NANUET — With her blue-lensed sunglasses sitting high on top of her forehead, Leandra Echi’s eyes projected excitement.
As she stood outside of her Beacon High School softball team’s dugout on Saturday, Echi’s smile grew wide every time she spoke, her face framed by eye black applied in a pattern that seemed a cross between war paint and a fake beard.
Echi had every reason to smile. Her Bulldogs had just completed the most unlikely of playoff runs, winning the Section 1 Class A title as an eighth seed, beating No. 7 Brewster at Heroes Field in Nanuet for the crown.
As an eighth-grader already in her second year as a varsity Bulldog, it seemed only logical to ask how many more of these championship celebrations she saw in her future.
“Every single year,” she told me, her smile growing wider yet. “Every single year.”
It was far from a serious prediction. But that doesn’t mean you should put it past her.
To many seeing her for the first time on Saturday, Echi’s play patrolling center field for the Bulldogs was a revelation.
More than one fan walked over to the makeshift media area behind home plate during the game to ask, roughly, “I overheard someone saying the center fielder is in the eighth grade. That can’t be right, can it?”
Yes. It’s right.
But skepticism is to be expected with how she performed in the biggest game of her young scholastic career.
The Bulldogs’ most valuable player on Saturday was, almost certainly, Chelsea Dexter. The senior catcher had three hits, including a two-run home run, driving in four runs and scoring twice.
Their most important player may have been junior Kathleen Boyle, battling all day in the pitcher’s circle, and keeping her head on straight even after giving up an early two-run home run.
But, the Bulldogs’ youngest player was the one who proved to be the backbone of their defensive effort.
The only ball hit Echi’s way that didn’t end up in her glove was that first-inning Brewster home run that hit scaffolding for a television camera in left-center field.
There was this pesky chain-link fence keeping her from making the catch, although in hindsight, I might have expected her to scale the wall Ken Griffey Jr.-style.
As Beacon’s leadoff hitter, Echi collected three hits, a stolen base and scored three times. In the field, she recorded four putouts and an assist, gliding to catch balls that seemed destined to touch grass.
With two outs and a runner on base in the fourth, Brewster singled up the middle. Fielding the ball as the lead runner turned at third, Echi unloaded a perfect throw that hit Dexter on the fly at home plate, keeping the Bears from advancing beyond the corners in what proved to be a scoreless inning.
“Our defense has been a staple of our team all season,” said Beacon coach Brian Antalek, praising each position in his lineup. “(The opposing team is) looking at, ‘I’ve got to hit in this gap or I’m not getting on.’ And especially when they hit that ball in the outfield. Leandra sits there on a ball in the gap that most girls think they’re going to get a double on she takes for an out.”
Standing in the farthest position away from the action, Echi had the power of a prison guard, perched in a watchtower, poised to keep all the inmates in line.
With Beacon ahead 8-3, Brewster led off the bottom of the sixth with a single, followed by a deep fly ball to center.
Echi was there. Making the grab to the surprise of the runner, the eighth-grader turned and fired another bullet, this time to first baseman Kristen Yanarella for a double play, snuffing out the potential rally.
“That ball, nine out of 10 times, different center fielder, that’s down for a double, and we were able to turn that into a double play,” said Antalek. “Brewster just didn’t know what they were getting into with Lea out there in center.”
What the Bears got into was a game against one of the best center fielders in the section, regardless of age.
But, it’s her youth that adds an aspect of amazement to the performance, when wondering what Echi’s game will have become even just a year from now. Every tool is already at her disposal. Now it’s just a matter of using each of them like a master artisan.
“When you got speed, range and you got that killer arm to go with it, it’s a very dangerous combination,” Antalek said. “She’s come a long way from Day One this season. She’s figuring it out more and more each time she plays.
“For an eighth-grader, the amount of knowledge she already has, and she has four more years after this to develop even more knowledge of the game, there’s going to be nothing that she doesn’t know to do out on that field when she’s done playing.”
Perhaps when that time comes, we’ll find out Echi’s championship dreams were an honest prediction after all.
“Every single year.”