By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
Last year, TVL softball was played with conference games only, and most of the preseason “what-ifs” revolved around COVID outbreaks, cancelled games and coaches dealing with a roster full of players staying home sick. Now back to a normal season, after speaking with Westwood’s Tom Grandy, Medfield’s Travis Taliaferro and Dover-Sherborn’s Kanee Chlebda, it appears this year’s “what-ifs” revolve around a bunch of new coaches, and rosters that are smaller than they’ve been in years past.
Medfield is in an interesting position. The Warriors had a huge year in 2019, even winning a share of the TVL title. They thought they’d have a huge year in 2020, only to see the season cancelled due to COVID, and now, they barely have enough players to field a varsity team.
“I think our softball enrollment has been finicky,” Coach Travis Taliaferro explained. “We have a larger group in eighth and sixth grades right now, which will hopefully sustain us in years to come. Sports have become specialized and instead of playing a second sport in high school, kids are playing soccer or basketball year-round. We have to compete with that now, which we didn’t used to have to, as much.”
Coach Taliaferro explained he’s got a lot of young players, and is even bringing on a senior hockey player trying softball for the first time, so “it’s going to be a lot of learning on the fly this year.”
Last year, the Warriors were a .500 team, which Coach Taliaferro thinks is a mark they should be able to match. As for the team’s strengths, he sees Medfield’s offense as its strong point, and acknowledges the roster’s lack of depth may mean kids playing positions they’re not used to.
“Offense will probably be one of our strengths this year. I think our defense will be okay, and I think our pitching will be improved from last year, when we asked a lot of some young pitchers. But, we’ve got the two of them back. When you have lower numbers, we’re asking a lot, since some of our kids are going to be playing some positions they’ve never played before.”
As to those returning players he’ll be relying on, Taliaferro said he’d be counting on senior captain Bitsy Crowley, who is returning from an injury but should “anchor the lineup.” He said Andie Brown was voted a leader on account of her strong leadership, but will be breaking into the starting lineup this year, which he’s excited about. And, though she’s just a junior, he’s expecting Chloe Hunt to become the workhorse of the pitching staff.
While Coach Taliaferro also pointed out the play of juniors Brooke Lyons and Jess Coletti, he understood that Kaelyn Larkin, who as a freshman was the league MVP last year and won the triple-crown as a freshman, is likely his most interesting player. “To say we’re excited to see Kaelyn play,” he remarked, “would be an understatement.”
Westwood’s Tom Grandy is excited about the young players he has, both on the team and coming up through the system. Last year, the team didn’t have enough players for a JV and varsity team, but he thinks this year, there will be enough players to field two teams. And while he acknowledges it would have been good to have a JV team, Grandy said he knows the younger players enough from seeing them in other competitions that he has a good grasp on the young players, despite not seeing them play JV.
As for the varsity team, it’s the pitching he’s most excited about. Last year, the team only had one pitcher, but this year, there’s more than one to take the pressure off the returning starter.
“I think overall, we will have a little more depth with our pitching, which is good. Last year we only had one pitcher, which is tough on the pitcher. It’s hard on anybody to have to pitch every game. She did a great job, but it’s hard for one kid to take the burden of all the games. Now, we have a couple on the varsity.”
When pressed on if there’s any non-conference game Coach Grandy’s most looking forward to, he pointed to a night game against Ursuline, which he said is always fun because night games let parents and grandparents who might work during normal game hours get to watch a game.
As for the team goals, Coach Grandy said: “My honest goal would just to have us get better each game. And maybe by the end of the year, if we make the tournament, we will be able to compete.”
But said he wasn’t sure who would be good in the TVL this year, because there are so many new coaches.
One of those new coaches is a familiar name to Dover-Sherborn sports fans. With boys varsity basketball coach Rick Grady stepping down to coach his young kids, girls varsity basketball coach Kanee Chlebda is the new head softball coach.
While she’s never been the head coach of a varsity softball team, Coach Chlebda has helped coach softball in places like Hopkinton and coached JV in Millis. With this experience, she pointed to teams like Norton, Norwood and Medfield as those who she suspects will give teams trouble in the TVL.
But while Dover-Sherborn girls’ basketball is a well-oiled machine, Dover-Sherborn softball had some issue fielding a team. Coach Chlebda explained that some of her returning junior players essentially recruited other athletes to play, to make sure they could field a team. As a result, there are some girls who haven’t played at the high school level before, with Coach Chlebda noting many players came to the first practice with brand new gloves.
Like Taliaferro, Coach Chlebda also pointed to sports specialization as a significant issue impacting roster sizes, noting that she spoke to some of her basketball players who explained that unlike in years past, club sports won’t alter their practices to avoid clashing with other sports’ high school practice times. She also mentioned that softball can be more intimidating than other sports if you haven’t played before, because there are so many situational nuances that can confuse people who’ve never taken the field.
But if you’re expecting the same coach Chlebda from varsity basketball to show up on the field, she says she will be different. Because the game lends itself to slower adjustments and teaching than basketball, and because the team is so focused on having fun and learning, she says she will be vastly different on the diamond than she is on the hardwood.
Luckily, while she understands there will be growing pains, Coach Chlebda said she’s noticed the team’s upperclassmen have created “a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes” and an atmosphere that’s fun, welcoming, and extremely supportive of teammates who may not be as experienced and skilled as others. So, while other coaches talked about batting averages and home runs, Coach Chlebda talked about her senior Captain Riya Bahadur’s support and love for the program.
“She loves the game of softball and doesn’t want to see it go away, so she promotes the program. She promotes how much fun people will have. Her biggest fear is that people are scared to try softball for whatever reason, probably because they don’t understand the game. But she’s a huge advocate for the idea of ‘just try it, you’re going to like it.’”
Also looking to acknowledge Drew Hasar and Ella Smith, Coach Chlebda said she has three players transitioning from varsity basketball with her to varsity softball with her, which meant that at the basketball banquet, a few players told her, “see you on Monday.”
With new faces all over the field and even in the dugout, we’ll see how all these teams do in the TVL soon enough.