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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Greater Nashua freshmen softball pitchers already veterans

It was the spring of freshman softball pitchers in Greater Nashua.

There was a time when the starting job belonged to a senior, perhaps a junior, who sat behind the previous upperclassmen for two or three years before taking over in the circle. This season, four of 10 area teams started freshmen pitchers on a regular basis, a fifth made use of a freshman in relief and one of the area’s championship teams put a seventh-grader to work occasionally. ...

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It was the spring of freshman softball pitchers in Greater Nashua.

There was a time when the starting job belonged to a senior, perhaps a junior, who sat behind the previous upperclassmen for two or three years before taking over in the circle. This season, four of 10 area teams started freshmen pitchers on a regular basis, a fifth made use of a freshman in relief and one of the area’s championship teams put a seventh-grader to work occasionally.

Of the six local teams not starting a freshman, it was still a youthful position with plenty of sophomores in the mix.

For Nashua South coach Pete Perkins, the pitching pipeline seems to have run dry in the Gate City. He’s not sure why the pitching doesn’t seem to be developing as quickly in Nashua as in other cities and towns across the state. Fortunately the Panthers were lucky enough to find one youngster with a lot of upside in Lexi Correa, a freshman who has honed her pitching skills playing travel ball.

“We can’t compete against a Concord, Salem and Timberlane if we don’t have girls in travel ball,” Perkins said. “We’re working on really making our middle schools into a good feeder program, but right now we are relying heavily on the travel softball programs to help get girls ready for the high school program. Lexi is our pitcher. She tooks some lumps as a freshman, but she also impressed a lot of people with her talent. She’s only going to get better over the next three years, and that bodes well for South softball.”

With the influx of young pitchers, Perkins believes it can only help the programs struggling at the moment. They will all be that much better next season, when the team’s respective freshman is a sophomore with a full season of high school softball under their belts.

“Experience comes with experience,” Perkins said. “You could have a kid sitting on the bench for three years and then throw her to the wolves her senior year, but she lacks that game experience that say a sophomore like Lexi will have next spring. Experience in tight games – games that you’re behind or games when you are trying to hold a lead. You only get that experience if you’ve actually been out there sweating with every pitch.”

Which was the case in Litchfield. Campbell may have hopped on the back of senior Emily Paquin during its tournament run to a second straight Division III title, but sophomore Olivia Martinage, who earned a second-round win over Monadnock, set the Cougars up with a No. 3 seed by pitching most of the season while Paquin was recovering from a pulled quad muscle. Martinage was prepared for her time in the circle after pitching plenty of innings in 2013, including a good number during tournament games.

Campbell coach Joe Raycraft had a solid backup plan in case Paquin’s injury resurfaced during the 2014 title run.

“Olivia came up big for us last year, and again this spring,” Raycraft said. “I knew if Emily couldn’t go, or if she needed a rest from pitching that we could go with the sophomore. She got plenty of time as a freshman and she proved herself. We’re going to miss Emily next season, but we aren’t going to drop off the map with a girls as talented as Olivia taking over the full-time pitching duties.”

At Wilton-Lyndeborough it was sophomore Sara Holka nailing down the No. 1 pitching spot with support from seventh-grader Lexi Balam as the Warriors reached Plymouth State University on their way to a second Division IV title in three years. In her first season pitching, Holka did have moments where experience could have dictated a different result, but she persevered and was a key factor in the Warriors title run.

Something Warriors coach Denny Claire stressed after their 10-9 walk-off win over Portsmouth Christian Academy in the title game.

“For us to go that far with her pitching, says something about how she handled herself,” Claire said. “She didn’t start pitching until October, so that’s pretty good, I think.”

Campbell and WLC weren’t the only tourney teams with youth in the circle at some point.

The surprise team of the Division I tournament, Alvirne, made its run to the semifinals on the arms of freshmen Nichole Teague and Kelli Kennedy. The 12th-seeded Broncos beat No. 5 Bishop Guertin 4-3 in the preliminary round and topped No. 13 Bedford (which upset defending champion Timberlane 8-4 in the prelims) 9-4 in the quarterfinals before being shut out 5-0 by top-seeded Spaulding.

Alvirne coach Sarah Brisk was impressed with what her freshman did this spring, but admits that even with AAU ball, there is still a learning curve on the high school diamond.

“As good as the freshmen are, they still will stumble along the way,” Brisk said. “Because they don’t have the experience. We’ve asked a lot of our freshmen. My first baseman is a freshman, I had a freshman in the outfield and we have freshmen on the mound. We asked a lot of them. As a coach you have to understand that there will be growing pains, and you just continue to pump them up. The more the season went along I just feel that their confidence built up as they got more exposure.”

In the Division II tournament, Milford freshman Delaney Parker recorded a complete-game 2-1 preliminary round win for the ninth-seeded Spartans against No. 8 Kennett of Norh Conway. Parker, who was outstanding for the Spartans all season, pitched all seven innings, scattering three hits, striking out nine and allowing just one run. Things were a little different in the quarterfinals, as Milford rallied late before falling short of an upset against top-seeded Coe-Brown. Parker would only make it through three innings before giving way to sophomore Erin Tyrell.

Despite the season-ending loss, Milford coach Jim Rines was happy with what he saw from his young pitchers all season.

“Here we have a freshman and a sophomore doing all of our pitching,” Rines said. “It never used to be that way. Everybody would have a senior with a freshman or sophomore waiting in the wings.

“Most of these girls play travel ball. I think that prepares them for the high school season. You can get away with starting a freshman nowadays. In the past it wouldn’t fly if you had any hopes of winning a title.”

Like Brisk, Rines still sees the growing pains. Even with travel softball preparing them through game experience, he sees how mistakes can snowball for a younger pitcher.

“With the young kids, what happens is they will get in a big situation – they will give up a hit or make an error and it will affect them for a few innings or the rest of the game,” Rines said. “Delaney can wiggle out of jams. For her, and a good number of these underclassmen, it’s mostly making mistakes when the count is 1-2.

“She’s progressed well this season. We do have that luxury with her and Erin. Both are very good athletes, and we’ll have them for a few more years.”

Likewise, down the road in Amherst, Souhegan has a solid freshman-sophomore duo of its own in Hailey Yabroudy and Hannah Cochran. Both return next season wanting a better finish, after Cochran started and Yabroudy came on in relief during the third-seeded Sabers’ 8-6 loss to 14th-seeded ConVal in preliminary round action.

Nashua North was the only other area team to sport a freshman hurler, as freshman Brittany Wheeler worked a few innings for the Titans behind junior Sarah Odierno and is expected to get a few more over the next three seasons, according to coach Wake Stillman.

“Sarah is our No. 1, but Brittany can fill in when needed,” Stillman said. “She’s waiting her turn, and I expect god things from her over the next few seasons. She’s a good pitcher, and we’re going to be expecting a lot from her as she progresses.”

For Bishop Guertin, Merrimack and Hollis Brookline it was juniors in the circle.

BG had Kristina Terrazzano and Holly Kathios delivering the ball home, Merrimack went with Catlin Minear and HB relied on Ashley Skey.

Only Campbell pitched a senior this spring, and that was sparingly due to injury. The youth movement is reality in Greater Nashua. For coaches with freshmen earning their stripes on the diamond this season, three more years to work in a future starter is a welcome change.

“It gives us time to really look for Lexi’s future replacement,” Perkins said. “I think all of us, every coach who had a freshman or sophomore pitcher this season is going to benefit from whatever happened this season. Whether they struggled for wins like us or went deep in the tournament, things can only get better as those young pitchers develop with every pitch.”