Oxbow Softball on All Cylinders
Oxbow High third baseman Kasie Craig watches a pitch by teammate Leah Hanzas during Tuesday's 11-5 defeat of visiting Harwood. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »
Oxbow High softball player Shea Brammell is sandwiched in celebration Tuesday by teammates Heather White, left, and Amanda Wheeler after scoring a second-inning run. The host Olympians improved to 10-0 with an 11-5 defeat of Harwood. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »
Oxbow High runner Kasie Craig slides safely into second base ahead of a tag by Harwood's Becca Russell. The host Olympians improved to 10-0 with an 11-5 victory. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »
Bradford, Vt. — It’s full speed ahead for the Oxbow Union High softball team in its quest for a second consecutive Vermont Division III championship. Tuesday, the host Olympians blitzed Harwood, 11-5, stealing seven bases, advancing twice on defensive indifference and taking advantage of several wild pitches.
It almost feels as if there’s a race official wielding a starting gun in the Oxbow dugout, because its players will run anytime, anywhere and on anyone. It’s a crucial part of why the Olympians are 10-0.
“Talking about it before the game is one thing, but really being prepared for it is another,” said second-year Harwood coach Joe Brown. “We tried to stress making the out that we had, but a couple of times in the first innings, we were trying to get the lead runner when we should have taken the out at first base.
“They’re fast and aggressive and they take advantage of things on the bases. When you throw the ball around a little against them, you’re going to get burned.”
Robin Wozny, Oxbow’s 22-year head coach, is always revving the engine, shouting and gesturing for her troops to take an extra base. Only one of her runners was thrown out against Harwood, whose players looked understandably jittery at times, even when making routine plays. What would be a normal groundout against most teams can become a scoring play against the Olympians.
“If you keep the pressure on by letting them know you’re going to take advantage of any mistake they make, that’s hard to deal with,” Wozny said. “Our players have a high softball IQ and if (an opponent) isn’t paying attention, they don’t have to have a coach tell them to go.”
Harwood (3-6) scored twice to open the game, but Oxbow answered with two singles, a walk and a grand slam during its half of the first inning. Heather White cleared the bases and created a 4-2 lead with a shot into the right-center gap on a field that features no outfield fences.
The Olympians, who sent nine hitters to the plate in the first, scored four more times in the second. The hosts used three singles, a double, a fielder’s choice, a sacrifice bunt and a stolen base. At one point, two runners took off and Harwood didn’t attempt to throw either one out. A few minutes later, two more Oxbow players moved up on a wild pitch.
Harwood committed only two official errors, both later in the game, but Oxbow’s combination of bunting, slap-and-run and pell-mell baserunning took its toll. White had two hits and four RBIs, Kayleigh Trojanowski had two hits and two RBIs, Becca Hanzas had three hits, including a double and Amanda Wheeler and Cassie Hutchinson each had two hits.
“We always want to put the ball in play, because teams get more and more stressed,” said pitcher Leah Hanzas, who allowed eight hits while striking out four batters, walking one and hitting one Tuesday. “Once you make one error, there are usually more coming and some teams get their heads down.”
Wozny has taken a squad heavy on right-handed hitters and persuaded them to learn how to bunt and slap from the left side. Even if the contact isn’t ideal, the Olympians usually reach first base in about 31/2 seconds, which puts yet more pressure on the defense. Meanwhile, anyone on base at the time is off with the crack of composite barrel on ball.
“For some of our kids, hitting from the other side slows them down and makes them concentrate,” Wozny said. “We work on it from day one in the gym. I put tape down for a batter’s box and we slap and bunt before we hit. Out of the nine starters that I have, seven of them are very comfortable from the left and the right sides.”
Brown said the Cougars don’t see much small ball from their opponents. Oxbow won the teams’ first meeting of the season, 7-1.
“This is the only team we’ve faced this year that has really used the bunt-and-run and the slap hits,” he said. “ I think a lot of girls are intimidated by trying to bunt, which is an art that appears to be lost. But teams like Oxbow are completely dedicated to practicing everything that goes into it.”
Wozny coached Tuesday wearing a golf shirt emblazoned with a logo that celebrates last season’s state title. Many bench bosses would eschew such garb, fearful it would send a complacent message, but the Olympians’ leader doesn’t fret over her team’s focus.
“These kids are proud of what they did last year,” said Wozny, whose squad returned seven starters from the 2013 edition. “I don’t know if we’ll win a championship again, but our goal every year is to make a run at it.”
Oxbow is scheduled to conclude the regular season by month’s end before it again tackles the playoffs. The likes of Leland & Gray, Richford and Green Mountain loom in the distance, none of which the Olympians will have faced before the postseason begins. Hanzas, who plans to play at NCAA Division II St. Michael’s College next season, has her fingers crossed that she’ll bring a second state title ring with her when she leaves town.
“Walking down the hall, people will tell us we’ll obviously win another state title and I have to tell them we haven’t won anything yet, because I don’t want to jinx it,” Hanzas said. “We have a lot of tough opponents in our division, but we also have even more talent and chemistry than we did last year.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3227.