While nothing is a given in the Philadelphia Catholic League, this much is certain: the Archbishop Ryan softball team is playing this season with heavy hearts.
Heavy hearts that are overflowing with love and enough positive memories to subsist an entire lifetime. And while that fact alone may not make the Ragdolls league front-runners on its own, the sense of purpose in which the team is currently playing makes them dangerous.
The Ragdolls have dedicated the 2014 season to their fallen head coach Andy Hafele, who passed away on Feb. 16 after a battle with cancer. He was just 62.
Hafele began coaching softball at Ryan in 1989; he left three years later to become a softball assistant at La Salle University, but returned in 1994 as head coach, winning a Catholic League title the very next year. It goes without saying this season would be played in Hafele’s honor, especially with his passing coming so soon before the start of the season.
But his team still had a lot to say regardless.
“I’ve been with Andy 12 years,” said Vince Capizzi, Hafele’s top assistant who has taken the program’s reins on an interim basis as the team has coped with the loss. “He was a tremendous guy personally, just great to be around. His shoes are difficult ones to fill. It’s tough for us; initially, when it happened, there was a lot of sorrow we had to go through. We got through it and we’re still working on it, but it’s a process.”
While the team knew Hafele had battled cancer in the past, they weren’t aware of a re-occurrence last winter. The news, to say the least, was shocking.
“We were so surprised. It was awful,” said rightfielder Kayla Herbst, the first of five Ryan seniors who gladly shared their Hafele memories. “He put in so much dedication and years. He was well-respected everywhere. He made us better players and people. He showed us what life would be like in the future. We really do miss him, but we want to continue the things he started here. We want to pull together, stay strong and play this season for him.”
So far so good, as the Ragdolls are off to a 5-1 start, including a perfect 3-0 mark in league play. In a league as good as this one with so many strong teams, playing with emotion can be a powerful motivator, especially for the team’s five experienced seniors who were preparing for a fourth and final season with Hafele.
“He put in so much time, so to win one for him, it gives me chills just thinking about it,” said pitcher Nikki Michalowski, who is bound for Hofstra University on a softball scholarship. “It’s very different without him, obviously. He helped me a lot. Sometimes, we went at each other’s necks, but in the end I knew he loved me and he knew I loved him. I guess what hit me most is that I felt I took him for granted.”
This is a common sentiment when someone passes before his or her time, especially as it pertains to young people coping with an unexpected loss. And while it may feel that way on the surface, it’s nearly impossible to take something for granted when you put as much time and effort in that Hafele and his players did.
Hafele served as the proud papa bear of the program, one who would do anything for his cubs. He was also their protector, so much so that when his health problems returned, he shielded the girls from it as best he could. After all, as the coach, it was his job to worry about them, not the other way around.
“He never talked about it or brought it up,” said third baseman Catherine Hammer, who will continue her softball career at West Chester. “He didn’t want us to worry.”
“Andy had been fighting cancer for the last four years and rarely complained,” echoed longtime Ryan athletic director George Todt, who hired Hafele. “He was truly loved by his players and his peers.”
Capizzi said there are tentative plans in place to name the softball field at Ryan in Hafele’s honor after the season, and the team’s jerseys this season feature “A.H.” patches so that their coach is always close by whenever they take the field.
“They’re close to our hearts,” Capizzi said. “That’s where we’ll keep him.”
This Ryan team staunchly believes it has what it takes to win a title. Hafele taught them what it took to compete in a league so good, perhaps a top one in the entire state. He molded them from rough-behind-the-ears freshmen with raw talent to grizzled playoff contenders who speak and act with class and maturity.
High school is an impressionable time in a teenager’s life, and the softball players at Archbishop Ryan were certainly impacted in nothing but positive ways upon crossing paths with Hafele.
“I came in as a freshman and thought I’d be handed a starting spot,” Hammer said. “He knocked me down a few pegs and taught me I had to work for what I wanted. He made me prove it to him while getting me to believe it was attainable. He taught me how to be determined.”
The team attended Hafele’s viewing and funeral as a group. Before each game, they hold his Mass card and say a prayer in the hopes that he’s watching from somewhere, guiding them spiritually the same way they did when he was alive.
“When we found out, it was hard for all of us,” said second baseman Jenna McGee. “It’s our last year, and he’s not here. We’ve dealt with it the best we can, and one of the best ways to do that is we’ve kept the practices exactly how they were when he was here. We’re doing things how we know he’d want us to. The fact that he’s not here is hard for us, but we’ve made sure to carry him with us.”
“He always presented himself very strongly to us,” said outfielder Megan Miller. “When I got surgery on my hand sophomore year, he was always checking on me to make sure I was OK. Just this past winter, I saw him and he joked with me, because I was playing basketball. He said, ‘Where’s your bat and glove? In your locker? Come out to the field and I’ll hit you some fly balls.’
“We didn’t even know anything was wrong. Now, every game is for him. Everything we do is for him.”
And what a final chapter it could be for Hafele and these seniors’ legacies should the Ragdolls win a league title. There’s still a ton of season left, but this much is clear: being denied is not on this team’s wish list.
“What better time to win it than right now?” Hammer said. “As seniors and because of his passing, it would mean so much to the school. It would mean that despite this, we were still able to accomplish something. What a story it could be for people to pass on: ‘Their coach died, and they won it because of him.’ ” ••