Seniority rules

Smith’s swan song: Brit­tany Smith is one of two seni­ors on the St. Hubert soft­ball team. Des­pite win­ning two of the last three league titles and four of the last six, Smith and the Bam­bies enter this week’s post­season in an un­fa­mil­i­ar role: as un­der­dogs. The seni­or center­field­er is lead­ing the charge. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF AN­NEMARIE SZAM­BE­LAK / ST. HUBERT

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.” ••

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