Before every practice and game, the Hopkinton girls’ softball team gets loose in their own, unique way — circling up and dancing.
Having already clinched a berth in the Division 1 South tournament, and seeking their first Tri-Valley League title sincce 2015, the Hillers (12-2, 11-1 TVL) plan to keep on dancing right into June.
Their approach, determined yet carefree, has helped a relatively young squad discover its identity for first-year varsity coach Shannon Allberry, sparking a culture change initiated by senior captains Kate Holly and Emily Whelan .
“I met with Emily and Katy before the season and told them that this was their team,” said Allberry, who moved up after coaching the junior varsity coach. “We gave them a lot of responsibility from the start. They’re responsible for setting their own culture.”
The captains have helped integrate a large group of underclassmen onto the varsity squad. Both played on the varsity level as freshmen and benefited from having previous captains help ease their transition.
“As a captain, I’ve made it my goal to make the younger players more comfortable,” Holly said. “We’ve talked a lot about making sure they aren’t consuming themselves because sometimes it can be a nervous experience as a freshman on a varsity team.”
To combat those nerves, the captains have implemented dancing into pregame routines, complete with music.
The music genre ranges from country to pop. Then, like a scene from “Remember the Titans”, the Hillers get their groove on.
“For some reason it developed organically,” Allberry said. “It looks fully choreographed but it’s just to get loose.”
Added Whelan: “It de-stresses us because we’re having fun and not tense. We’re just in the moment and not thinking about the game, just having fun.”
But when it’s time to play ball, the Hillers get serious.
Led by Holly and Whelan — the first two players to reach 100 career hits in program history — Hopkinton is averaging nearly 12 runs per game.
With a .673 batting average this season, Holly has committed to play at Manhattan College. The UMass-bound Whelan is hitting .582 out of the leadoff spot.
“It’s surreal,” Whelan said. “It didn’t kick in until my mom shared something about it on Facebook. Being the first player in school history to do that definitely adds to it.”
The offensive production from Holly and Whelan is another element of their lead-by-example approach that has helped several underclassmen flourish. .
However, the main emphasis is to play for each other.
“We have good team chemistry which plays a role on how well we achieved,” Whelan said. “It’s nice having two freshman pitchers who have come on strong and our defense has been really good, too.”
Wheland was referring to Julianna Ceddia (2.32 earned run average) and Charlotte Cann (2.97 ERA), who have been stellar.
“We have been viewed as underdogs even though we were winning,” Holly said. “It’s kept us in check and made us more determined. Now we really have to prove that we can win. Every day is a battle.”
One of the defining characteristics of the team has been its perseverance.
“Since my freshman year this team has always put up a fight,” Whelan said. “That plays into the confidence we have and that’s how we succeed.”
“They all enjoy each other’s company and love playing together,” Allberry said. “They’re all just fantastic kids who work really hard and truly deserve the success that comes.”
■ After spraining her knee and missing several games, Norwood’s Amanda Olbrys returned in style, tossing a no-hitter in a 5-0 win against Medfield, facing just 22 batters in seven innings. The senior also was 4 for 4 at the plate.
“She was right on,” said Norwood coach Carol Savino. “It was a really good way to come back.”
■ Acton-Boxborough junior Lauren Meinhold recorded her 100th career hit last Wednesday, going 2 for 3 in an 8-3 win over Weston in a Dual County League game. The junior is hitting .579 with 22 total hits. She was a .500 hitter as a sophomore (.531, 43 hits) and a freshman (.562, 41 hits).
“She’s a talented kid,” said Acton-Boxborough coach Mary Bassett. “She came into this season hungry and looking to step it up a little, and she most certainly accomplished that.”
The reigning co-Dual County League MVP fired a perfect game last Friday.
“She’s one of the most competitive, dedicated athletes I’ve ever coached,” Bassett said. “She’s always looking to improve. She’s never complacent. It’s something that every coach would love to see on their team.”
■ Mike Bonasia earned his 300th win last Wednesday when Dennis-Yarmouth locked up a postseason berth with a 12-0 win against Pembroke. The Dolphins presentetd their coach with a signed ball postgame.
“Thank goodness I was wearing shades,” said Bonasia, who is his 31st season at the helm, with a smile.
■ A number of former EMass stars are members of NCAA tourney-bound squads. In Division 2, Taunton’s Courtney Fisher (sophomore pitcher), Waltham’s Sydney Guigno (freshman outfielder), and Milford’s Kate Irwin (freshman outfielder) will suit up for Saint Anselm (40-8) against LIU-Post (49-10) in the East Super Regional Thursday. Newton North’s Izzy Antonelli (freshman outfielder) and King Phillip’s Kali Magan e (junior pitcher) play for Patriot League champion Boston University (37-18), which will take on No. 5 Florida in Gainesville on Friday.
Games to watch
Wednesday, Hopkinton at Norton, 4:15 p.m. — The Hillers beat the Lancers, 5-2, on April 23, but Norton can grab the Tri-Valley League title in the rematch.
Wednesday, No. 13 Franklin at No. 3 Taunton — A solo homer from senior Sarah Jackson lifted the Panthers past the defending D1 champs, 2-1,on April 24, Taunton’s first loss in nearly at year. The Tigers have not lost since.
Thursday, No. 8 Bishop Feehan at No. 6 Braintree, 3:45 p.m. — Braintree coach Katie Jenkins called this week “a learning week” for her team. After knocking off No. 1 Newton North on Monday, what’s next?
Friday, No. 1 Lowell at Andover, 4 p.m. — Thanks to the weather, the Merrimack Valley Conference’s best teams have yet to meet this season. Will the Golden Warriors be able to topple the unbeaten Red Raiders?
Monday, East Boston at Snowden (at Carter Field), 4 p.m. — In the last game of the regular season for both teams, two strong Boston City League contenders will meet for the first time. Consider it a preview of the strong competition that will come in the City League tournament.
Dan Shulman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jenna Ciccotelli also contributed.