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:
CATHOLIC ACADEMIES LEAGUE
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.”
PHILADELPHIA CATHOLIC LEAGUE
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.”
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 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.”
PHILADELPHIA PUBLIC LEAGUE
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.” ••EndFragment