By Tris Wykes

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – One team had experienced and capable pitching. The other did not. That factor decided Saturday’s softball game between Hartford High and visiting Windsor, which won, 19-3.

The Hurricanes surrendered only one hit but 11 runs during the first inning. The hosts issued 21 walks and 12 wild pitches and hit two batters during the game, which ended after five innings. Hartford dropped to 0-3.

Windsor High’s Paige Kleefisch slides past Hartford catcher Harper Robinson to complete a three-run home run. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Windsor, which had six hits total, walked five Hurricanes and didn’t throw a wild pitch. The contrast reflects what’s often a glaring gap between high school softball teams from the central Upper Valley and their foes. If you don’t have a strong pitcher in the sport, you don’t have a strong team.

“We’ve taken our licks before like that,” said Windsor coach Heather Stearns, whose team improved to 3-2. “I think they’ve got some girls who can play defense but when you’re struggling to get the ball over the plate, it’s hard.”

Hanover and Lebanon have gone more than a decade without a premium pitcher. Hartford’s drought isn’t as long, but dates back nearly a decade to when Kaitlyn Woodward was in the circle. Woodward was neither dominant nor a fireballer, but she later played at Johnson State and walks weren’t generally an issue when she was pitching. 

Looking further afield, Woodsville, Sunapee, Stevens and Oxbow have all featured good-to-standout hurlers, but each of those programs enjoys a strong youth feeder system that teaches elementary- and middle-school students pitching basics. 

Danielle Tenney, the former Stevens High star coaching Hartford for the first season, said an early introduction to softball and high participation numbers are half the battle but that she’s been told Hartford has come up short there in the past.

“Girls like to try different positions, but pitching sometimes scares little kids because there’s a lot of pressure and stress,” said Tenney, who pitched part-time for Stevens but was an infielder at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. “It takes a really special player to be a pitcher, especially if they’re worried about not doing well.”

Tenney explained that given the short high school softball season’s limited practice time and the fact that many Upper Valley players haven’t played the sport extensively, pitching is only one of many areas to be covered. The problem is compounded if the program’s staff doesn’t include a pitching coach. Windsor enjoys the services of former Yellowjackets star Katelyn Curtis, who carried the team to the 2012 Vermont Division III state title game.

Windsor High’s Adi Prior jumps over a pitch while Hartford catcher Harper Robinson prepares for its arrival. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“I don’t know if kids don’t want to put in the extra work, but it’s not like you can just out there one day and start doing it well,” Stearns said. “You usually have to start in fifth or sixth grade and you can’t take eight months of the year off.”

Finding quality individual softball instruction often involves driving to Concord or farther south and can cost more than a dollar a minute, or several thousand dollars a year if you’re able to crack a travel team’s lineup. Tenney’s hoping to offer alternatives to both challenges in the coming summers, but for now, it’s grin and bear it.

“Our confidence level is much better and we’re starting to realize we’re actually a pretty good team,” she said. “The only thing really setting us apart is our young pitching staff.”

Saturday’s Hartford pitchers were sophomore Marina Grassi and freshman Logan Evans, both in their first varsity season. Grassi couldn’t consistently find the strike zone and Evans had to adjust her mechanics so as not to be called for an illegal pitch. Grassi started, was replaced by Evans and later re-entered to finish the game.

“It’s hard for our defense because sometimes you forget how many outs there are or which base to throw to if an inning goes on for a long time,” Tenney said. “But our errors aren’t as bad as they were in our first and second games, so I think our fielders are settling in. This was the fastest pitcher we’ve faced and I think our hitters are learning to relax at the plate.”

Hartford High left fielder Cassidy Beisler makes a running catch in front of shortstop Hailie DeFabriis. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Hartford scored its runs during the first inning. Hailie DeFabiis drew a walk and Maddi Willey followed with a single. An outfield fielding error on an Evans fly ball allowed DeFabiis to score and Willey came home on a Grassi single. 

Evans scored on Cassidy Beisler’s groundout. The only other Hartford hit came when DeFabriis belted a second-inning triple. 

Windsor’s Hannah Wood had two singles and caught the eye while at shortstop. The sister of former Yellowjackets athlete Haley Wood, Hannah also scored three times.

“She looked great today defensively and offensively,” Stearns said. “She fielded the ball smoothly and threw hard; you can’t ask for anything more.”

Windsor’s Paige Kleefisch hit a three-run home run during the third inning and teammate Kate Murphy had two singles.

Hartford hosts Lyndon on Monday night at Maxfield while Windsor visits Otter Valley on Tuesday.

Notes: The game was played on Hartford’s campus because of wet conditions at the Maxfield Sports Complex, where lights were recently installed on the Hurricanes’ field for the first time… Haley Wood played field hockey at Rhode Island’s Bryant University and is now a graduate student in public health at UNH… Tenney’s partner, Dan Ammel, is also her assistant coach. He’s a former Hartford athlete who later attended Sacred Heart… Hartford has 11 players on its varsity roster and Windsor has 14… Former Windsor head coach Phil Hathorn is back as an assistant.

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Hartford High’s Marina Grassi delivers against Windsor. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.