Summer Softball Heats Up… June 24, 2015
By Jess Thomas
For four middle school level softball players, school doesn’t signal the end of the season. They are part of the team Mizuno Heat that competes in a youth travel softball league as a part of the Amateur Softball Association during the spring and summer.
The sixth and seventh grade squad is comprised of students from several school districts, including Nashoba District’s Kaitlyn Hollister of Stow, Lauren Bechara and Celia Vinacco of Bolton, and Anna Zeh of Lancaster. The four have helped the team to a 6-9 overall record so far. Coach Karl Vinacco of Bolton and assistant coach Heather Malone, a Bolton graduate of Nashoba, lead the team through tournaments in the New England area.
The Heat are an “A” level travel team, which is the top and most competitive level of the three classifications, according to Vinacco, so they are playing the toughest teams that carry very talented players.
In the tournaments, the girls play three games in pool play (small groups of teams playing against each other) before being seeded to play single elimination games until a winner emerges.
“Our best team accomplishment was finishing as the number one team after pool play, which is a difficult feat, but then we lost a heartbreaker the next morning,” Vinacco said.
Vinacco said the team has lost two one-run contests, but the effort is certainly there as many of the teams that the Heat are playing are travel state champions who have been together for three or four summers.
“In terms of challenges, this team is comprised of seven girls who have never played travel before this year,” Vinacco said. “Similar to high school level, one or two mistakes or good plays can be the difference between winning and losing.”
Some highlights from the team are Celia Vinacco pitching a 13-0 no hitter and also hitting .400 at the dish, Bechara hitting around .300 and playing double duty at first base and outfield, as well as Hollister playing three positions and batting .350.
“The team has turned several real double plays, which at this level is advanced,” Vinacco said.
Malone, currently a university student, has been a major factor helping the girls improve both on and off the field in her first season as a coach.
Malone describes herself as a coach, friend, ally, mentor and confidant to her girls.
“I try to be there for the girls and support them in any way I can,” Malone said. “It could be anything, such as catching for girls during pitching lessons when a parent cannot make it, organizing and creating team bonding activities throughout the year, or even just being a sounding board for them.”
Malone played softball tournaments when she was younger and was a player for Nashoba during high school, so she knows how to connect with the sixth and seventh graders.
In fact, she is even teaching the girls to not make the mistakes that she made when she played.
“Serious injuries to my right arm ended my softball career and I am teaching the girls how to take care of their bodies to avoid injury and overuse,” Malone said. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to them.”
Vinacco is very impressed with the job that Malone has done balancing the girls’ individual needs and the team needs.
“Many teams we face will play girls in only one position all season for the sake of a win or two, but Heather (Malone) realizes that each of these players will be stars and starters for their respective high school when they reach that age and to pigeon-hole them now does no good,” Vinacco said. “This has allowed the girls to learn multiple skills, which gives them an excellent chance at making their high school varsity team at a young age.”
He said that any high school level coach in the state would find great joy in coaching his group of hard-working girls as they have learned and executed complicated offensive and defensive schemes.
“On top of that, the parents have been helpful and supportive and it really feels like a family outing at each tournament,” Vinacco stated.
The team plays for another month and Vinacco looks for the girls to trust their skills and keep focus for entire games, which he realizes isn’t always an easy task for this age group.
Malone has an especially strong bond with her future Chieftain players.
“These girls represent the three Nashoba towns and I cannot wait for the day when these players trade their red and blue Heat uniforms for Nashoba’s green and gold,” Malone said.
She added, “Another thing I love is that in a few years when all the towns meet up on the first day of school, these girls will already have an established friendship.”