PHILADELPHIA – Proudly donned in his West Catholic hat and polo shirt, coach Walter Zakrzewski stood and spoke with his Lady Burr softball players after another lopsided loss, this one to visiting John W. Hallahan. Ten players – three were absent – remained silent, but they listened intently. Whatever “Coach Z” was telling them, it was getting through, and it was appreciated.
The final score on the first day of May wasn’t particularly important. Through three innings, Hallahan used dominant pitching and robust hitting to win by more than double digits. It was not, however, lost on Hallahan’s players that four years ago, the softball program of the only school in the country with Mickey Mouse as its mascot was a bit like the Burrs, winning only one Catholic League game.
“They have such an amazing attitude,” said Hallahan senior standout pitcher Maddy McBride. “I will always respect West Catholic for sure. I will never doubt them or underestimate any team.”
As he talked about his Burrs following his postgame meeting in short right field, Zakrzewski started out pensive. A very honest man, Zakrzewski had too much respect for his players, his opponent, and the game itself to sugarcoat the reality of the situation.
Asked to summarize the program’s growth, Zakrzewski emulated a proud father whose collective daughter was growing up in ways that only he could notice.
Zakrzewski stresses the tedious but pivotal digestion of basic fundamentals. Not concepts such as relay throws or defensive alignment, but getting down on ground balls in proper form, throwing with proper mechanics, aspects of the game that have become second nature to most of their opponents. One Lady Burr had literally never played softball before, but she has been a willing and enthusiastic learner, and right now, that was more than enough to earn a blue and white varsity uniform.
“It’s tough for them to come out here,” said Zakrzewski. “I give them a lot of credit for that, first of all. They know that they’ve improved, every one of them, and I tell them how far we’ve come.”
Those who measure progress simply by the wins and losses don’t comprehend the big picture.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Zakrzewski. “We know how we started the year, and we know where we are now.”
West Catholic senior third baseman and team captain Jasmine Garvin is West Catholic’s best player. She recognizes that, but she embraces a team approach.
“I’ve tried to bring my positive attitude and anything that can make them happier or help make the energy right, but at the end of the day, we are all equal,” said Garvin, who earlier this spring missed four games after requiring game-related stitches. “I don’t take captain as like me being above them. We’re all still learning.”
Asked if the Lady Burrs have improved since the beginning of the season, Garvin giggled. Before answering, she buckled over and laughed again.
“Oh my God, yes,” said Garvin. “Our attitude has gotten better. We have a lot of new players. We’ve been trying to get to where we are all equal. We’re all trying to improve.”
As the season comes to a close tomorrow versus Neumann-Goretti, something to ponder: On May 3, West Catholic lost to Lansdale Catholic, 19-1. The Burrs scored a run against a team that has shut out five league opponents, including Archbishop Wood and John W. Hallahan, two championship-caliber squads that have a combined record of 15-6.
Yet the West Catholic Lady Burrs did something in three innings against 9-2 Lansdale Catholic that two championship contenders were unable to do in seven innings – they scored a run.
Progress . . .
If West Catholic needs incentive to imagine a bright future, look no further than Hallahan.
Not so long ago, no one would have imagined the Mickey Mouse placing in the top six – or as high as fourth, depending on what happens when the regular season closes this week – and drawing an automatic bye in the first round of the playoffs.
At 7-4, Hallahan’s most celebrated victory occurred on April 30 when they stunned visiting St. Hubert’s, 6-2, for the first time in school history. While McBride tossed a three-hitter, sophomore Nina Sulimay slammed a three-run homer in the sixth inning to break open a tight contest.
McBride was asked to describe the historic victory. She compared Hallahan’s uncommonly quick ascent to that of teams like West Catholic and offered the Lady Burrs and any other team doubting itself some heartfelt advice.
“That’s such a big deal,” McBride said regarding the victory over Hubert’s. “They’re such a smart, disciplined, overall well-rounded team. I respect the coaches and everyone on that team so much. What we used to be at Hallahan was almost like we saw today (in the win over willing, but inexperienced, West Catholic). But to beat a team like St. Hubert’s is such a big deal, not just for the softball team, but for the whole school. That’s just history for us.”
McBride said Hallahan’s tale doesn’t have to be an anomaly.
“Just not doubt anything or be negative,” she said. “You can be the underdog. Have that positive mindset of ‘why not us?’ No one ever thought Hallahan would be where we are today, that we are one of the teams that can possibly win the championship. We were a complete doormat of the league. My advice is to never give up and to keep the positivity of the team going and just have a ‘who cares?’ mentality almost. When we’re playing amazing teams, they have everything to lose more than we do.”
Tomorrow afternoon, Bonner-Prendergast and Archbishop Ryan – both 10-1 – will meet to decide who will capture the regular-season championship. Finishing first is great, but ultimately it has nothing to do with the ultimate prize. That said, it allows a semifinal game against a fourth seed or lower as opposed to a second or third seed.
Other than that, the teams’ three senior captains were asked to describe its overall importance.
B-P pitcher Meghan Sullivan. “I do believe it is a huge game and we should come out strong. But it we lose, it would motivate us to want to win more. Sometimes you need that, but that being said, I believe my team has what it takes to win.”
B-P centerfielder Allison Martin: “I don’t feel like it is that important to finish in first place, but it is definitely our team’s goal. Being the defending champs, it would give us the title of being on top and the team everyone wants to beat.”
B-P third baseman Kaitlyn Martin: “I don’t think it is that important to finish in first. A different team can win on any given day. It doesn’t matter what place you finish in. Last year we didn’t finish in first and it worked out good for us.”
Ryan centerfielder Annie Cashman: “It’s important to us because it shows our hard work pays off, and obviously it determines who we play. But I think mostly it’ll give us a lot of confidence going into the postseason.”
Ryan shortstop Kate Ostaszewski: “It is important because it will show us that our hard work is paying off and build our confidence up.”
Ryan catcher Haley Burns: “This game is important. It’ll boost our confidence a lot if we win. I’m excited for this game. It’ll be good softball.”
(John Knebels can be reached at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)
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