Jr. High softball has successful first season
When Heather Hartman started to coach softball at Northwestern, the Lady Tigers were still playing in the junior varsity ranks. In fact, Hartman coached Northwestern at the JV levels in her first three seasons.
This year it’s been another story for Hartman and the Lady Tigers. Northwestern switched to the junior high level. It’s where a number of the Colonial League softball teams are now playing instead of the JV.
And the switch has been a pleasant one in year No. 1. Northwestern exceeded many of its expectations and went 14-2.
“This is the first year that we had a junior high team,” said Hartman, whose team had six freshmen players. “We’ve always had junior varsity, so we weren’t really sure what to expect. They all came together. The freshmen really set an example for the seventh and eighth graders, leading by example on and off the field.”
Northwestern scored nearly 200 runs in just 16 games. But what’s even more impressive is its defense, which allowed teams to score on average 3.6 runs per contest.
“Defense is our strongest point, and along with good pitching, it was a very successful year,” Hartman said.
Freshman Cameron Nicholas was Northwestern’s ace for much of the season in helping hold opposing teams to a total of 58 runs scored in 2016. But it was also the entire defensive unit that deserves credit, along with relief pitchers Maddie Santana, a seventh grader, and Claire Wessner, a freshman.
The offense was led by a barrage of hitters, including seventh grader Molly Migman, whose highlight of the season was a walk-off grand slam to cap a come-from-behind victory.
“This is where we build them for the varsity program,” Hartman said. “It’s a lot different playing school ball than playing youth athletic league.”
Statistics and records are one thing. But the main purpose of Hartman and the rest of the Northwestern junior high staff is to prepare these girls for play at the varsity level. Much of the Lady Tigers’ focus was on fundamentals and situational plays throughout the 16-game season.
“I think softball is an 80 percent mental game,” Hartman said. “We work a lot on situations, knowing what to do when the ball is hit to you, putting them in positions where we think they’re going to be beneficial for varsity.”
It’s also an opportunity to teach them the rules of the high school sport. Youth and tournament softball leagues in the area have different rules than the high school ranks.
The switch to junior high also always for more competition and more involvement than in years past.
“Last year we only had 10 girls on the JV team,” Hartman said. “We kind of decided that in order to incorporate more girls into the program, we were going to switch to junior high. This year we had about 40 girls try out and we had 18 on the team. It’s a better way to get kids involved younger.
“I think because a lot of the Colonial League teams were moving to junior high, that’s sort of where the sport is going. There’s not many junior varsity programs anymore, so in order to get games we were struggling, playing the same team four or five times just to get games in for the girls.”
Some of these girls figure to make the jump to varsity next year. Some will return with Hartman to play junior high. And when they do, expectations may be high once again after a successful debut season.