BY JEFF FALK
FREDERICKSBURG – When it’s an especially damp and cold spring, young softball teams don’t get outside.
When young softball teams don’t get outside, they don’t get to practice under game conditions.
When young softball teams don’t get to practice under game conditions, they don’t gain experience.
When young softball teams don’t gain experience, they make mistakes.
And when you make mistakes, you lose.
Don’t be a young and inexperienced softball team during an especially damp and cold spring.
On Monday afternoon, competing on its soggy home field for the first time this spring – either practicing or playing – the inexperience of a young Northern Lebanon softball team came shining through, during a 6-3 Lancaster-Lebanon Section Three loss to Lampeter-Strasburg. Viking pitching issued ten free passes and five NL errors led to five unearned runs.
After grabbing a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second, Northern Lebanon almost got out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the top of the fourth. But that’s when the Pioneers did plate four runs to take a lead they would not relinquish.
Serving as the Section Three opener for both squads, the outcome dropped the Vikings to 0-2 overall. Lampeter-Strasburg improved to 3-0.
“It’s more the challenge,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Andy Bender, who’s working with six juniors, seven sophomores and no seniors. “I thought we played a pretty decent game. There were a couple of plays where we could’ve made a better play. It would’ve been nice to have five days outside, heck yeah. We’re looking for improvement, and we’ve seen it. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to work on, but we’ve seen some positives.
“The girls are working hard,” added Bender. “We worked them hard inside. We really did. Now we have to translate that to outside.”
Lampeter-Strasburg reached Viking starter Jess Kreiser for two walks and an error to open the top of the fourth inning. But after another walk, a force play and a pop out, it appeared Northern Lebanon and Kreiser might work their way out of the predicament with half of their 2-0 lead still intact.
But Pioneers Amber Schreder and Sarah Braungard took the wind out of the Vikings’ sails with back-to-back RBI-safeties that gave L-S a 4-2 lead.
“Being a younger team showed a little bit there,” said Bender. “I told them they’ve got to be confident, that they’ve got to be swinging. But there in the fourth, we’ve got to come out of it up 2-1 or down 3-2, not down 4-2. We kind of gave them that last run. We almost got out of it. But at the end, we didn’t quit. We needed one more runner on to get the tying run to the plate.
“I thought in the first three innings, Jess (Kreiser) was spot on,” Bender continued. “But she needs to work on her control a little bit. When the umpire is calling them tight, you’ve got to take a little something off of it or stick with what’s working. I thought we got into a little trouble with some off-speed stuff. Again, she’s young. But she battled.”
Carla Zinsky touched off Northern Lebanon’s two-run bottom of the second with a one-out single. Rochelle Kreiser kept things going by drawing a walk, before nine-hole hitter Kasey Smoot and J. Kreiser whacked run-producing singles.
“To their pitcher’s credit, she had pretty decent command,” said Bender of Pioneer starter and winner Courtney Martin. “I thought as the game went on, she had more confidence. She looked like she settled in. When that happens, you’ve got to upset the flow. For us, we’ve got to find ways to disrupt her.
“I thought all of them (Viking batters) had an idea, and it’s a point of confidence,” Bender added. “I could see the second and third time around, we had better approaches and we were more aggressive. And we had more opportunities to put the ball in play and make things happen.”
At one point, from the third inning into the seventh, Martin retired 14 Vikings in-a-row. Martin, who finished with nine strikeouts and two walks, was backed by Schreder’s two-run homer to left in the top of the sixth that upped Lampeter-Strasburg’s advantage to 6-2.
“I would think it’s unusual for everyone, just because of how prolonged the winter was,” said Bender of the spring of 2014. “Even if it would’ve been in the 40s there for a while, it would’ve been OK. It would’ve been nice to have an extra game. But our (the coaches’) job is to keep the girls’ heads in the game, and build on it.”
Northern Lebanon finally broke Martin’s rhythm with one out in the bottom of the seventh, thanks to another R. Kreiser walk. Two batters later, J. Kreiser ripped a long triple to left field to account for the Vikings’ third run.
“Goal-wise, it’s not a stretch for us to hit .500,” said Bender, whose program posted a 3-16 mark in 2013. “That’s a very realistic goal, and getting the players to work in concert. Then next year, we get everyone back. You’ve got to keep improving, and then you build on it. Go for .500, break even in the league and break even in the non-league, and then come out with a fire in us.
“We had a couple of down years, and we’re taking baby steps,” concluded Bender. “We’re not into making bold predictions.”