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.” ••