Never underestimate the impact of good team chemistry.
The James M. Bennett Clippers hadn’t lost a game in Bayside South competition all season heading into Thursday’s battle with Parkside.
And heading into a tough Saturday match up with two-time defending Bayside Champion Mardela, the squad has something that may have been missing before.
“I feel like this is the best team we have had since I have been in high school,” catcher Angel Adkins said. “It’s an amazing atmosphere. You feel like you are a family, something great to be a part of and an amazing way to end my senior year.”
Adkins, who’s been on the Clippers varsity squad with pitcher Kasey Donalds since they were freshman, has been a big part of that transformation. They form the senior nucleus along with Casey Ross, Courtney Cullen and Catherine Skeeter.
But it’s how those senior leaders have chosen to embrace the younger players in a way that fosters trust and teamwork that may have laid the groundwork for a successful season.
“The coolest thing I think about it that I have got five seniors, four that start every game,” JMB coach Kim Fitzgerald said. “So there is lots of leadership and then I’ve got a lot of younger girls. My biggest asset is that this is the first year in a lot of years where we play as one team from the first pitch to the last out.”
The transformation may have started in the offseason, when Fitzgerald says Donalds “busted her butt” to get ready for her senior season. She thinks that intensity helped lead my example, but she also said Donalds has become more vocal — and she’s not the only one.
“During the offseason we all separately worked out in groups together,” Ross said. “The seniors were mixed with freshman and we got to know each other in the offseason. We all worked together and it created better bond.”
Donalds likens being a senior leader on the team to being a parent in a small way, and said that going through a transition to varsity as a freshman herself along with Adkins gave them both insight into how they preferred to be treated.
“I knew how nervous I was going into my freshman year — even with Angel there,” Donalds said. “Now that I am a senior, I just want them to know it’s OK if you make a mistake. We’ll pick you up.”
“We know how it feels to be younger players,” Adkins said. “We know what it feels like to be yelled at, and we don’t want to be those kinds of leaders at all. It doesn’t feel good. We don’t want to be treated like that, so we are not going to treat them like that.”
“All this pressure”
The change has not only made the freshmen feel more comfortable, but also returning players like sophomore Anna Malone, who starts at third base and has benefited from the new dynamic.
“There was all this pressure,” Malone said. “Even though I’m a sophomore, I still feel like a freshman sometimes, but we are all so much more confident. I can definitely tell a change form last year and how we are working together. This year we talk after, we hang out outside of softball. You can feel that this is closer.”
The push for this season started last year, when the Clippers dropped a game to Northeast in the MPSSAA region quarterfinals. It’s a game Fitzgerald doesn’t think they should have lost. And her players agree wholeheartedly.
The team saw pitching that they just don’t see on a regular basis in the Bayside. And the coaches learned last year in a scrimmage against Sussex Tech that playing the Henlopen conference teams provides a similar challenge.
So the Clippers scrimmaged Delmar in the preseason, falling 1-0, but more importantly had a play day at Mardela with Sussex Tech and Laurel during the Easter break that gave them even more valuable experience.
Despite dropping their only two decisions of the season so far in that one day, the Clippers it will only help them in the long run.
“We may have been too confident,” Ross said. “Once we faced teams like that, it put us more in our place. “Good pitching, defense, offense really makes us better players for the playoffs.”
After seeing a pitcher like Bulldogs hurler Regan Green, who owns two state titles and a Division I scholarship, just about everyone else is going to look more hittable. Against the Clippers, she tossed a perfect game with 19 strikeouts in a 9-0 win.
“Playing those two games, I keep telling the girls you have to take the positives out of it,” Fitzgerald said. “Kasey struck out Regan twice. We made her throw seven innings. It’s the little things that help us maintain competitive. Everyone looks at the score, but in the grand scheme of things we saw what other teams won’t see.”
While Donalds has at times seemed to have found a different level this season, she says it’s her confidence in her teammates and her comfort with Adkins behind the plate that has allowed her to be a better player. The defense is making all the plays behind her when they need to and she can get away with throwing a strike if she needs to.
The whole team has stepped up from the seniors all the way to freshman starting outfielder Emma Chandler, who everyone points to as the biggest surprise from this year’s class. Her play in the field has been strong and she has hit like a veteran at times.
But she’s felt welcome and supported from the first day of workouts, and that has gone a long way toward allowing her to believe in herself.
“I do get really nervous sometimes, especially in the bigger games, but I try not to think about how nervous I am,” Chandler said. “I just get up there and do what I do. They were really supportive. When someone made a mistake or an error, they picked everyone up and wouldn’t be mad — or at least they wouldn’t show it.”
The level of success they have achieved so far isn’t from focusing on statistics and failure, but rather from rallying around one another and knowing that if they play the way they are capable of they can compete with anyone.
“Someone else’s bad day may be our good day,” Malone said.
Mardela lost some key pieces from last year’s team, but pitcher Kalie Adkins is just a sophomore, Kasey Goshem is a standout at third and Kristina Shank is a talented hitter who doesn’t back down from anyone.
And the fact that they haven’t lost in the Bayside yet either hasn’t escaped the Clippers. They know all too well the Warriors have the same designs on a Bayside title that they do.
“I give Mardela kudos,” Fitzgerald said. “That is going to be our biggest game and we know that. They are very well-coached. They have got similar pitching. They are smart in the field. So we’ll see.”
And if the result doesn’t go their way, then they’ll regroup as a team and they’ll get another shot at them toward the season’s end.
“There is pressure,” Adkins said. “But if we lose I don’t think we are going to take it as hard because we have each other’s back. I think we are going to come back 10 times harder.”
email@example.com On Twitter: @ShawnYonker