Hanover Softball Hopes to Finally Build a Winner

  • Mariruth Graham, Hanover High's first-year softball coach, addresses her team after Wednesday's 20-0 loss to visiting White Mountains at the Dresden Athletic Fields. A former Univ. of Virginia catcher, Graham is a local Realtor and the Marauders' third coach in four years. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Hanover High softball coach Mariruth Graham pauses for instruction during Tuesday's practice at the Dresden Athletic Fields. Graham, a onetime Dartmouth College assistant coach, is in her first season with the Marauders. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Hanover High's Bella Bardales participates in a baserunning drill during the Marauders' Tuesday practice on the Dresden Athletic Fields. "We didn't do this last season," Bardales said. Standing in the background is first-year coach Mariruth Graham. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Hanover High softball coach Mariruth Graham shows Sophia Nadeau a technique to learn how to get into a proper bunting stance Wednesday at the Dresden Athletic Fields. The Marauders lost to visiting White Mountains, 20-0. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Hanover High softball players, from left, Olivia Peterson, Rose Luttmer, Emily LeBlanc and Becca Wilson, watch a teammate's throw from the outfield arrive at home plate during Tuesday's practice at the Dresden Athletic Fields. The Marauders are 16-92 since the start of the 2011 season. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 04, 2018

Norwich — Hanover High’s softball scoreboard is installed and operational, and the dugouts are so new they still smell like fresh lumber. The playing surface is in nice condition, and grass has taken root outside the fences at a Dresden Athletic Fields facility that cost more than $200,000.

What remains is to build a competitive program. In first-year coach Mariruth Graham, the Marauders might have found just the person for a daunting task.

A local Realtor who was the University of Virginia’s starting catcher during the mid-1990s, Graham is a onetime Dartmouth College assistant coach. She inherited a program that is 16-93 since the start of the 2011 season, triumphed only once during previous coach Jessica Belley’s two seasons and hasn’t had a winning record since 2003.

“I asked the players why they came back, because it seems like not winning must have been frustrating,” said Graham, whose team is 0-5 and hosts Lebanon today. “They felt it was a rebirth of the program, and they’ve let go of where it’s been in the past.”

Hanover had only nine players at one point under Belley, a former Lebanon junior high coach and Hanover High administrative assistant. She took over for Mike Landau, who was 15-54 in four seasons and stepped down after the 2015 Marauders earned the school’s first playoff berth in 12 years.

The program’s only state title came in 1983. Landau, a Hartford High teacher, said the rise of lacrosse, crew and club soccer in the ensuing decades ate away at softball’s popularity. Particularly damaging is a thinning of youth and junior high ranks, the high school team’s feeder programs.

“The most athletic kids don’t gravitate toward softball,” Landau said. “And the ones who could pick it up at a late age don’t, because they don’t want to join a team that isn’t competitive.”

Said Graham: “It’s a very technical sport in which you might not get a hit or have the ball hit to you during a game. It’s hard to encourage kids to play a sport like that. We’re hoping we can put together a really great program at the high school for kids to look up to.”

With that in mind, Graham spends seemingly every minute of her 90-minute practices teaching, reiterating and pushing. While hitting balls from home plate to infielders and outfielders on Tuesday, she kept up a steady stream of basic instruction and demonstration: how to throw, when to throw, where to throw.

If you drop a ball, pick it up with your bare hand. Run down fly balls with your glove closed and your arms bent, and make the catch directly behind your forehead as you look up. It’s the day before a game, and pitching and hitting aren’t covered in detail so as to keep the players fresh.

“If you’re standing around watching, you’re doing something wrong,” Graham called out. “On every play, you’re either running to the ball, running to a base or backing up a throw.”

It could be an overbearing overload of information, but somehow it’s not. Graham clearly knows her stuff and is so passionate about teaching that it becomes important to her players to learn. There’s no shouting and no negativity, not even the next day when visiting White Mountains wallops the Marauders, 20-0.

