ing play­ers Christina Zegl­in­ski (catch­er) and Cath­er­ine Ham­mer (third base) are ex­pec­ted to so­lid­i­fy a vet­er­an lineup. Fresh­man Kerri Dadal­ski is ex­pec­ted to con­trib­ute all over the place, from pitch­er to out­field to des­ig­nated hit­ter.

The key to Ry­an’s suc­cess will rest on the arm of sopho­more pitch­er Nikki Micha­lowski, who gained a lot of ex­per­i­ence as a fresh­man and is ex­pec­ted to be one of the tough­er pitch­ers in the league. She cer­tainly has the ped­i­gree, as older sis­ters Jenna (gradu­ated from Ry­an last year) and Sarah (a re­cent gradu­ate of Hof­stra Uni­versity’s revered soft­ball pro­gram) have paved the way.

“Nikki got a bulk of the work last year, and she got a good taste of what it takes to suc­ceed in this league,” Hafele said. “She’s only got­ten stronger.

“Our goal is to just get a little bit bet­ter with each game,” he con­tin­ued. “If we im­prove enough then we ex­pect to be back in the cham­pi­on­ship game.”

Little Flower

Little Flower cer­tainly has the tal­ent to be a ma­jor play­er in the Cath­ol­ic League, but will the ex­per­i­enced group be able to over­come the dreaded “seni­or-it­is?” Its head coach cer­tainly hopes so.

“We have a real good team,” John Strunk said. “We have sev­en seni­ors, and they have the look of a team that can do some dam­age. I’m just work­ing on mak­ing sure they be­lieve in them­selves and play with en­thu­si­asm, which some­times is hard to do for the seni­ors who have the end of high school in sight.”

After strug­gling last sea­son, Little Flower be­lieves that a strong nuc­le­us of seni­ors Kel­sey Mc­Donough (first base), Ave Bolli (second base) and Francesca Fail­lace (util­ity) will lead the charge this sea­son. These girls got to play in last year’s Car­penter Cup All-Star tour­na­ment, which show­cases the best play­ers in the tri-state area. Ju­ni­or Lind­sey Gibbs is ex­pec­ted to be the team’s top pitch­er, and Strunk says she has “come a real long way.”

“The only trouble I have is in­stilling con­fid­ence in them and mak­ing sure they play to­geth­er as a team,” he con­tin­ued. “We played Ry­an and Hubert tough last sea­son, so I know we can com­pete if we play as a unit. I’ve been here for fif­teen years, and I’ve nev­er had this many re­turn­ing girls. In the end it’s on them and not me to make this sea­son count, so I need to make sure they play mo­tiv­ated and work hard throughout the sea­son.”




If North­east wants to build on the suc­cess the pro­gram has had dur­ing head coach Den­nis En­gle­man’s first two sea­sons, they will have to rely on a couple of key re­turnees.

For starters, the Vik­ings will feel the pres­sure of the Pub­lic League’s re­align­ment in­to three di­vi­sions: Gold, Sil­ver and Bronze. Most of the teams with win­ning re­cords from 2011, North­east in­cluded, were put in­to the Gold Di­vi­sion, so En­gle­man is ex­pect­ing the un­ex­pec­ted in 2012.

“We’re not re­build­ing, but when you have to re­place your top pitch­er, first base­man, catch­er and shortstop, you have to do some def­in­ite re­tool­ing,” En­gle­man said. “The good thing about us is we’ve got­ten bet­ter each year I’ve been here, get­ting to the Pub­lic League semi­finals last year. This year, we want to take the next step and not only get to the cham­pi­on­ship, but to win it.”

The Vik­ings will be count­ing on a pair of four-year play­ers in seni­or cap­tains Isa­belle Cam­panaro (second base) and Jodel­is Diaz (third base). An­oth­er strength of the team will be its out­field, which re­turns in­tact, in Cas­sandra Preslar, El­ex­is Flores and Sarah Bar­bakoff. Bey­ond that, ques­tions abound, as the Vik­ings are ex­pect­ing three fresh­men to play key roles on the team: first base­man Aman­da Lind­say, in­field­er/catch­er Francesca Cam­panaro (Isa­belle’s sis­ter) and Nayah Galin­dez.

En­gle­man said the biggest prob­lem thus far has been fig­ur­ing out the pitch­er-catch­er bat­tery, as well as im­prov­ing on fun­da­ment­als.

“In the one game we lost so far, we gave up el­ev­en runs, mostly due to er­rors and passed balls,” he said. “If we cut down on silly mis­takes and fig­ure out our catch­ing and pitch­ing situ­ations, then we’ll be there at the end.”

George Wash­ing­ton

With the grow­ing pains of her first sea­son as head coach be­hind her, Kathy Paul is ready for her Eagles to really take off in 2012.

Paul, a 1985 gradu­ate of rival North­east, re­turns four play­ers from last year’s team to go along with five fresh­men, three of whom are ex­pec­ted to play ma­jor roles for Wash­ing­ton.

Seni­or first base­man Lind­sey Port­er is a “real good play­er that hasn’t got­ten a lot of re­cog­ni­tion,” ac­cord­ing to Paul, and she will be flanked in the lineup by fel­low seni­ors Liz Miller (pitch­er) and Bar­bara Dan­hart (pitch­er/second base). Oth­er not­able play­ers are out­field­er Brit­tany McK­ee, catch­er Megan Klein­brahm and Li­era Rivera, who will play in the out­field when she re­turns from a con­cus­sion. These Eagles will be joined by fresh­men Sam Bris­tow (left field), Bri­anna Castor (third base) and Brit­tany Jones (shortstop), all of whom are ex­pec­ted to make im­me­di­ate con­tri­bu­tions for Wash­ing­ton.

