The days leading up to Feb. 16 were business as usual for Vince Capizzi and the Archbishop Ryan softball program.
Then, their words were turned upside down, which made what happened over the ensuing four months that much more magnificent.
Andy Hafele, who had led the Ragdolls as the team’s head coach since 1994, died suddenly on Feb. 16 after an on-and-off battle with cancer. Ryan’s season, scheduled to begin not long after Hafele’s passing, was initially thrown into disarray. The players, unaware of Hafele’s failing health, were shocked and heartbroken. Even Capizzi, who had been Hafele’s top assistant for a dozen years, called his close friend’s death, at just 62 years old, a surprise.
But then, something happened, one of those magical, unexplainable scenarios that always seems to shine the brightest when brought to life through athletics.
Sensing a calming supernatural influence on their side, the Ragdolls didn’t let the death of the man who taught them so much about life and the game that bonded them derail their season. Instead, it empowered them, and they dedicated the season in Hafele’s honor and vowed to bring a Catholic League championship back to Ryan for the first time since 1995, Hafele’s second year on the job.
They did just that, marching unblemished through the Catholic League regular season and playoffs, hoisting the trophy after a 5-0 win over Lansdale Catholic on May 22. Ryan defeated Central for the Class AAAA city title a week later, and knocked off North Penn 6-0 in the first round of the state playoffs before being eliminated by Lower Dauphin, 4-0, in the quarters on June 6.
Despite the elimination, Capizzi couldn’t be any prouder of his girls if he tried.
“It was an absolute fabulous ride, and the kids played out of their minds,” Capizzi said in a Monday evening phone conversation. “They had everything to play for. We were sad to see it end, because we thought we could go all the way, to tell you the truth. But we also felt gratified we won the Catholic League for Andy.”
The team’s five seniors — Nikki Michalowski, Jenna Magee, Cat Hammer, Meg Miller and Kayla Herbst — deserve tons of credit for helping keep the team together and focused in the days and weeks that immediately followed Hafele’s passing. All contributed in varying ways on the field, but it was the maturity and leadership off it that carried this team the extra mile.
“They were leaders through and through,” Hafele said. “They all made us a better team, psychologically. They weren’t afraid. They just did their jobs. Not only that, but the underclassmen looked up to them in the way they practiced, played hard and conducted their business on the field. That was the perspective they needed, someone to look up to. They were five additional coaches on the field … just a tremendous help.”
Despite the loss of five talented players, one of the team’s best, junior starting pitcher Kerri Dadalski — who was on the mound when Ryan won the league title — will return. Dadalski is a feared bat in the middle of the order, and was the owner of two no-hitters this season. Sophomores Sarah Ostaszewski (catcher) and Meghan O’Neil (outfielder) and freshman first baseman Riley Kerr also will return for another go-round.
“We’ll have a tremendous battery with Sarah and Kerri, and Kerri will allow us to continue that run of good pitching,” Capizzi said. “As far as younger players go, we have quite a few of them, even at the JV level, who can help us next year. We look forward to that. They’ll certainly have big shoes to fill.”
Nobody had bigger shoes to fill than Capizzi, and he did so admirably. When Hafele died, Ryan athletic director George Todt said Capizzi would become the head coach on an interim basis, mainly to maintain a level of familiarity atop the program during the grieving process. Capizzi even kept practices the same way Hafele ran them, wanting to coach to remain a part of their special season, even if it was only in spirit.
Capizzi said he hasn’t talked to Todt about returning on a more permanent basis just yet, but said it’d be an honor to come back and try to repeat.
“The coaches got together and talked about it, and we’d all love to come back and do it again,” Capizzi said. “There’s a lot of talent there, and we’d love to keep working with the kids to win another one. I haven’t been approached yet by the AD, but I’d love the opportunity. We’ll see.”
Before he hung up, Capizzi was asked what he thought Hafele would say about all of this if he still had the chance. What would the longtime coach think about his group of girls rallying together to ensure this season cemented his legacy as one of Ryan’s all-time great coaches?
“He would be overwhelmed with joy,” Capizzi said. “I know, because it was his life for 20 years. He worked to try the make the girls the best they could be. We felt his presence in every practice and game, especially in tough situations. I can’t tell you how many times I said to myself, ‘Andy, please give me the strength to make the right call, to put these girls in the best possible situation,’ and he did. He gave me inspiration to do it. He was right on my shoulder, watching me. His wife, Maryellen, came to our games and cheered us on. It was inspiring, and you could feel it. You could feel him. We knew he was always in our corner. The entire experience was just unbelievable.”