BY JEFF FALK
LEBANON – There are really only two ways to go with things like excitement, youthful exuberance and adrenaline.
You can employ focus and concentration to channel them into positive energy. Or you can internalize them and allow them to become nervous jitters.
Wednesday afternoon’s regular season-opening softball contest between visiting Elco and home-standing Lebanon High was a study in contrasts. For it was the Raiders who transformed their nerves into results, as they pulled away from the Cedars for an 11-0 non-league triumph.
The Raiders opened a 5-0 lead in the top of the third inning, then turned the game into a route with a four-run sixth. Meanwhile, Elco right-hander Sarah Yermalovich was holding the Lebanon bats in check with a variety of well-placed offerings.
Elco, which is simply seeking improvement under first-year head coach Randy Derr, sported six first-year starters in its opening day lineup. The Cedars, who have struggled mightily in the sport over the last decade, are just hoping to approach competitiveness this season.
“They were chomping at the bit to play,” said Derr of his troops. “They wanted to play. We started March 7th, and this is March 30th. We had two scrimmages that didn’t really go well, so I really wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get.
“We have a lot of new players, but I have a lot of faith in my kids,” continued Derr. “They’re hard workers. It was great to see them step up and play the way they can. But they had to believe they could do it.”
“I’m pleased,” said Lebanon head coach Bob Norman. “From last year to this year’s first game, we’ve improved. We’ll get better at the home plate. We started making better contact in the later innings. We’re going to go from there. We’re trying to change a culture here.
“I think right now, a part of it is, we’re going to be maintaining our field,” Norman continued. “When they (his players) step on the field, I want it to be their field. It’s not just a piece of dirt. They have to have pride in their field. I want them to think, ‘This is our’s’. That’s part of it with the girls. We’re starting to get there now.”
Elco took Beth Wiczalkowski’s lead-off single and stolen base in the top of the first inning and turned it into Amaya Phillips’ RBI-single and a 1-0 edge. Then in the top of the third, the Raiders tacked on, in the form of four runs that made it 5-0.
Yermalovich drove home teammates Allie Header and Sara Bentz with a ringing double. Phillips followed with a booming RBI-triple to straight-away center and Casey Boyer applied the finishing touches with a run-scoring grounder.
“I would’ve liked to jump up sooner, to let our kids gain some confidence,” said Derr. “I thought overall we did pretty well with the bats. We did take some called third strikes. We got some key hits. But we did let some runners on base.
“I want them (his players) to be aggressive in the strike zone,” added Derr. “We’re getting in the hole and trying to hit the pitcher’s pitch.”
“It was 1-0, and in the top of the third, they got four more,” said Norman. “If we score, it changes the complexion of the game. When you have four or five runs, and the other team isn’t hitting the ball, that’s pretty comfortable.
“Hats off to Elco,” Norman added. “They hit the ball. If we hit the ball, maybe it would’ve been a different outcome. We had two errors, and for us right now, that’s fantastic. Defensively, if we can continue to get better, that’s what we’re going to build from.”
Yermalovich appeared to be in mid-season form. She allowed just Lyd Haddock’s lead-off single in the bottom of the fifth, struck eight and walked one.
The Cedars advanced a runner as far as third base just once against Yermalovich, in the bottom of the opening frame. Aurianis Lassalle walked with two outs, then proceeded to swipe both the second- and third-base bags.
“I thought she threw well,” said Derr of Yermalovich. “She had good control of her change-up. She’s still trying to learn the riser. She was changing speeds well. I think she only had one walk and one hit.
“I was impressed with the way they (the Cedars) swing the bats,” Derr continued. “They’re really aggressive. Our pitcher mixed her pitches well. But overall, I thought they had some good at-bats against her.”
“She threw the ball well enough that we couldn’t hit her,” said Norman of Yermalovich. “But we’re going to see some studs. That’s where we’ve got to get better.
“I think a lot of our girls go up there and hope to hit the ball,” continued Norman. “That’s part of the culture we’re trying to change. We want them thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to get this done’. We’re not seeing the ball. Our pitch selection is not very good. We’ve been spending time in the cage hitting. We’re digging for all the drills we can find. I think it just comes down to confidence, and then following through with it.”
The Raiders put the outcome to rest with another four-run rally, in the top of the sixth inning. Header singled, as did Wiczalkowski, and Yermalovich walked, before Boyer and Maddie Groy brought them home with back-to-back, two-out, two-baggers.
“I thought we played well overall,” said Derr. “We’re young. We’re going to have some growing pains. But I’m pleased.
“We’re very young,” Derr added. “We only have three returning starters. We’re putting six players on the field who have never played before.”
“I’m thrilled with how we played defense,” said Norman. “Historically, we’ve never been a good hitting team. We’ve always struggled to hit. If we can play defense, then we can catch the hitting up.”
Elco closed out the scoring with a couple of runs in the top of the seventh. The Raiders loaded the bases with walks to Header and Bentz, and a single by Wiczalkowski, ahead of RBI- free passes issued to Boyer and Groy.
“We’ve talked about improving,” said Derr. “Every game, every practice we need to improve. We need to win the games we’re supposed to win and steal a few we aren’t supposed to. But I have no idea what our record is going to be. As young as we are, we need to improve. It’s the little things. The fundamental plays.
“We have a good group of kids,” Derr continued. “Their work ethic is great. We’ve moved around a lot of kids to different positions to find the right combination. And we’re still working on that.”
“I can’t speak of before I got here,” said Norman, who’s in his second stint of heading the program. “But I think we were more competitive last year than we were previously. We’re young. We only have two seniors. Next year, everyone comes back. We’ll be more competitive this year.
“Are we going to have our 15-0 games where we lose? Yes,” Norman continued. “We want to be more competitive than we were last year. It’s about believing in themselves and about believing in each other.”
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