Ryan’s remarkable softball ride comes to an end

Though they fell in the state play­off quarterfi­nals to Lower Dauph­in, the 2014 Arch­bish­op Ry­an soft­ball team will al­ways have their Cath­ol­ic League cham­pi­on­ship, one they won for former head coach Andy Hafele, who died sud­denly in Feb­ru­ary at age 62 after a battle with can­cer. TIMES FILE PHOTO

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.”

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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