“This year has been so much easi­er to pre­pare for,” Paul said. “It’s been a smooth trans­ition from year one to year two, and the girls are really buy­ing in­to what I’m preach­ing, which is team work and to­geth­er­ness. I really like this group of girls, and if our of­fense stays strong and our de­fense im­proves as the year goes on, then we should sur­prise some folks and be an above-the-middle-of-the-pack team.”


Suc­cess on the field is something to strive for, but Frank­ford’s main goal when it comes to its soft­ball roster is hav­ing its play­ers suc­ceed more in the classroom than on the dia­mond.

All coaches preach aca­dem­ic suc­cess to its stu­dents, but in the throes of a long sea­son, school­work some­times falls to the back­burn­er. Pi­on­eers coach Ken Tom­czuk won’t let that hap­pen.

“It’s fun to com­pete on the field, but at the end of the day, soft­ball is just a game,” Tom­czuk said. “We have a team policy to really fo­cus on aca­dem­ics, be­cause we know what you work for later in life will be achieved through your stud­ies. Ex­cel­lence in the classroom will be what gets you through the hard times that are to come.”

So far, this policy has worked won­ders. Tom­czuk said all of his play­ers from the last three teams got in­to col­lege or an­oth­er type of sec­ond­ary in­sti­tu­tion. This year’s crop of seni­ors is no dif­fer­ent, as Tyanna Hud­son (catch­er/first base/pitch­er), Chelsea Taylor (first base/pitch­er) and Al­ex­an­dria Alex­is (out­field) are headed to col­lege next year. Hud­son will be honored with the Jack­ie Robin­son Award be­fore the April 15 Phil­lies game.

Tom­czuk said he ex­pects young­er play­ers like Dani­elle Co­or, Jew­el Ro­man and Mari­ah Cedeno to even­tu­ally fol­low in the foot­steps of the play­ers to come be­fore them, achiev­ing suc­cess on and off the field. On the dia­mond, Frank­ford is a young team that has plenty of room to grow as it tries to real­ize its play­off as­pir­a­tions. No mat­ter how the sea­son turns out, Tom­czuk already is proud of his group.

“We have a lot of fight in us,” he said. “We’re weak pitch­ing-wise, but the girls have the ba­sic fun­da­ment­als down where I think we can com­pete for the play­offs. To watch them con­tin­ue to push each oth­er in the classroom and on the field has been very ex­cit­ing for me to watch.”

Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln

After a suc­cess­ful show­ing in 2011, the Lin­coln Railsplit­ters are hop­ing to build off a play­off ap­pear­ance; only this time, they are hop­ing their top play­er can take them even fur­ther.

Lin­coln was bounced by North­east in the first round last sea­son, but the team re­turns All-Pub­lic League seni­or pitch­er Jess Figueroa, one of the top arms in the league. Already off to a 3-0 start in 2012, the Railsplit­ters’ soft­ball team is in good hands with Figueroa on the mound.

“She’s very, very good,” said Lin­coln ath­let­ic dir­ect­or Ed Mc­Get­tigan. “Not only is she a fant­ast­ic pitch­er, but she’s a pres­ence in the middle of the or­der and she can field her po­s­i­tion. All around, she’s a fant­ast­ic play­er that we ex­pect great things from.”

Aid­ing Figueroa will be power-hit­ting first base­man Kaitlyn Ku­biak, steady catch­er An­geline Baez, slap-hit­ting center­field­er Dia­mond Rodrig­uez and a strong left side of the in­field in shortstop Abi­gail Nice and third base­man Molli Zbowroski.

“Ob­vi­ously, we want to get deep­er in­to the play­offs this sea­son,” Mc­Get­tigan said. “But really we just want them to go out there, have fun and en­joy their time as stu­dent-ath­letes at Lin­coln.”

Samuel Fels

As a first-year head coach, Mike Kauff­man knows he has his work cut out for him.

Kauff­man takes over at the helm for the Pan­thers, and he will be build­ing for the fu­ture des­pite in­her­it­ing a roster with 10 seni­ors.

ldquo;It’ll be a learn­ing year for us, as we have a lot of kids that are play­ing the sport for the first time,” Kauff­man said. “It’s been a struggle so far, and we’re try­ing to de­vel­op something here that will res­ult in fu­ture suc­cess. That’s kind of tough for our seni­ors, but their lead­er­ship has been great for the school and this pro­gram.”

A mem­ber of the Sil­ver Di­vi­sion, Fels’ best play­ers should be seni­ors Shanna Buen­ano-Per­alta (pitch­er), Tal­isha DuPrey (second base) and Jes­sica Olivares (third base). Un­der­class­men that have im­pressed Kauff­man so far have been catch­er Can­dice Hol­man (“She gets points just for vo­lun­teer­ing to put on the equip­ment,” Kauff­man quipped) and out­field­er Shuntell Wilkin­son.

“They’re ex­cited and will­ing to learn, and as a first-year head coach, that’s all you can ask for,” Kauff­man said. “They know what’s ex­pec­ted of them and they’ve been en­thu­si­ast­ic and sup­port­ive of every­one else. We’re just fo­cused on get­ting bet­ter each game.” ••


You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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