Abington head coach Ernie Ortega saw three of his seniors graduate after last season, but he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw what he had for his team this year: players from all grades, all of them contributing, particularly in one important category — hitting.
“Every batter, one through nine, has the ability to get a hit in a critical moment,” Ortega said. “It’s a coach’s dream to have that kind of lineup, so you worry less and enjoy the games more.”
Hitting has become a focal point for the Green Wave, but the secret to the team’s success is simple. Its members focus on two areas: repetition and confidence.
At practice, Ortega puts attention on the individual player rather than the whole team. Every player has her own weaknesses in softball, and Ortega finds those weaknesses and challenges the player to improve them throughout the season.
Repetition is shown in practice by spending half of the time in the batting cage and going through the mechanics of hitting. Confidence comes from other players and coaches on the team giving each player encouragement at the plate and in the dugout.
“Most of us have been playing softball with each other since we were 10,” said senior captain Jenna McDonough. “We understand each player, so we can push each other in good ways to be a better softball player.”
Another secret that leads to Abington’s hitting success is the use of club teams throughout the year. Every Green Wave player except one is playing on a club team that plays year-round; it helps them be prepared for the spring high school season.
Lauren Nelligan, a sophomore second baseman, said her impressive first-year statistics are due not just to the coaching of Ortega, but also to the help she received in Pembroke with the Threshers Club softball program. Last season she hit .784 with 52 runs scored, 47 stolen bases, and 16 RBIs, and those numbers continue in the early part of her sophomore season with a .750 batting average, 10 stolen bases, and 15 runs scored.
Ortega has two first-year players, centerfielder Lauren Keleher and third baseman Lily O’Neil, who are starting their season like Nelligan’s freshman year. Keleher is batting .952 with five stolen bases and 12 RBIs, while O’Neil has a .625 batting average with five stolen bases and 12 RBIs.
“These two have contributed immensely to the team, and I’m excited to see them grow throughout the next three years to see their full potential,” Nelligan said. “They work hard on and off the field, and it shows in games.”
Keleher and O’Neil are usually the number three and four hitters on the team, but they said there’s no pressure from the team to perform well. They know if they make a mistake or get out, the batters after them will pick them up by getting on base.
The most surprising statistic on the Abington team is in home runs, or lack of them. The Green Wave have no home runs this season, but they have been piling up the scores nonetheless. Their closest games ended with 10-run margins in wins over Franklin and Rockland.
Last season, the team had 10 home runs for the season. But home runs don’t matter to Ortega, because all he wants is contact and putting the ball in play.
Hitting for “home runs leads to pop ups, which are easy outs if they don’t go over the fence,” Ortega said. “We try to hit line drives, so the opponents have to make the play and we take advantage of some of their mistakes.”
In his seventh year at Abington, Ortega tries to relate with his players, but fortunately for him he has someone who can help. Samantha Thompson, in her second year as his assistant, graduated from Abington High in 2014.
Thompson played all four years of high school on the varsity softball team and understands what these players are feeling on a daily basis.
“It’s really easy to coach this team, because everyone is in it for the team, not themselves,” Thompson said. “It’s been an experience unlike any other.”
Besides hitting, Ortega relies on solid pitching from junior Tori Young and sophomore Jordyn Needle, both of whom have been dominant in the early part of the season.
Young started with a no-hitter against Plymouth South and has a 2.25 ERA over two games and 10 strikeouts, while Needle has a 0.50 ERA over three games and 19 strikeouts.
Last season, Young pitched 158 of the 174 innings, so Ortega was happy to see a second pitcher come this season to help carry the load.
“Jordyn and I work really well together, because we learn from each other and we encourage each other at each game,” Young said.
Abington is dedicating this season to 6-year-old Abby MacCurtain, who is battling a rare progressive disorder called Leigh’s disease. It’s a condition that develops in the first year of life, resulting in a progressive loss in mental and movement abilities.
The players are wearing and selling wristbands with a green ribbon to show their awareness of the disease. All the money they raise from selling these wristbands will go toward helping to find a cure.
“Abby is so cute and so positive with her condition that it makes us work harder as a team,” Needle said. “Every hit is for her. Every pitch is for her. Every win is for her, because she deserves everything this season.”
Brian Mozey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.