Tradition of excellence

  • One for all: It was the most successful softball season for the program, as Nazareth went 23-3 and reached the state playoff semifinals. PHOTO PROVIDED BY NAZARETH ACADEMY SOFTBALL

  • Nazareth Academy senior pitcher Emily Shellenberger went 10-1 for the Pandas this year. PHOTO PROVIDED BY NAZARETH ACADEMY SOFTBALL

  • Seniors (L-R): Seniors Molly Scullion, Kaitlin O’Sullivan and Emily Shellenberger combined to win 81 wins in their four seasons against just eight losses. PHOTO PROVIDED BY NAZARETH ACADEMY SOFTBALL

  • A victorious season: After winning their district championship, the Pandas marched all the way to the state semifinals. PHOTO PROVIDED BY NAZARETH ACADEMY SOFTBALL

Be­fore they put to­geth­er the greatest sea­son in school his­tory, the Naz­areth Academy soft­ball team was asked to think of a slo­gan for the 2013 cam­paign.

What they came up with was both suc­cinct and apro­pos:

Tra­di­tion Nev­er Gradu­ates.

“That tra­di­tion,” said as­sist­ant coach Ray Keough. “Is win­ning.”

The Panda soft­ball pro­gram is no stranger to suc­cess. Year in and year out, Naz­areth soft­ball teams have been so good that each sea­son be­comes an even tough­er act to fol­low. 

But this sea­son, they some­how topped it all.

Led by the most suc­cess­ful seni­or class in pro­gram his­tory and ac­cen­tu­ated by a pack of tal­en­ted un­der­class­men, the Pan­das marched to a 23-3 sea­son in 2013. It began with a bril­liant reg­u­lar sea­son, fol­lowed by a PI­AA Dis­trict 1 Class AAA title. 

Win­ning dis­tricts pro­pelled Naz­areth to the state tour­na­ment, where the team ad­vanced fur­ther than it ever has. And al­though the Pan­das ul­ti­mately lost in the state semi­finals to even­tu­al cham­pi­on Val­ley View (from the Scrant­on area) on June 4, dev­ast­a­tion quickly gave way to proud re­flec­tion. Sil­ver lin­ings can be a tricky busi­ness in ath­let­ics, but be­ing among the fi­nal four out of 161 AAA Pennsylvania soft­ball teams is noth­ing to be dis­ap­poin­ted in. 

“I’ve been on this team for four years, and los­ing has been sel­dom,” said seni­or Emily Shel­len­ber­ger, Naz­areth’s staff ace. “Com­ing through this pro­gram, you see that the team be­fore you won, and the team be­fore them won and it makes you want to win every game. It’s something that be­comes in­grained in you.”

Shel­len­ber­ger and com­pany didn’t win every game, but they did come close. In four sea­sons, Shel­len­ber­ger, along with fel­low seni­ors Molly Scul­lion, Kaitlin O’Sul­li­van and Al­lis­on Iv­cic, went 81-8, win­ning four con­fer­ence titles, two dis­trict cham­pi­on­ships and two ap­pear­ances in the state play­offs. In 67 in­nings this sea­son, Shel­len­ber­ger went 10-1 with a 0.95 ERA, 63 strikeouts and just 12 walks.

Of course, she had plenty of help. Ju­ni­ors Taylor Lichten­hahn and Bri­anna Perri aided Shel­len­ber­ger in the pitch­ing circle, as Naz­areth’s staff gave up just 48 runs in 26 games. Mean­while, the lineup pro­duced 196 runs of­fens­ively, led by third base­man Brit­tany Colombo (.452 bat­ting av­er­age, .513 on-base per­cent­age) and shortstop Jill Bovitt (.419, four home runs). Then there was fresh­man Tri­cia Kalesse, who bat­ted .436 on the sea­son and was a post­season standout for the Pan­das, hit­ting .722 with 13 hits and sev­en runs scored.

Add an in­cred­ibly stingy de­fense to the equa­tion and it’s easy to un­der­stand why Naz­areth was a game away from play­ing in a state cham­pi­on­ship at Penn State’s Main Cam­pus.

