York Catholic softball coach Mark Baum couldn't get his girls off the practice field on Monday.
An anticipated two-hour practice turned into three, not because the coaches wanted to keep working on things with the players, but because the girls wanted it for themselves. Baum can't remember the last time he's been around a team that had the drive to keep getting better. At least not one at York Catholic.
It's only his first year as head coach of the Fighting Irish, but he's been close enough to the program in the past to know that extra practice was never a big possibility for previous teams. The energy just wasn't there. Of course, it's hard to have a lot of enthusiasm when you get constantly get mercy-ruled.
Winning, however, can change a lot of things.
With York Catholic off to one of its best starts in years at 4-2, it's easy to see why the players' passion for the game has been resurrected.
"They needed some direction," Baum said. "We got direction and now they believe in themselves and it's been pretty easy up to that point. It hasn't been a struggle."
Setting lofty expectations: In the last two years, the Fighting Irish won just one time, going winless a season ago. York Catholic was the doormat of York-Adams League Division IV. The Irish were not just an easy win for foes, but also a game when opposing teams could pad their stats against a debilitated and uninspired bunch. Games rarely made it the full seven innings, finishing in the fourth or fifth innings more often than not when teams quickly jumped to double-digit advantages.
On the surface, Baum looked to be faced with an unenviable task. He knew, however, that the upperclassmen who were returning had talent, and he's been around the freshmen and sophomores on the team long enough to know that the drive was there. He set a lofty goal for the team at the beginning of the year — make the District 3 2-A playoffs, meaning the Irish would have to be one of the top four teams in the class. Right now, they sit at No. 1 in the District 3 2-A power ratings.
"I think we have enough talent that we could probably do it," Baum said. "Just from our preseason workouts and open gyms, I didn't have any doubt with it and they all believe in it. I have them believing in it and believing in themselves and that's what it's all about."
Clear-cut ace: In one of his team's first true tests of the season, last Wednesday against perennial power Delone Catholic, York Catholic dropped a 2-1 decision in 10 innings. Surely, the defeat was heartbreaking, but Baum said once the game got to seven innings and continued into extra innings, Baum already saw it as a success for his team. It might seem like a minor thing, but just getting to seven innings in games is key for the development of the program.
A big reason for the Fighting Irish's success has been Baum's daughter, Rebecca, who is just a freshman. The team's ace and one of its best offensive players, Rebecca has pitched in all six of the team's games so far, compiling 84 strikeouts in the process, including 20 in the loss to the Squirettes. In five of her starts, she's reached double figures in strikeouts.
"It takes a lot of pressure off the girls who are inexperienced, or my seniors who have never experienced the type of games we're playing now," Baum said about Rebecca's strong pitching performances.
Along with Baum, freshman first baseman and outfielder Grace Gardini and junior catcher Kate Dannczyk have stepped up on offense to complement Baum's strong starts in the circle with a potent offense.
A bright future: While the increase in wins and the decrease in losses are the ultimate gauge for how far the program has come in less than a year, perhaps the most notable aspect about York Catholic's softball program is that, for the first time that Baum can recall, there are enough players in the system to also have a junior varsity team.
With more and more players now treating the program as something more than just a club or a hobby, it gives Irish supporters reason to believe more success will follow.
"I wanted to see the program succeed," Baum said. "There were a lot of talented girls who just needed some direction."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org