OLEAN, NY – Archbishop Walsh Academy had been offering but two spring athletic options for girls over the past few years: tennis club or boys' baseball. This school year, Walsh brought back a third: girls' softball.
The team played its first scrimmage March 27 at home against Ellicottville High School and will play another scrimmage at Ellicottville Monday
Although the score against Ellicottville was not recorded, “we scored four legitimate runs," Jennifer Sweeten, one of the two coaches, reported. "We had quite a few girls get on base, and several others hit the ball.”
The team will play its first official game of the season at home against Salamanca High School on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
When the school re-introduced softball this academic year, Sweeten, a fourth-grade teacher at Southern Tier Catholic, was one of two faculty newcomers to volunteer to coach. The other, high school chemistry teacher Justin Barleben, does not play the sport but has been a Section VI baseball umpire.
“I grew up around baseball, too. My dad was a varsity baseball couch in Niagara County,” said Barleben, who also teaches middle-school math at Southern Tier Catholic, which shares a campus and an administration with Walsh.
Sweeten said she started playing softball when she was 5 and continued playing through most of her high school years.
“It’s always good to have another option for the girls,” Sweeten said. “This can help with time management as well.”
The 17 softball players, in grades 9 through 12, spent the winter weeks practicing in the batting cage in the Walsh basement. Barleben noted that he and Sweeten had to introduce some to the swinging of a bat.
“Some of these girls have never played before,” Barleben said. “I think our biggest difficulty in these first few games will mainly be pitching. We have two sisters, Willow Greer, a senior, and Grace, who is a sophomore, pitching first. They’ve been working at it the most. Mykaylah Shaw has been working very hard too.”
Grace Greer has played both boys’ varsity soccer and baseball.
Other team members, including senior Jade Swick, played when they were younger.
“The last time I played was when I was six,” Swick said. “This is the first time I’ll really be playing competitively.”
Barleben said he and Sweeten find it exciting as first-time teachers to coach the softball team.
“It’s nice for both of us because we don’t get to interact with the older girls,” he said, adding two players are his students. “It’s a cool option for the high school girls.”
Sweeten coached another two Walsh students during the basketball season.
One of those basketballs player is junior Luca Preuss, an exchange student from Hamburg, Germany, who said she never played any game with a ball before a few months ago.
“I dance back home, and I really wanted to try American sports,” Preuss said. “This is a really great team. Everyone helps each other.”
Team members had to buy gloves, cleats and pants. Funds for the rest of the gear were raised by the Booster Club and donated by someone who wishes to remain anonymous.
Athletic Director Pete Ebert said he had been trying to reintroduce softball “during the past four years I’ve been here. Before, there was a lack of interest, but now we have committed coaches and committed girls.”
As for effort: “These girls are definitely putting it in,” Sweeten said. “They come in to optional practices. …They’re good athletes, and we’re lucky to have them.”
The weather has not been suitable to outdoor softball practices, Barleben said.
“About 75 percent of our focus at practices has been hitting,” he added. “A lot of our girls are making great progress and making good contact with the balls.”
The team also has focused on defensive training, base running and learning the basics of the game and has watched college softball games on YouTube.
The softball team will play a total of 14 games, including a scrimmage against Olean High School that will be rescheduled because of rain.