By Kyle LoJacono
Freedom softball is stuck between excitement and caution.
The Patriots (10-1, 4-0) are off to the best 11-game start in the program’s 11-year history and sit alone in first place in Class 7A-District 9.
They have scored 107 runs, one more than they had all of last year, while allowing just 24 and have posted a victory over defending 7A state champion Chamberlain, but Freedom is not getting ahead of itself.
Not after last season.
The Patriots were the only 7A-9 team to beat Chamberlain last year and entered the district tournament 11-6. They appeared on track to make their first playoff appearance, but Steinbrenner, a squad Freedom beat twice during the year, dashed those hopes 2-0 in the semifinals.
“We talked about that after the Chamberlain game,” said fifth-year Freedom coach Autum Hernandez. “I said they beat Steinbrenner twice last year and lost in districts. Nothing is guaranteed, and we have to come in every day and prove a point.”
It appears the message hasn’t been lost on Hernandez’s players: “Beating Chamberlain really boosted up our confidence to win against a state champion, but coach stresses not getting overconfident,” said sophomore Grace Street. “We have to play out there like we’re defending ourselves and our school every game. The game before it doesn’t matter — it does not matter. We have to treat each game as a new game.”
Hernandez said she thought this year’s squad had a lot of potential in part because they lost only one player, first baseman Katie Gresham (.288, 10 RBI*), to graduation.
“I didn’t think the start would be quite this fast and for us to score so many runs,” Hernandez said. “We do play in a very tough district, and anyone can win on any night, so we could have several more losses.”
Hernandez added several freshmen to the returning core, including catcher Maddy Hall, second baseman/outfielder Mallory McManus and outfielder Patti Pellegrin.
“The first day of practice you could see that they were good players,” said junior center fielder Carlson. “Maddy, Mallory, Patti; all the freshmen are looking really good.”
The squad also got a key addition in senior pitcher/first baseman Katlin Hall, Maddy’s sister. The Wharton transfer adds depth to a rotation that included only Street last year.
“Grace was our workhorse last year,” Hernandez said. “She threw every single inning, and I think now she can throw her game more because if something isn’t working, or if she’s struggling, she knows someone can come in behind her and help out. … It’s helped her mindset. Katlin has been a good addition this year. She’s really helped the whole staff because she’s just a really good pitcher, but she’s also a senior who’s been doing it for a long time, and that helps with experience for the younger girls.”
Street said she’s been able to relax more while pitching, which has allowed her to amass a 4-0 record with a 1.54 ERA.
“It lets me actually take a breather, and when I was the only pitcher, if I were to get hurt we’d be in big trouble,” Street said. “Now that we have some more pitchers, it’s definitely useful, and other teams won’t be able to catch on to our pitches as easily. … I thought about it a lot during the season, and it was really hard to maintain pitching and my grades as a freshman.”
Hall has gone 3-1 with a 1.70 ERA, while freshman Ashlee Markoritz is 3-0 and has yet to give up an earned run. Hall said they have confidence in whoever is starting.
“So does the whole team,” Katlin said. “We know we can all get the job done, and that makes it easy knowing that everyone trusts each other.”
The bolstered pitching staff has been an improvement, but the biggest upgrade is at the plate.
The Patriots have a .382 team batting average, 76 points better than last season, with .449 on-base percentage.
Maddy (.500, 16 runs), Street (.516, four doubles) and Katlin (.500, 14 RBI) are all batting at least .500. Carlson (.455, 15 runs, 14 RBI), senior second baseman Caroline Whiteside (.353, 12 runs) and junior left fielder Ashley Wilson (.345, 15 RBI, three homers) have also added to the offensive onslaught .
“It’s been pretty spread out amongst everyone,” Hernandez said. “It’s not one person dominating at the plate every night. We’ve worked a lot on hitting way more than we have defense. The more runs we score, the more relaxed we can play on defense. That’s been our philosophy this year. … I wouldn’t say it’s a big change, but we’ve decided to focus more on offense this year because we have some big bats.”
Wilson, an Elon University commit, said the players also feed off each other.
“I think all the hard work and extra batting practice has really helped, but for us it’s really just contagious when someone hits,” Wilson said. “When someone gets a hit the next person wants to do the same, and it just keeps going from there.”
Freedom hosts the 7A-9 tournament April 16 to 18, with the championship game April 18 at 7 p.m. The Patriots travel to Steinbrenner March 19 at 7 p.m.
“Steinbrenner is our first game back after spring break, so hopefully spring break doesn’t break our momentum,” Hernandez said. “Steinbrenner has a really good pitcher (Kellee Ramsey), so we’re going to have to have good at bats and put the ball in play.”
*Last year’s stats
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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