By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
With softball season just around the corner, the Bay State Conference looks to be a competitive one in what will be its first full season since COVID. While the teams played each other last year, softball didn’t start until after April vacation, there were about five or six fewer games than usual, and the teams didn’t play any out-of-conference games. With Massachusetts high school softball back to normal, we reached out to Needham’s Stephanie Magni and Walpole’s Rachel Sprague to see what they expected from the year ahead.
While each team has different concerns heading into the season, when pressed on who the team to beat in the league was, both coaches had the same answer: Newton North. Also pointing to Walpole and Natick as teams she expected to play well, Magni noted the Tigers aren’t just one of the tougher teams to face in the league -- they’re one of the tougher teams to face in the state.
Coach Sprague, meanwhile, explained that while teams vary season to season, Newton North is “always really well coached, and just solid all around.”
Stephanie Magni noted Needham's main strength this year lies in its hitting, where she believes the Rockets have “a lot of options for power, a lot of options for small-ball like bunting." She also noted "a lot of speed on our team this year, which will definitely help us on the basepaths.”
Unfortunately, the Rockets also have a lot of positions to replace after some graduations last year. Magni noted the team lost an outfielder, a few infielders, and perhaps most importantly, last year’s most prominent starting pitcher, Cece Wekstein.
Luckily, while some softball teams only use one pitcher, last year, the Rockets also relied on Amanda Ferreira, who Coach Magni is hoping will seamlessly step into Wekstein’s role. Other players Magni will lean on include shortstop and captain Emma Ferrara, who she deemed “one of our biggest threats in terms of hitting and running the bases,” and sophomore catcher Maddie Baker, who led the team in hitting as a freshman.
Pointing to matchups with Wellesley, Dedham and Franklin as the out-of-league matchups she was most excited to play, heading into her tenth season as head coach of the Rockets (who finished 9-8 last season), Magni said she didn’t have a firm enough grasp of her team to declare concrete goals for the season.
While she made it clear she was happy to get back to a normal season, when pressed on whether there were any lingering issues that COVID caused the team, she noted that because the pandemic cancelled their freshman seasons, her juniors are only one season deep at this point. But, she also noted, “I don’t think it will impact us in a huge way.”
Interestingly, when asked about COVID, Walpole’s Rachel Sprague had the exact same answer. She talked about how last year, she was trying to get to know the dynamics of two separate classes (while she’d typically only be coaching one class of rookies), and how that meant her juniors were essentially a year behind what a typical junior class would look like.
Still, after finishing 9-3 in the regular season last year, Coach Sprague is far more concerned with the players she has to replace than those who would normally be two season into their careers. “We lost a strong group of seniors last year," the coach declared. "A couple infielders and a strong outfielder. It will be interesting, because our pitching will be young, and we definitely have some spots to fill. We’ve got a young program this year. It will be interesting to see how the next few weeks kind of play out, who will fit where, and all that exciting stuff.” Coach Sprague explained she has to replace players like the team’s strong leader and shortstop Ashley King, and their starting center-fielder, Jordan Larkin, who had “an unbelievable on base percentage” and was “just a terror on the bases and a huge offensive weapon.”
To replace players like those, Sprague pointed to her senior captain, Catie Powderly, as the athlete she is really depending on. A first baseman, cleanup hitter and “huge leader on the team,” Coach Sprague explained: “She was a great captain last year, but she was a junior. Now that she’s a senior, we’re really going to be depending on her to set the tone for the rest of the girls, especially the young girls -- to lead by example with them and be a great leader.”
While it likely won’t be their most competitive game, when pressed on the non-conference game Coach Sprague was most looking forward to, she pointed to one that’s very personal to her. Walpole plays two games against Oliver Ames, because Sprague and the Oliver Ames coach played together at Bridgewater State. Because of that friendship, the teams often do clinics together in the fall, so the players usually know each other well by the time the matchup rolls around.
Unfortunately for the Oliver Ames Tigers, Walpole has won both matchups the last couple of years -- so while she used to keep a tally of how often she beat her old teammate, these days, Coach Sprague says she kind of downplays it. “I try not to rub it in their faces too much,” admits the coach.
After a cancelled season and a shortened one, softball is finally back to normal. We will see if a return to normalcy means the usual league powerhouses continue to flourish, or if someone new comes along and stakes their claim in the Bay State Conference.