Obstacle course

Road to re­peat: Des­pite a re­cent slide that saw them lose three out of four league games, the Frank­lin Towne Charter soft­ball team is still the league fa­vor­ite un­til some­body proves oth­er­wise. Head coach Jen Da­ley (back right) is hop­ing her squad’s bats heat up for next week’s play­offs. ED MOR­RONE / TIMES PHOTO

A funny thing hap­pens when a pro­gram wins its first cham­pi­on­ship.

While things may seem in­her­ently un­changed at sur­face level, find­ing suc­cess atop the moun­tain causes a ripple ef­fect be­neath, ul­ti­mately caus­ing a trans­ition from up­start un­der­dog to fa­vor­ites with a tar­get placed squarely on the backs of those in­volved. 

Dur­ing the trans­form­a­tion from the hunter to the hunted, the Frank­lin Towne Charter soft­ball team seems to have hit its first obstacle course. After win­ning the pro­gram’s first cham­pi­on­ship in 2013, Towne has come up limp­ing in the reg­u­lar sea­son’s fi­nal stretches, drop­ping three of its last four, in­clud­ing Monday’s 7-2 loss at Girls High, the team the Coyotes upen­ded in last year’s title game.

Still though, while the bats have got­ten quiet re­cently, this team isn’t sound­ing the alarms yet. While they lost four seni­ors from 2013, in­clud­ing out­field­er Larissa Smith, now an as­sist­ant to head coach Jen Da­ley, Towne brought back sev­er­al key play­ers, in­clud­ing Smith’s young­er sis­ter, Laura, who was the win­ning pitch­er in last year’s title game and re­mains the top pitch­er. Seni­or cap­tains Mad­die Cep­par­ulo (catch­er) and Valentina Scalici (shortstop) are back, as are hol­d­overs Devinne Cor­son (left field), Deanna Robin­son (second base) and Jai­lene Mir­anda (right field). 

Also, the sched­ule has been slightly un­bal­anced, with Towne play­ing most of the Pub­lic League’s less­er op­pon­ents at the sea­son’s out­set, only to face a sim­ul­tan­eous on­slaught from its biggest con­tenders. In ad­di­tion to the Girls High de­feat, Towne fell re­cently to Cent­ral and Phil­adelphia Academy Charter. 

With just one game re­main­ing and a week away from the be­gin­ning of the post­season, gut-check time has ar­rived for Da­ley’s group.

“We’re be­ing out-hit, and that’s a prob­lem,” she said. “I’d much rather them get it out of their sys­tems now. It might be psy­cho­lo­gic­al; some of them haven’t hit in a few games, and they’re start­ing to freak them­selves out. They don’t want to give the trophy back, and they know they want to be in that cham­pi­on­ship game again.”

Last year was Towne’s second cham­pi­on­ship ap­pear­ance, and first win. The re­cent slump has been con­ta­gious, but these play­ers showed an acu­men for timely hit­ting dur­ing last year’s run, and some picked up where they left off to start the sea­son. Robin­son has bat­ted over .500 with two grand slams, and ju­ni­or third base­man Vic­tor­ia Stephan has also hit above .500. Cep­par­ulo and Scalici have been run pro­du­cers in the middle of the or­der, and Smith has been an ef­fect­ive work­horse on the mound.

Per­haps, Da­ley sur­mised, her girls were fi­nally start­ing to feel the pres­sure pinch as reign­ing champs.

“The fact is that we came in this year with every­one want­ing to beat us,” she said. “I had coaches tell me at league meet­ings they were out to get us, so the pres­sure has been there. Now at the end, we’re get­ting it a bit more. I’m hop­ing they can fig­ure it out and get out of it.”

It’s been a sea­son of peaks and val­leys for Towne; some ex­pec­ted, oth­ers un­fore­seen. As for the sched­ule, Da­ley is hop­ing this year’s blue­print fol­lows last year’s; that is, the Coyotes lost to Phila. Academy and Girls High in the reg­u­lar sea­son a year ago only to knock both off in the post­season. At 6-3 in the league, Towne is still in pretty good shape. As Da­ley poin­ted out, a No. 4 seed knocked off No. 1 last year, and that in the post­season, “It’s one game, so it can go either way.”

One of those un­ex­pec­ted obstacles showed it­self in the form of tragedy when Robin­son’s moth­er died of can­cer in the sea­son’s third week. She had been dia­gnosed dur­ing the team’s play­off run last year, and the rest of the play­ers on the team have ded­ic­ated this sea­son to Robin­son’s mom.

“My rules are fam­ily first, school second, soft­ball third,” Da­ley said. “I knew her mom had been in hos­pice, and I wanted the girls to be pre­pared to rally around her if her mom passed dur­ing the sea­son. Mad­die (Cep­par­ulo) and Val (Scalici) made rib­bons we wear in our hair. The thing with Deanna is, she’s very tough, so she’ll do whatever she needs to to put on a brave face.”

That tough­ness was on dis­play against Girls High, when Robin­son took a ball off the face near the second base bag. She crumpled to her knees for a few mo­ments, but got back up and stayed in the game. But even those with the strongest in­tern­al forti­tude need sup­port dur­ing the griev­ing pro­cess, and Robin­son’s team­mates and coaches have been there for her every step of the way.

“My girls, they had the same thought as I did: what if that was my mom?” Da­ley said. “Now we do whatever we need to in or­der to help the fam­ily. Deanna missed one day, the day of the fu­ner­al, same as all my seni­ors. She wanted to keep play­ing, so they said, ‘All right, let’s play.’ So we kept mov­ing. We’re lucky to have each oth­er.”

Play­ing in the wake of such an un­timely passing makes soft­ball feel rather small in the grand scheme of things, and this Towne team gets that. At the same time, the sense of pride in­stilled in them as champs has the team not want­ing to re­lin­quish the hard­ware any­time soon. The goal hasn’t changed, nor has the burn­ing de­sire to take home an­oth­er title.

Above all, Da­ley wants her team to know that feel­ing pres­sure is nor­mal. The ques­tion is, how will they re­spond?

“These seni­ors have been with me since their fresh­man year,” Da­ley said. “We lost to­geth­er in the play­offs be­fore we won. They worked so hard and don’t want to give that up. They want to show that they de­serve it. I think some are feel­ing the pres­sure more than I am. I’m go­ing to be here. I’m go­ing to have an­oth­er sea­son. But they’re go­ing to be gradu­at­ing no mat­ter what, and they’re feel­ing that. But we aren’t out of it yet.”

No they are not. And a day after com­plet­ing Phil­adelphia’s Broad Street Run, Da­ley was feel­ing op­tim­ist­ic that her soft­ball team would reach the fin­ish line and get the res­ult it’s look­ing for.

“I feel like we’re as far down as we can get right now,” she said. “There’s only up to go. I think we’ll be fine. We’re go­ing to be all right.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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