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Forget the Snow: Oxbow Ready To Play

Oxbow pitcher Leah Hanzas gets a hug from catcher Heather White at the end of an inning against Leland & Gray at Poultney Elementary School in Poultney, Vt. on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
Valley News - Libby March

Oxbow pitcher Leah Hanzas gets a hug from catcher Heather White at the end of an inning against Leland & Gray at Poultney Elementary School in Poultney, Vt. on Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Valley News - Libby March Purchase photo reprints »

Bradford, Vt. — The Oxbow Union High softball team tryouts don’t begin until next week, but the Olympians’ field remains blanketed in snow, and even the ice cream stand operated by coach Robin Wozny won’t re-open until the middle of next month.

Yet the team is already excited for the coming season — and why not after last year? Rolling to its first state championship in 17 years, Oxbow outscored opponents 41-12 in the VPA Division III postseason. It returns six of nine starters, including both ends of a talented battery in pitcher Leah Hanzas and catcher Heather White, as well as three of four infield positions.

It’s understandable the Olympians are chomping at the bit to get started again.

“You bet we’re excited,” Wozny said on Tuesday following a coaches-and-captains meeting in the school’s conference room. “We finished the season on the highest note possible. Our biggest challenge this year is to realize that we have to start all over.”

The O’s literally ran circles around opponents in 2013 with tactful, aggressive base running that befuddled even top-seeded Leland & Gray in the title game last June.

Anticipating where the ball was to be thrown to help advance multiple bases on each hit, No. 6 Oxbow led 9-0 after four innings in a 15-1 rout of the Rebels.

“One of our offensive philosophies is to never give yourself up (on the base paths),” said Wozny, who is entering her 22nd season. “Don’t stop in your tracks on rundowns. If you can get around the tag, get around the tag. If you have to dive and make them chase you, do that because more often than not, if there’s anyone else on base, they’re going to be able to (advance). The girls were really smart about that last year. They had a real high softball IQ.”

They were also disciplined. In an annual “team camp” workshop where players’ ideas and goals are bounced off one another, the Olympians implemented rules to help stay focused. Distractions such as visitors or cellphones during practices and games were imposed, with players vowing to hold themselves and their teammates accountable.

“That’s something they did on their own and never had an issue with,” Wozny recalled. “As the season went on, they showed they were mature enough to do a lot of things themselves. This never happened, but by the middle of the season I didn’t even have to be at practice for the first hour or so. They ran all of the everyday drills and exercises on their own.”

With most of the roster carrying over, Wozny expects much of the same this season. To help re-establish bonds, the O’s will head to the Philadelphia area on April 10 to take in a college game between Villanova and visiting Butler, as well as to practice outside for what could be the first time.

Oxbow has a three-team scrimmage scheduled for April 5 against St. Johnsbury and Woodsville, but will likely need more time for their fields to dry.

Last year, the team visited Long Island, N.Y., during the preseason and watched Hofstra face Delaware. It also scrimmaged a New York team, a luxury it won’t have this year.

“Pennsylvania will have already started playing and (the state’s high school athletics governing body) has a rule against scrimmaging in-season,” Wozny said. “But we expect to be bringing about 21 girls, so we should be able to scrimmage each other every day. ... It’s also good for us to see a Division I college game, to see how high-caliber programs conduct themselves and play the game.”

Thrust into the starting pitcher’s role last year after the unexpected departure of a teammate, Hanzas worked to develop both her velocity and repertoire. By the end of the season, Hanzas’ fastball was reaching around 54 mph and she’d added change-up pitches, such as the rise ball and a more effective curve.

“She started the season with four different pitches we could chose from, and she had seven at the end of the year,” said White, a fourth-year starter. “It really helped having that many choices and we got much better being on the same page throughout the year.”

Oxbow’s biggest hole is at first base, which since-graduated Amanda Hatch manned deftly, as well as both outfield corner positions. Junior Amanda Wheeler returns to second base, senior Kasie Craig to third and senior Cassie Hutchinson to shortstop — provided they do their part to hold down their spots.

Wozny, who encourages competition during preseason, doesn’t hesitate to shuffle the lineup in order to help the team perform at its best. Most often, players who demonstrate the most commitment are rewarded.

“With us, there are no guarantees that you’re going to start, and the players understand that because it’s all about building depth,” said Wozny. “You’ve got to show up and work hard if you want to play.”

Oxbow is scheduled to open the season April 22 at home against Lake Region.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.