The Pan­das were also in­cred­ibly well coached, with Keough and Bri­an Kalesse (Tri­cia’s dad) as­sist­ing long­time head coach Bob Keat­ing.

“It’s really about the girls,” Bri­an Kalesse said. “They did all the work. We pre­pared them for the sea­son, but with all of their tal­ent, we ba­sic­ally pressed cruise con­trol while they took us for a smooth and ex­cit­ing ride.”

In a sea­son for the ages, Naz­areth play­ers said they will re­mem­ber the little things the most, like bump­ing mu­sic on bus rides to shake off pregame jit­ters, or sit­ting in numbered pews in the school chapel that cor­res­pon­ded with each girl’s jer­sey num­ber.

“We would pray … not ne­ces­sar­ily for wins, but for each oth­er,” said Shel­len­ber­ger, who will play soft­ball at Di­vi­sion III Susque­hanna Uni­versity next year. “There were 19 of us, and we knew we could all de­pend on each oth­er. Without each oth­er, we don’t have a dis­trict title or that run in states.”

A state title would be the only way for Naz­areth play­ers to top what they ac­com­plished this sea­son, and the re­main­ing Pan­das are already fo­cused on 2014. Colombo (a Mar­ist Col­lege com­mit) and Bovitt (a Bing­hamton sign­ee) already have hit the dia­mond in the off­season, work­ing on im­prov­ing an already strong de­fens­ive left side of the in­field. The fact that both play­ers already com­mit­ted to Di­vi­sion I pro­grams as ju­ni­ors should al­le­vi­ate much of the stresses that come along with seni­or year.

“Oh, we can’t wait,” Colombo said. “It’s only been a few days since the sea­son ended, and all the girls already miss each oth­er and want to be back out on the field. We just be­came so close as a unit, and there was something dif­fer­ent and spe­cial about this team next to the ones that came be­fore it.”

Bovitt echoed that sen­ti­ment.

“You al­ways want to be the girls that go the fur­thest, the one that every­body else wants to be,” she said. “We’ve be­come so close throughout the years; it really sits in­side me to the point where I’ll nev­er for­get any of the girls on this team.

“I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber us run­ning the mile around Eden Hall; we stuck to­geth­er as one big pack, one fam­ily that con­stantly pushed ourselves and pushed each oth­er. I think that’s the per­fect meta­phor for this sea­son.”

In ad­di­tion to Lichten­hahn, Perri, Colombo, Bovitt and Tri­cia Kalesse, oth­er names to look out for next sea­son will be ju­ni­ors Mad­die Miller and Tamara Jen­nings. The Pan­das also have a rich pipeline of JV play­ers that ex­pect to con­trib­ute im­me­di­ately once called up to the varsity squad.

So, what will 2014 hold for Naz­areth? An eighth straight Cath­ol­ic Academies title and a re­peat at dis­tricts will be the goals, as they are every sea­son. Now, with some big-game state play­off ex­per­i­ence, the team is con­fid­ent that it can make it all the way back. The Pan­das held a 2-1 lead on Val­ley View be­fore even­tu­ally suc­cumb­ing, so they be­lieve they be­long and are more than cap­able than bring­ing a state title back to Grant Av­en­ue.

“It’s still ac­tu­ally kind of un­real to me that we made it that far,” Bovitt said. “It was al­ways a goal of ours, but I guess it was nev­er a real­ity un­til now. It’s so ex­cit­ing to think about seni­or year, to have an op­por­tun­ity to go even fur­ther next year with the tal­ent we have com­ing back. It’s a little up­set­ting we couldn’t win for the seni­ors.”

No wor­ries there, ac­cord­ing to Shel­len­ber­ger. 

“Totally,” she said when asked if she thought Naz­areth would win it all in 2014. “I plan to come to every one of those games once school is done. When I grow up, I hope I can send my kids there one day, and hope­fully they’d be in­volved in sports like I was. This is my leg­acy, and I’m proud of every single one of them.” ••

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