When late softball coaching legend Buddy Henry first brought the idea of slap-hitting lefthanded hitters into Eastern Massachusetts, he immediately experienced success, winning seven consecutive state titles (1990-96) at Bishop Fenwick.
Back then, slapping was the next big thing in softball. The idea of a team’s quickest hittersmaking contact while having already begun their run down the line put added pressure on defenses and created holes with runners on base.
But now, it has become somewhat of a lost art, with fewer high school teams employing the strategy and defenses better equipped to handle slap hitters.
However, some schools — Abington and Billerica, for example — still rely on slapping to generate offense, with the former using it to help win a Division 3 state title last season.
“It’s important to have speed as a threat and it’s good to have a threat that’s different than power hitting,” said Abington coach Kelsea Cheney. “If you’re good at it, use it for your advantage. It keeps the defense on its toes a bit more.”
Lauren Nelligan, Abington’s slapper last season, used her speed by dragging balls to get on base. She hit .676 last season, scoring 35 runs.
This season, Nelligan opted to run track, leaving the slapping duties to junior Lauren Keleher. A natural lefty, Keleher can slap for power and is prolific at dragging as well. Her ability allows her to judge a defense on whether to swing away or place a slap hit in the gaps.
“It’s nice to have an in-between slapper,” Cheney said. “She’s done it a few times already this season, we read the defense and she’ll catch the defense sitting back. She’s still trying to get more comfortable with it.”
Keleher, who has been slapping since her freshman season, is a versatile hitter with great speed. With Abington’s offense relying on baserunners, the leadoff-hitting Keleher is a major piece to the puzzle.
“Our offense is based on everyone getting hits and finding ways to score runs,” Keleher said. “Any way I can push runs in or get on base is good.”
As a lefty, her swing mechanics and pitch tracking came naturally. But footwork was the toughest thing for Keleher to learn when it came to slapping.
“It’s different going from hitting away to moving toward the pitcher,” Keleher said.
Despite its decline at the high school level, Keleher said she believes the popularity of slapping at the club and college level makes it a big part of the game.
“Softball is a quick game,” said said. “Slapping is so difficult to defend. It’s a good tool to have.”
At Billerica, coach Patty Higgins is a disciple of Henry and has made slapping a key component of her program. Senior captain Jackie Schwalm, a natural lefty, and junior Bella Tassone, a converted righty, are the Indians’ two main slappers and have developed into offensive threats under Higgins.
“I always have at least two slappers,” Higgins said. “They learn a lot from helping each other. ”
Schwalm and Tassone both started learning how to slap during as sophomores, and it has taken time for them to perfect their craft. With umpires now told to crack down on slappers who step out of the box too early, timing has become an emphasis.
“It’s a very difficult skill to do because your moving right at a pitcher,” Higgins said. “The timing is very difficult. We teach footwork first to see where to catch the ball and make sure the hitter connects on the first step.”
And for Schwalm, learning from Higgins has been an incredible experience and has allowed her offensive production to flourish.
“It’s a really good tool if you can do it right,” Schwalm said. “There’s a lot of components, getting your footwork and timing right, but the biggest advantage is you can put the ball anywhere.”
Another reason why slapping may be declining is the recent power surge in both baseball and softball and an emphasis on launch angle. In certain situations, slapping could put teams at a disadvantage if power hitting is required, especially with runners on base.
But for Higgins, slapping is always an advantage for a speedy hitter and can lead to increase in offense.
“Slapping should never go away,” Higgins said. “If you have a good slapper with runners on base it puts all sorts of things into motion. It’s cyclical, I believe it’ll make a comeback.”
■ Whitman-Hanson coach Jordan McDermott ran the Boston Marathon, crossing the finish line in 4:29:06.
■ Methuen’s Nyah Mazzone registered her 100th career hit Friday as the third-ranked Rangers (2-0) defeated Marblehead, 5-3. She singled in the bottom of the fourth inning with a runner on first.
“One hundred hits is a huge milestone for a kid,” said Methuen coach Jason Smith. “And it’s well-deserved. She works really, really hard, and we’re all really proud of her.”
■ Freshman Giana LaCedra struck out a school-record 19 batters Friday against Westford, breaking Kimberly Sullivan’s record of 17, set in 1991.
“She really has been throwing well,” said Lowell coach Bo Durso. “I expect a lot of double digits [from her].”
■ Whittier coach Cheryl Begin earned her 200th career coaching victory Thursday in a 7-3 win over Shawsheen. The 14-year coach attributed the success to her strong roster over the years, highlighted this season by Rivier-bound pitcher Nicole Verrette.
“I feel blessed to be amongst a great program with great athletes,” Begin said. “The kids really push me to be better. It’s a great atmosphere.”
Games to watch
Wednesday, No. 10 Norton at Attleboro, 10 a.m. — With a new array of pitchers, can the unbeaten Lancers silence the powerful Bombardiers’ bats?
Wednesday, No. 13 Gloucester at Peabody, 3 p.m. — The Tanners came on strong toward the end of last year, but face a tough early test against an experienced Gloucester team with stout pitching.
Thursday, No. 18 West Bridgewater at Diman, 10:30 a.m. — Both unbeaten teams have put up plenty of offense so far this season, making for an interesting Mayflower Conference matchup.
Thursday, Pittsfield at No. 7 Acton-Boxborough, 11 a.m. — Last year’s D1 West champion makes the trip east to face a highly touted Colonials team in what could be a preview of things to come.
Monday, No. 4 Greater New Bedford at Case, 3:45 p.m. — In a South Coast Conference matchup, the reigning D2 champion Bears travel to face an improved Cardinals team in a game that may shape the conference landscape.
Dan Shulman can be reached at email@example.com. Jenna Ciccotelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.