Gabby’s grand finale

Game on: Gabby DeLeo plays a staunch second base for St. Hubert. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Should Gabby DeLeo ever get lonely at col­lege later this year, she can take com­fort in know­ing that a few pieces of home will be just a short drive away.

Un­til that time, DeLeo and her St. Hubert soft­ball team­mates have work left to do.

DeLeo, a sure-handed second base­man for the reign­ing Cath­ol­ic League champs, is bound for the Uni­versity of New Haven in Con­necti­c­ut once her time at St. Hubert ends in a few months. As fate would have it, two of DeLeo’s best friends and Bam­bie team­mates — star pitch­er Erica Ragazzo­ne and catch­er Jess Grzy­wna — will both be at­tend­ing Post Uni­versity in Wa­ter­bury, Conn., loc­ated about 20 miles north of New Haven. 

When life as you know it ex­ists with­in the bound­ar­ies of North­east Phil­adelphia, hav­ing a few close friends nearby while ad­just­ing to the next step cer­tainly can’t hurt. 

“It’s funny how things work,” DeLeo said. “We’ve been play­ing to­geth­er for quite some time, and we’ll be on the same tour­na­ment team this sum­mer. Go­ing away four hours to a new school in a new state … hav­ing them so close in case I need a taste of home is awe­some. Of course we’ll gain new team­mates and friends, but it’s nice know­ing they’ll be there.”

To­geth­er the trio — along with center­field­er Claire Al­minde — have been to three straight cham­pi­on­ship games for the Bam­bies. Over­all, head coach Dave Schafer’s pro­gram has won four of the last six league titles. 

Last sea­son, this group of Bam­bies broke through in a big way, win­ning 19 games and knock­ing off Con­well-Egan in the league cham­pi­on­ship be­fore win­ning a first-round game in the PI­AA Class AAAA state play­offs. Even though St. Hubert fell to even­tu­al state cham­pi­on Cent­ral Bucks South in the quar­ters, Pennsylvania was put on no­tice by the only team from Phil­adelphia to win a game in the tour­na­ment.

“This group wants to go fur­ther than any St. Hubert team ever has,” Schafer said. “These seni­ors are as ded­ic­ated to the game as they are to their school, and they’ve been starters since fresh­man year. They epi­tom­ize what a St. Hubert girl should be. They’re more fo­cused, and you can see that they be­lieve that our pro­gram is a very, very good one.”

In ad­di­tion to its strong league sched­ule, Schafer has loaded the St. Hubert non-league slate with a tour­na­ment in Myrtle Beach, S.C., against com­pet­i­tion from New York and West Vir­gin­ia, as well as games later this year against a pair of top New Jer­sey pro­grams. It’s the coach’s hope the steep com­pet­i­tion throughout the sea­son will have the Bam­bies ready for the Cath­ol­ic League and state play­offs when the time comes.

The team knows what it has in Ragazzo­ne, its dy­nam­ite ace in the pitch­ing circle, as well as the ver­sat­ile Grzy­wna (play­ing her fourth dif­fer­ent po­s­i­tion in four years) be­hind the plate and speedy Al­minde hold­ing down the fort in cen­ter.

But per­haps the most im­port­ant play­er the Bam­bies have is DeLeo, who bats in the middle of the or­der and per­forms yeo­man’s work at second base. Ac­cord­ing to Schafer, she has the few­est er­rors of any Bam­bie the last three sea­sons des­pite the fact that many of Ragazzo­ne’s pitches put in play are head­ing in her dir­ec­tion. 

“She’s our Pete Rose … our Charlie Hustle. She’s every­where and she gives everything she has,” Schafer said. “We pride ourselves on de­fense, and she routinely leads us in as­sists with all the balls hit at her. If a ball is hit her way, she’s go­ing to get to it and knock it down. Not only that, but she’s a field gen­er­al, an­oth­er coach out there. The young­er kids look up to her, and she ac­cepts them. She’s our vo­cal lead­er, and the type of play­er we’ll miss big time.”

Bub­bly and en­thu­si­ast­ic in con­ver­sa­tion, DeLeo mostly shies away from talk­ing about her­self. She’d much rather talk about the school that means so much to her and the ef­forts to save it last year (“Little girls sent us their piggy banks to help with fun­drais­ing,” she gushed), or the friends she’s made there whom she loves dearly. When asked about her re­la­tion­ship with the oth­er three seni­or lead­ers on the team, DeLeo called the quar­tet “in­sep­ar­able.”

When she fi­nally opens up, DeLeo char­ac­ter­ized her­self as a mod­est play­er, maybe a little too much. Lack­ing height and bru­tish power, she fo­cuses on do­ing the little things right at the plate and in the field. These little things in­clude know­ing how to re­ceive the ball out in front of her body, as well as throw­ing the ball ac­cur­ately by start­ing all of her tosses up by her ear. This as­tute at­ten­tion to de­tail is a ma­jor reas­on why she com­mits so few er­rors.

“I’m very crit­ic­al of my­self, and I’m very ded­ic­ated and ser­i­ous,” she said. “Soft­ball’s been a part of my life since I was 6 or 7. It’s taught me life skills on and off the field that I’ll carry to fu­ture en­deavors. I love the game. It’s very im­port­ant to me.”

As far as ex­pect­a­tions go for 2013, DeLeo, Schafer and com­pany be­lieve this group has what it takes to win an­oth­er league title, and after that, a state crown. 

In ad­di­tion to the seni­or quar­tet, St. Hubert brings back tal­ent at shortstop (sopho­more Jazmin Ort­iz) as well as tal­ent at the corner out­field spots (im­proved seni­or Taylor Mack and ju­ni­or Brit­tany Smith). The lineup boasts sol­id con­tact hit­ters one through nine, and as long as Ragazzo­ne stays healthy and the de­fense stays stout be­hind her, the St. Hubert faith­ful should have a lot to look for­ward to this sea­son.

“We’re def­in­itely de­term­ined,” she said. “The fact that the end is com­ing is bit­ter­sweet: we’re ex­cited to get there, but we don’t want it to end. Either way, we want to go out with a bang. We’ve all talked about it a bit; of course we want to suc­ceed as a team, but when it comes down to it we want to have fun and en­joy our last sea­son ever in brown and gold.

“This right now, this is what we’ve been wait­ing for. But if we don’t make it as far as we hope, it’s been a jour­ney I’ll nev­er for­get and taught me things I’ll nev­er for­get. I can speak on be­half of all of them, that this pro­gram and school will stick with us forever.” ••

Sports Ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­

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