Ragdolls dedicate season to fallen coach Hafele

Man for the job: Fol­low­ing the sud­den passing of long­time Ry­an soft­ball coach Andy Hafele, Vince Capizzi, Hafele’s top as­sist­ant, has taken the reins. ED MOR­RONE / TIMES PHOTO

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.

Very 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.’ ” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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