Building blocks: Lebanon softball hopes new field will mark the beginning of a turnaround

  • Lebanon High pitcher Yasmine Lambert winds up with shortstop Kaitlyn Veracka in the background during the Raiders' NHIAA Division II loss to Pelham on April 19, 2019 at Civic Field. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Lebanon High softball coach Ray Pettersen addresses his team after an 18-0 loss to NHIAA foe Pelham on April 19, 2019, at Civic Field. During his third year in charge of the struggling program, Pettersen has emphasized optimism and off-season skills work. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Lebanon High second baseman Cassady Coates reaches for a throw while Pelham's Julia Vawter slides safely into the bag on April 19, 2019, at Civic Field. The host Raiders lost, 18-0, and dropped to 0-4 while having been outscored, 75-7. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Lebanon High's Lilly Pettersen awaits a Pelham pitch during her team's April 19, 2019, clash with the Pythons at Civic Field. The Raiders lost, 18-0, in five innings while playing without three starters out of the lineup because of school vacation. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Lebanon High softball players, from left, Meghan Olney, Kelsey Carney, Kaitlyn Veracka and Kayleigh Trietsch, watch an April 19, 2019, play during their team's 18-0 loss to Pelham at Civic Field. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Photographed on April 22, 2019, Lebanon's softball team will be returning to play on the high school campus as soon as their newly-refurbished field dries out. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A notice for rehabilitating Lebanon High School's softball field remains posted at the completed project in Lebanon, N.H., on April 22, 2019. The team was not able to open their season on the field due to wet conditions. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cloudy skies loom over the newly-rehabilitated softball field at Lebanon High School in Lebanon, N.H., on April 22, 2019. The team's first four or five home games were moved to Civic Field in West Lebanon due to wet field conditions. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 23, 2019

LEBANON — When the Lebanon High softball team first plays on its new $180,000 field later this season, a relic from the site’s past will remain down the right field line. It’s a manually operated scoreboard with “1995 Class I State Champions” emblazoned along its bottom edge.

The board is a physical reminder of how high the program once soared. And how far it’s fallen.

Earlier this week, Lebanon lost at Kennett, 39-0, far and away the largest margin of defeat in New Hampshire softball this spring. The Raiders have dropped 27 consecutive games and are 8-93 since the start of the 2013 season, a stretch during which they’ve twice posted winless seasons.

“I don’t worry about the numbers; I worry about the morale and how I can build the girls up,” third-year coach Ray Pettersen said after last week’s loss to visiting Pelham. “The game is very difficult for them, and I have to find a way to pull the frustration away. It may have been an absolute slaughter, but they can’t look at it like that.

“If they have a big blockage about everything being bad, they’re never going to see what we can do good. So that’s our biggest struggle.”

Prior to 2013, Lebanon had won at least seven games during five of the previous six seasons. Lebanon successfully petitioned to play 2017 and 2018 in NHIAA Division III, but its request to stay there was denied, pushing it back to Division II for the current season.

That not only means facing bigger schools and higher-powered programs, it requires additional travel time because the vast majority of Division II schools are in the state’s southern half, with two on the Seacoast. Lopsided road losses followed by long bus rides home isn’t a recipe to help retain players. Lebanon’s girls lacrosse, tennis and track programs also draw away athletes.

“There’s starting to be an uptick in softball interest on the lower levels, but I think we can do a better job of getting girls interested earlier,” said Pettersen, who has a daughter on his team and another on the Lebanon Middle School squad. “Lebanon Youth Baseball gets kids out there from kindergarten on up. We only pick up softball by third and fourth grade, so not getting the roots set earlier is a problem.”

One Raider whose roots were planted early is junior catcher Kayleigh Treitsch, who’s also played soccer and ice hockey for the school. She competed in baseball growing up and is one of her current team’s better hitters. However, she said experience among her teammates ranges from novice to as many as eight years in the sport.

“Last year we didn’t have a JV team, and I could see the frustration in the seniors’ eyes, because they had been playing so much longer than the freshmen,” Treitsch said. “It’s just a young program with a lot of people who haven’t been playing softball their whole life.”

