As tantalizing as the prospect of potentially winning in extra innings on Senior Day was, Brittany Smith wasn’t having it.
With a celebratory post-game food spread featuring her coveted buffalo chicken dip waiting back at school, one of just two seniors on the St. Hubert softball team was determined to get on base and cross home plate any way possible.
On Thursday afternoon, the final day of the Catholic League’s regular season, the Bambies and visiting Archbishop Wood were tied at 2 heading into the home half of the seventh inning. Smith, the team’s centerfielder, who head coach Dave Schafer said has been the Bambies’ most consistent hitter out of the two-hole, was 0-for-3 entering the seventh on a day where hits were hard to come by.
So, Smith did the next-best thing. She patiently worked a one-out walk, moved to second on Nicole Vandermay’s single to right and raced home on Liz Schule’s sharp single to center, giving the Bambies a crucial 3-2 win. It was St. Hubert’s third straight win heading into the playoffs, and the Bambies will open the postseason Thursday on the road.
“A win like this gives us amazing vibes heading into the playoffs,” Smith said. “We’ve got our mojo together. We’re jelling and I feel like we’re out of the funk we were in. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Normally, the Bambies are in the conversation for league favorite. They finished runner-up to Bonner-Prendie a season ago, have won two of the last three championships and four of the last six.
However, many of the core players from those championship teams — including Claire Alminde and Erica Ragazzone, both of whom were in attendance as spectators on Thursday — graduated, leaving Smith to lead a very young Bambies team. Now, they’re set to enter the postseason playing the unfamiliar role of underdog, with Archbishop Ryan (the No. 1 seed after a 12-0 regular season), Lansdale Catholic, Cardinal O’Hara and Conwell-Egan being considered the top teams in 2014. The Bambies lost to those four teams, but three were by two runs or fewer (St. Hubert fell 5-0 to Ryan on May 4, the last time it lost a league contest).
“We’re used to being dominant, so it’s been hard,” Smith admitted of the team’s up-and-down season. “But it’s also really rewarding. There have been a lot of challenges, and it’s hard when we’re losing, but I like that challenge of having to be the one that has to get us up and get it going.”
Smith has not taken the responsibility of guiding the team’s youthful roster lightly. She knows she’ll be graduating in the next few weeks, handing the program’s reins to players such as Vandermay, Schule, shortstop Jazmin Gonzalez, second baseman Danielle Franks and pitcher Melissa Hess.
“I want to teach them the importance of St. Hubert softball, that the pride in these jerseys is unlike any other team I’ve played for or against,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like St. Hubert softball, and I want them to know that. That includes every girl that’s starting and every girl on the bench. Everyone is involved and included.”
On a day where most of the Bambie bats were silent, Smith showed those young teammates the importance of situational hitting. In the upcoming playoffs, a key walk or bunt could be the difference between moving on and going home.
“Today definitely was not one of my best days,” she admitted. “You have to know the situation and that the most important thing is to get on base. Whether it’s hitting a bomb or taking a walk, it doesn’t matter. I like having that pressure on me, because I like to beat it. Plus, I wanted my buffalo chicken dip, so I didn’t want to go back out there.”
With the Bambies being an almost annual fixture in the league title game, it will be interesting to see what kind of run this young team can go on, if any. Ryan seems to be the sentimental favorite, especially considering the Ragdolls dedicated the season to former head coach Andy Hafele, who died in February; however, Smith cautioned detractors not to count the Bambies out simply because they have more underclassmen than usual.
“People are probably looking at what we did in the regular season and not giving us a shot,” Smith said. “I have 100-percent confidence in our team. We can hit the ball and field the ball better than anyone in this league. I don’t see why we can’t win the plaque.”
Smith should know. After all, she was on the favored Bambies team last year that fell in the title game to underdog Bonner-Prendie. At this time of the year with all chips pushed to the center of the table, seeding doesn’t mean all that much.
The Bambies will need more timely hitting against the league’s more ferocious programs, but the pitching and defense were solid against Wood. Entering the postseason on a winning streak won’t guarantee playoff success, but it doesn’t hurt, either.
Smith, as one of the team’s two seniors, is playing with house money. Now that the playoffs are here, she knows her next game could be her last, and she’s not ready to take off the St. Hubert uniform for the final time just yet.
“It’s definitely scary and nerve-wracking,” she said. “But it motivates me, because I don’t want it to be my last time. It gives me a thrill to know that I need to push my team to get a win no matter what it takes. When the seniors left last year, it was weird coming out here without them. But I learned so much from them, lessons you can’t learn in a textbook.
“And this group of girls, I wouldn’t want anyone else to spend my senior season with. We all know that the Catholic League is the craziest league in the world. You can be number one and lose to the 9-seed. It’s nuts. There’s so much talent in this league. We’ve come close to beating the top dogs, but I still think everyone is going to look beyond us. I think that gives us an advantage … an edge, almost. I’m really excited for these playoffs to start.” ••