“She gets in my head, and I remember everything,” sophomore third baseman Bella Bardales said. “I don’t know how it’s not too much. Last year was pretty laid back, but this year we’re very serious and straight to the point. I think that’s helped us a lot.”

Added junior shortstop Brianna Elder: “It’s hands-on coaching instead of just talking, so you really understand it.”

As a second baseman turning a double play, push off the bag with your back foot. If you’re pitching and there’s a hit to the outfield, get off the diamond and back up a base so there’s no confusion on where a relay throw might go. Moving laterally to field a ground ball? Plant your feet and see your target before you throw with your whole body.

There’s a best way to do everything on the field, and Hanover manages to do almost all of it incorrectly during the third inning against White Mountains. A wide throw is made to the first baseman, who tries to use two hands to catch the ball and nicks a finger. A Spartans runner moves to steal second and the catcher drops the pitch.

An outfielder misses her cutoff three consecutive times. The pitcher watches each of those plays while standing motionless in the circle. The catcher throws to an unguarded first base on a dribbler in front of the plate. Three fielding errors on ground balls. A scoreless game is now 9-0 for White Mountains.

“Here we go, girls, dig deep,” Graham says to her huddled team after the third out. “One run at a time, ‘Together!’ on three.”

Bardales, one of the school’s best athletes, plays for its successful soccer and basketball teams, but said softball is her favorite sport. It’s not just the game itself, the Norwich resident added; it’s the camaraderie forged by players who don’t let game results affect their ability to have fun.

Becca Wilson, a junior pitcher who plays volleyball and swims, also picks softball as her favorite, and she said that’s been reinforced by Graham’s arrival. Several softball players were part of the interview process with the three finalists for the coaching job last winter.

“Mariruth is so inspirational and motivational and specific,” Wilson said. “I always know what to work on, and I’ve improved a ton because of that.”

Graham had been hired to be the Marauders’ 2008 junior varsity coach, but took the Dartmouth assistant’s gig instead and stayed in it for several years. She toyed with the idea of applying for the Hanover varsity position a few times, but didn’t do so until January, when the job was once again posted.

“Coaching is my moment of letting go of everything and giving back to my community,” said Graham, a member of Hanover’s Parks and Recreation board who successfully coached her son, Max, in youth baseball during his elementary school and junior high days. “It’s almost a need, that I have to do it.”

Through her daughter, Miranda, a Hanover High lacrosse player, Graham knew the softball competitors pined for direction and a sense of progress.

Upon taking the job, she laid out clear expectations for how practices would be conducted and how parents would comport themselves. Lollygagging was out, attention to detail was in.

“I don’t let a lot of stuff slide,” said Graham, whose petite but powerful physique speaks to her own self-discipline. “I’m strict, but the players trust my experience and they know I’m a mom and I’m connected to the community.

“I want players to feel very safe to make mistakes and push themselves out of their comfort zone.”

Notes: Hanover’s roster features no seniors and two freshmen. … Mike Jackson, in his final weeks as Hanover’s athletic director, operated the scoreboard on Wednesday. He said the Marauders, who successfully petitioned down to Division III for the current two-year cycle, have been denied the chance to continue at that level by the NHIAA softball committee. Hanover will return to Division II next season, meaning a step up in competition and more far-flung opposition. Jackson said the committee didn’t want to encourage a trend in which a school’s softball and baseball teams travel separately and incur higher transportation costs. … Graham is a Tampa, Fla., native who finished high school in New Jersey, was a college sociology major and worked in corporate recruiting in Virginia. She coached a Williamsburg, Va., private high school softball team for a season before arriving in the Upper Valley in 2004. … Briana Elder is the younger sister of Ashley Elder, a former Hanover softball captain who’s now a culinary staff member at a Montana resort. Their father is Glenn Elder, a former Marauder football lineman during the 1980s. … Hanover softball had 32 players and a JV team in 2012.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.