Lebanon’s glory days came with a three-year run to the Class I title game from 1994-96. The Raiders won during the second of those trips, paced by the sister battery of Erin and Sara Barney and coach and former Keene State College softball player Deb Beach. The latter also led the Raiders to four field hockey titles and retired in 2016 after more than three decades at the school.

Jeff McGuire, a Lebanon physical education teacher, coached the softball team after Beach and kept the Raiders competitive. Jessica Maville-Bavos, the 1995 team’s starting shortstop and co-captain, took over from 2013-15 but was a combined 3-45, and her last team returned only five players from the previous season.

The only applicant to replace Bavos in 2016 was another former Raider, Kassie Dunkerton, a 2005 graduate who had played softball in town since she was in fourth grade and was now a Lebanon Middle School teacher. Dunkerton spoke of reversing softball’s local participation decline, but resigned a year later. Pettersen, who’d been hired to coach the 2016 junior varsity days before its season started, was promoted to the varsity job.

A 39-year-old Long Island native who attended Norwich University and has spent time in the Marine Corps reserves, Pettersen is a Lebanon resident who oversees the stamping department for a Claremont manufacturing company. He’s relentlessly positive but somewhat subdued. He is 3-34 with the program, the victories all coming during his first season.

Pettersen’s main improvement initiative has been scheduling offseason workouts for Lebanon’s high school and middle school players, trying to develop basic skills for girls who are lucky if they play six weeks outside during the spring and who don’t have area access to summer club softball. A crucial part of Beach’s success was her running a U16 travel team, on which some of her players competed.

“We’re trying to reinforce their confidence, because that’s a huge struggle for them,” Pettersen said of his players, who experienced only two outdoor practices before starting their game schedule. “They’re not in an instinctual state yet. They react to the ball, but then it’s, ‘What’s next?’ They have to understand where the priority is after they field or hit the ball.”

That challenge arose at Civic Park last week when, with Pelham runners on first and second and no outs, the Raiders’ second baseman scooped up a ground ball, ignored the opponent about to cross in front of her and threw late to third, leaving the bases loaded.

The initial half-inning featured two other infield misplays, a walk, a hit batter, two wild pitches and six hits, one of which dropped in front of an outfielder who didn’t move until the ball was only feet above the grass. The visitors led, 7-0, before Lebanon got a chance to bat and eventually prevailed, 18-0, dropping the hosts to 0-4.

Michael and Laura Tafe sat on a slope behind first base and watched their freshman daughter, Libby, play right field for Lebanon. A call-up from the junior varsity to help fill openings created by vacationing starters, Libby Tafe was experiencing just her second softball game after deciding to no longer play AAU basketball.

“She’s liking it, but it’s been a difficult week for the team,” her father said, noting that a previous opponent began purposely making outs in an attempt to hold down the score.

Added Laura Tafe: “She heard they needed players, and she had friends on the team. She’s played sports long enough to understand that you don’t always win.”

Despite their struggles, the Raiders are improving. Compared with last season’s team, they consistently hit the cutoff player, and progress is evident in their throwing and catching. A better sense of the strike zone and swing mechanics has increased balls in play. Freshman pitchers Yasmine Lambert and Lilly Pettersen, while not the blazing guns featured by some Division II teams, find the strike zone without lobbing the ball toward home plate.

Morale remains solid with Pettersen’s encouragement and the promise of the new field. The outfield was damp and the clay infield remained extremely soft late last week, but it’s hoped the Raiders can play in their new digs during May.

That will be an improvement over Civic Field and Elks Field on Heater Road, where the program played for at least a decade after abandoning the site where the new field has been built. Dana Arey, director of facilities for the Lebanon School District, said Tuesday that the new surface is draining well but that frost underneath it only recently made a full retreat.

“The girls are definitely excited to have our own field, and we’re hoping more people will come to games if (contests) are at the school rather than in the middle of the woods,” Treitsch said after the Pelham game. “We may only have 27 followers on Instagram, but we’re excited to have our own home.”

So is Pettersen, who must lug the team’s equipment from field to field for a team seemingly always on the road, even in its own town. The construction will give his players a psychological boost, he said.

“They haven’t felt fully a part of the school’s athletic program,” the coach said. “Now we can start building a real bond between the school and the team. These girls are setting a path for the girls coming up after them.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.