By Tris Wykes

LEBANON – Lebanon High softball coach Ray Pettersen gave pitcher Kaitlyn Eylander good-natured grief during Thursday’s practice. 

“You look tired,” the fifth-year bench boss said to the senior. “I don’t know what you were up late drinking last night. Esperesso? Mocha cafe lattes?” 

Responded Eylander: “I haven’t had anything with sugar in it since January.”

Lebanon High’s Piper Morgan swings during practice. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

The Raiders, however, desperately seek the sweet taste of success. Lebanon has lost 38 consecutive games, a streak it hopes to snap Monday during its season opener against visiting Mascoma. The contest will be the first on the program’s new, $180,000 diamond, completed a little less than two years ago.

“I’ve been counting down the days until we got to use this field,” said Eylander, whose squad previously used fields with gravel diamonds on Heater Road and at Civic Memorial Park. “I’m super excited for this year. We have almost a whole new team.”

Said Pettersen: “The kids are more motivated. The field gave them a huge ego boost, because they don’t have to be bused across town to some other piece of property.”

Only nine current players were in the program two seasons ago. Most of the 22 others are freshmen and sophomores whose middle-school teams were some of the best in the Upper Valley. Combined with a 2021 regional schedule mandated by Covid-19 precautions, a few spins into victory lane don’t seem impossible. 

Lebanon High’s Mikayla Finnell, left, and Stella Rose participate in a base-running drill. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“There has been a noticeable decline in this program over the last couple of years,” said Eylander, whose 0-16 team was outscored, 311-23, and suffered nine shutouts during her sophomore season. “This year I hope we can get back on our feet and show everyone we’re a decent program.”

Eylander has stayed because of the friendships she’s made among her teammates. The Raiders were previously stuck in NHIAA Division II, which made sense based on school enrollment but certainly not for a struggling softball program. 

Now beginning a two-year cycle in Division III, Lebanon no longer must battle foes with better access to specialized coaching and club competition.

“We don’t have travel teams and summer softball up here,” Petersen said. “There are no feeder teams besides ones with the recreation department. God bless the parents who go out there to coach, sometimes without a lick of knowledge, because that’s the level at which I started.”

It’s not all smooth sailing at the high school level, either. Pettersen has two volunteer assistants but one is away dealing with family issues and the other’s been busy with National Guard commitments. JV coach Bob Beisler, formerly Hartford High’s varsity boss, worked with the Lebanon varsity for part of Thursday’s practice, but players told Pettersen after the session they felt they were being shortchanged.

“You try to keep them all engaged by breaking them up into groups for individualistic work, but you don’t always have the resources to help them when they do something wrong,” the coach admitted. He is 3-46 at Lebanon, with the victories coming during his first campaign.

Eylander, the sister of former Lebanon football and baseball player Matt Eylander, has dedicated time away from practice to develop her skills and attend camps, efforts Pettersen said are becoming more frequent throughout the roster. The tall righthander will be counted on to pitch the majority of the Raiders’ innings, but her catcher, Makayla Finnell, is new to the position. 

Lebanon High’s Kaitlyn Eylander tumbles in celebration of practice’s end. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Senior Autumn Crowell, who’s experienced a winning program as the field hockey team’s goaltender, is the returning starter at first base but is recovering from appendicitis. Finnell, Jacqueline Fredette and Libby Tafe each saw varsity time two years ago.

“This team works much better together,” said Pettersen, who was the third head coach in as many years when he was hired in 2017. “In the past, I’ve had a lot of issues with (distracted seniors) and the team just didn’t meld well.”

Good news includes the revival of the program’s JV team, which was dropped in 2019 because of low participation. There’s concern that the middle school team barely has enough players this spring, but Pettersen’s hoping the new field and some victories will create enough buzz to allow the high school squad to persevere.

“We’re getting enough numbers that there’s less incumbent entitlement,” the coach said. “Not as much of a feeling that you can coast along and still get playing time.”

Notes: Kaitlyn Eylander said Matt Eylander is Western New England University’s starting tight end and is majoring in biomedicial engineering. She’s planning to attend Utica (N.Y.) College to study psychology… 2020 Lebanon High graduate and former Raiders softball player Kaitlyn Veracka is attending Colby-Sawyer College. Her onetime teammate and classmate Kayleigh Trietsch is at UNH… Crowell plans to attend West Virginia University, the graduates of which include Cynthia Germanotta, also known as Lady Gaga’s mother.

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Lebanon High softball coach Ray Pettersen addresses his team. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.