NEWTON — There is a quiet confidence simmering on the Newton South High softball team that’s been missing for years. The players sense it and the coaches do, too. It’s there in every practice session and before every game. It’s the understanding that this can be a winning team.
The Lions have not qualified for the postseason since 2006, and they haven’t won a Dual County League title since 2004. Though excitement has been hard to come by, this season’s 6-2 start has changed all that.
“This year definitely there’s a whole different air with how we carry ourselves and how we practice and how we play,” said senior captain Maya Alper . “It’s definitely different, and I can feel it in everyone.”
The biggest difference is in the pitching circle.
Freshman hurler Kim-An Quinn has performed well beyond her years, mixing in a drop and a changeup with her 60-mile-per-hour fastball to rack up a 2.29 earned run average and 66 strikeouts in 52 innings.
The 5-foot-7 righty has grown an inch or two since taking the ball for the varsity team last year as an eighth-grader, but her emotional growth since then has far exceeded any physical gains. Exuding calm from her spot on the rubber, she attacks hitters that last year might have intimidated her.
“It was a lot scarier,” Quinn said of last season. “The hitters were bigger, and it was a different level than what I’d played with before. I think it helped this year because I’m much more relaxed than I would’ve been.”
Four years ago, Quinn and her family, including sister Minh-An Quinn , a junior playing right field for Newton South this spring, moved to the city from Palo Alto, Calif., where the softball season begins in February and lasts all summer. Since then, Kim-An has continuously played with older players — she pitched for Newton South’s junior varsity as a seventh- grader before making the leap to varsity last season — and honed her pitches with the Newton Panthers travel team.
“Kim-An certainly gives us a competitive edge,” said coach Alan Kaplan . “She allows us to compete against teams that are built with tournament kids. She’s a combination of a lot of talent and a great demeanor on the mound. She doesn’t seem to get rattled too easily.”
Quinn is at the center of a pool of young talent on the Lions roster.
Junior center fielder Hannah Shields leads the team in hitting (.458 average, 8 RBIs), while sophomore second baseman Joy Yang has made her presence felt in some big spots. She belted a home run on the very first pitch of the season, and then had the winning RBI double in the top of the 10th inning to beat Westford Academy last week, 4-3.
A knee injury to senior captain Laura Kessel before the season left South with Alper and left fielder Annie McDonald-Schwartz as the only two seniors in the lineup.
“It’s just impressed me how mentally tough they are,” Alper, who made the varsity as a freshman, said of her younger teammates. “That was something that for me didn’t come until later in my career and after I’d had more experience. But they’re tough, they’re strong and they’re not afraid to speak up. There’s no weird senior-freshman dynamics on this team. Everyone has an equal part, and I’m just really impressed by them.”
Players also credit new assistant coach Nicole Latini, who joined cocoaches Kaplan, Dave Salett, and Bob Cohen this season, for raising their level of play. A former star at Cardinal Spellman High and then at Babson College, Latini has helped bring a new attitude to the dugout.
“Nicole has definitely brought the intensity up a whole lot,” said McDonald-Schwartz. “That was a great thing that she joined our group. Sometimes we’re not as intense as we could be, but Nicole pumps us up, and she really wants to help us do our best all the time.”
The Lions started the season with five straight wins, which earned the attention of their DCL rivals.
“They’re young and their future is definitely very bright,” said Acton-Boxborough Regional coach Mary Matthews , whose team is scheduled to play South on Tuesday. “It’s definitely going to be a good game.
“I can’t sit here and say I’m scared of any team we’re going to face, but I know it’s going to be a more competitive game than it has been in the past, for sure.”
In years past, especially against DCL powers like Acton-Boxborough or Concord-Carlisle, Newton South’s players knew they had little-to-no margin for error before they even took the field. At times, they just hoped to avoid losing by the way of the mercy rule.
But this season is different. With a talented pitcher in the circle and a young lineup that has scored seven or more runs four times in its first eight games, they know they can challenge anyone. They’re even thinking about a tournament run, a first for everyone on the team. In the last three years, Newton South has missed the playoffs by just one or two wins.
“It’s always at the back of our minds,” Alper said. “But we’re here to come out every game and give it our best to win as many games regardless of what that means for the end game. We’ve gone 8-12 or 9-11 for my past three seasons, which is always rough and it always came down to the end.
“It’s important this year that we start strong and we stay strong.”
Natick hopes to build on upset victory
The Natick High baseball team hoped to pick up some momentum last week when it shocked previously undefeated Newton North with a 9-8 victory.
The upset win moved the Red Hawks to 4-6 overall and North to 10-1.
“If we can use that as a bit of confidence, that we know that we can get it done against good teams, then it can only help,” said Natick coach Josh Hanna . “As a coach you’re proud of their effort, and you hope it gives them the confidence to keep moving forward and keep getting better.”
Junior righty Brady Furdon went seven strong innings to move his record to 4-1, keeping his ERA below 2.00 .
“He’s locating his fastball, locating his offspeed pitches for strikes,” Hanna said of Furdon. “You can see he’s competing, really bearing down. He’s the kind of kid as a defensive player or a coach . . . you’re excited to play with.’’
Milford’s streak ends
Before North Attleborough beat Milford last week, 1-0, the Hawks hadn’t felt the pangs of defeat since losing to Amherst in the Division 1 state softball semifinal in 2011 — a winning streak that lasted 35 games.
Coach Brian Macchi’s squad bounced back quickly, though, beating Attleboro 13-0, thanks in part to a perfect game from senior Shannon Smith .
The University of Kentucky commit earned her 1,000th career strikeout April 26 in a 7-0 win over Oliver Ames, and has four perfect games with 174 whiffs in 79 innings this spring.
Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.