When Jesus Rodriguez was hired as girls’ softball coach at Newton South before last season, he became the program’s fifth coach in as many seasons.
He quickly proved to be a dedicated leader with a winning mentality.
The Lions finished 12-9, one of the best records in program history, and qualified for the Division 1 North tournament.
“I wanted to change the atmosphere, how they practice, the whole culture,” Rodriguez said. “I said right away, ‘I’m here for the long haul,’ and they’re buying in.”
Senior captain Sabrina Clebnik, a four-year varsity player who has played AAU basketball for Rodriguez, immediately responded to his presence by assuming a leadership role.
“I helped introduce him and establish a belief and connection within the team,” Clebnik said. “He’s just a winner in every sport and knows how to build a team environment.”
Rodriguez’s philosophy has been embraced.
The players who played best and worked the hardest in games and practices, regardless of age or tenure, earned more playing time.
“Coach Rodriguez helped us progress together with competition and communication,” said senior captain Chandra Penton, South’s ace who will play at Brandeis next season. “His commitment with us practicing and learning what we need to work on helps us focus on improving.”
Another change? The integration of the junior varsity and varsity programs practicing together. That has resulted in improved chemistry.
Clebnik, Penton, and the other seniors have scheduled sleepovers, team dinners, trips to play mini golf, and even a cookout this past weekend.
“The biggest thing is team-building off the field,” Clebnik said. “We’re a variety of different girls with different interests that just came together like no other.”
There are eight seniors on the roster, but three freshmen start, and a number of underclassmen are vying for playing time.
Sophomore Stephanie Little made her way up to the varsity as a first-year player and has impressed with a .451 average, moving to a role as a switch-hitting slapper, something she has utilized regularly this season.
“I worked hard to move to varsity and stay there,” Little said. “I learned how to slap and focused more on hitting and that’s translated to this year.”
Sometimes starting off an at-bat as a lefthander, Little will get a feel for the pitcher and the defense before deciding whether to try slapping or move back to her natural right side.
“Her defense [shortstop/center field], hitting, and overall approach is unlike any other sophomore I’ve coached,” said Rodriguez.
Junior Hailey Wilson-Thayer , however, had an extraordinary 2018 season. After seeing minimal action as a freshman, she hit a state-best .735 — eighth nationally — and served as a versatile infield option defensively.
Admittedly, the start of this season has been difficult with managing personal expectations, but Wilson-Thayer has realized the importance of making a valuable out.
“Instead of thinking about myself I try to do what’s best for the team to help advance the runner,” said Wilson-Thayer. “As a junior I’m thinking more about the team than my individual statistics.”
In a 2-2 start, she is 5 for 12 so far but has drawn seven walks, marking a change in her approach.
“We’ve kept her mechanics the same but taught her to wait on pitches,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez’ team has maintained its no-quit attitude and believes in each other. And with the leadership of the senior class, the Lions remain confident.
“This could be our strongest year yet,” said Wilson-Thayer.
“Hard work and dedication have brought us together and we want to win.”
■ North Attleborough junior Bella Erti recorded her 300th career strikeout in a 14-0 Hockomock League win over Milford. “I’m really happy for her,” said North Attleborough coach Bill Wallace. “She works so hard.”
Through seven games this season, Erti has struck out 67. She fanned 137 as a sophomore after collecting 115 as a freshman.
“She’s always averaged six to seven strikeouts a game,” Wallace said. “This year she seems to have picked it up, averaging around 10.
“Softball is really important to her. She puts in a lot of time and effort and wants to play in college.”
“I still remember the group I had when I won my 100th, my 200th, and even 2½ years ago when I got to 300,” he said. “This is a good team, and something I value is the athletes over the years who have helped make this possible.”
■ Bridgewater-Raynham coach Mike Carrozza, in his 22nd season, earned career win No. 350 Thursday in a 7-0 victory over Brockton.
■ Whitman-Hanson earned its first two wins under new coach Jordan McDermott, edging Plymouth North, 7-6, and rallying past Quincy, 11-6.
“The girls needed it more than anything,” McDermott said. “With a new coach, they’re still trying to understand my coaching philosophy and what I expect from them.”
McDermott, the head coach at Massasoit Community College for four seasons, said Monday’s win against Quincy highlighted the team’s determination. Losing, 6-3, in the third inning, the Panthers tied it in the top of the seventh and used a five-run eighth inning to earn the victory.
“There’s no quit in them,” McDermott said. “I always tell them that if you’re scrappy and you have the will and want to win, you can get it done.”
■ Emmanuel junior outfielder Yuleska Ramirez-Tejeda (Cambridge) powered the Saints to the top seed in the GNAC tournament, earning conference Player of the Week nod after a monster close to the regular season. In a 6-0 week, she hit .611 with 14 RBIs and 11 runs scored, picking up a 1.444 slugging percentage with seven extra base hits, including three home runs plus a game-tying grand slam.
In addition to Ramirez-Tejada, Kerry Sendrick (Medway), Casey Sheehan (Medway), and Grace Orcutt (Lexington) also play at Emmanuel.
Games to watch
Wednesday, No. 8 Bishop Feehan at No. 4 Bridgewater-Raynham (4 p.m.) – The Shamrocks (7-0) handed B-R (6-1) its first loss of the season in a tight 1-0 game last Tuesday. It’s a rematch of last year’s D1 South quarterfinal.
Wednesday, Everett at No. 18 Medford (4 p.m.) – The Mustangs (6-0, 5-0 Northeastern) will host Everett (5-1, 4-0 Northeastern) in a clash of Northeastern Conference leaders.
Friday, No. 20 St. Mary’s at No. 15 Austin Prep (3:30 p.m.) – The Spartans (8-1, 7-0 Catholic Central) entered the Globe’s Top 20 this week. They’ll need a strong performance against the Catholic Central rival Cougars (6-1, 4-1 CC).
Saturday, No. 7 Abington at No. 9 Braintree (4 p.m.) – The defending D3 state champions (6-0) have been hanging out in the middle of the poll with the Wamps (5-1). The Bay State and South Shore conference powerhouses will meet for the first of two games this season.
Monday, Silver Lake at Plymouth North (6 p.m.) – The top teams in the Patriot League’s Keenan Division will battle for the first of two contests this year.
Globe’s Top 20 poll
|11.||Gr. New Bedford||6-2||3|
Globe correspondent Jenna Ciccotelli contributed to this report.