Olivia Antczak stared down her catcher at Central Catholic, Kelly Michal, waiting for the sign.
With two runners on base for visiting Chelmsford, two outs in the third inning, and the Raiders already trailing 3-0, the freshman hurler had the look of desperation Wednesday afternoon.
However, on a 2-2 count to Jen Janiak, Antczak threw a diving curve and the Chelmsford hitter chased the ball out of the zone for strike three.
It was the 73d strikeout, through seven games, for the tall freshman righthander from Atkinson, N.H.
“We’ve really hit the ground running and played some good teams,’’ said Central Catholic coach Stacy Ciccolo, after her squad was handed its first loss, 6-4, against the region’s top team, 8-1 Chelmsford. Antczak allowed three earned runs, her first of the season.
“Olivia was a pleasant surprise because I had thought we would be using around three pitchers per game before I had seen her pitch. But she’s been doing a great job of staying composed, and with a great group of seniors, the leadership really shows itself and that makes the transition a little easier for her.’’
One of those seniors, Michal, has been on the receiving end of Antczak’s fastballs, curveballs, and on occasion, changeups, all season. She says that through their relationship, she has tried to ease Antczak’s mental mistakes as the season has progressed.
“[Olivia] is getting better at hitting all of her spots, which will get better with more experience,’’ said Michal.
“She’s very mature for her age and keeps her composure pretty well, but when she gives up a big hit or a home run like in the Chelmsford game, she trusts that I’ll come over with words of encouragement, and that’s important.’’
Antczak said that Michal’s support is appreciated.
“For me to have Kelly behind the plate, reassuring the confidence I have in myself, has made the transition easier, but it’s still tough mentally to get used to, but that will eventually come.’’
Antczak, who threw 103 pitches in the loss to Chelmsford, has made a rather seamless transition to the varsity after pitching the last three years for the Northeast Invasion, an AAU program based in Plaistow, N.H, and the last two for the Diamond Gems (Nashua). She also has sessions three days per week with Kayla Johnson, the pitching coach at Bentley.
“You wouldn’t know that she was a freshman because of how she carries herself,’’ said Billerica coach Patty Higgins, who watched Antczak fan nine of her hitters in a 7-1 loss.
“When girls are younger they just try to throw as hard as they can to get the ball past the batters. But when they get into high school softball, they need to mix their pitches up and be more creative. There’s a lot more girls who can make you pay if you make a mistake.’’
Antczak also shut Tewksbury, 2-0, in a duel with the Redmen’s impressive sophomore Shannon McLaughlin. McLaughlin carried Tewksbury to a 6-1 start, firing four shutouts, including a pair of one-hitters.
“I see a lot of similarities between Shannon and Olivia,’’ said Tewksbury coach Leo DiRocco. “They get their confidence in the summer leagues and they gain a lot of experience, some more than most seniors have.
“Most of the times in the Merrimack Valley, freshmen don’t just come in and start right away, but like Shannnon, Olivia is special.’’
Antczak, who has thrown three complete games, provides confidence for a predominantly senior-led squad.
“The senior captains created an atmosphere where people want to play and play hard,’’ said Ciccolo. “[Olivia] has worked extremely hard, holds herself to high standards, and the sky is the limit for her.’’
Another freshman, North Reading second baseman Sophie Warren, only has seven plate appearances, with two hits, but she has made a favorable impression on coach Rusty Russell.
“In the early days, there was a learning curve, but now you have girls who play all summer long starting from the fourth grade,’’ said Russell.
“Freshmen are much more prepared and ready to play than before. Their knowledge of the game, awareness on the bases, are intangibles that you can’t teach. To be on our depth chart as a freshman is pretty darn good.’’
Hot start for Martin
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, senior third baseman Chad Martin is off to a hot start for the Governor’s Academy baseball team. The Bowdoin recruit belted three homers in the first five games of the season.
“He has really deceivingly quick hands for a power hitter,’’ said third-year coach Mike Kinnealey. “He’s remarkably good from hip to hip and has a good, disciplined swing. He works hard on his swing on a 12-month basis.’’
Martin, who is attracting interest from Major League scouts, has been clocked at 6.8 seconds in the 60-yard dash. He has also been used on the mound.
“Chad had 10 steals last year and is a true power hitter,’’ said his grandfather, Angelo Dagres, a Rowley resident who suited up for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s. “I’ve never seen that much power in a 17- or 18-year-old before.’’
Martin paced the Independent School League in home runs (8) last year, as well as leading Gov’s in RBIs.
“He hit a home run at [the Top 96 showcase] at Tufts, which went over the fence and over the scoreboard with wind in his face,’’ said Dagres. “He doesn’t care about stats. He cheers harder for his teammates than anyone I’ve ever seen, and that’s what makes him special.’’
Win streak at 88 games
With a 10-0 defeat of Windham (N.H.) on Wednesday, the Portsmouth (N.H.) High School baseball team extended the nation’s longest active win streak to 88 games. Portsmouth was scheduled to play Souhegan on Friday before taking on St. Thomas Aquinas on Monday. . . . In a 3-0 win over Winchester, junior Ryan Glavin pitched a three-hitter for Woburn.