A Jersey Journey: Spring Trips a Vital Part of Olympians’ Routine

Olympians Learn Skills, Teamwork on Annual Spring Trip

  • Bailee Wheeler tosses the ball to assistant coach Carl Hildebrandt during fielding practice at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt. Tuesday, April 12, 2016. The Oxbow softball team will take an annual team building spring break trip this weekend to Long Beach Island, N.J. where they will have daily practices, watch a Rutgers softball game and go to Six Flags. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Maryjane Bourgeois, right, kisses the arm of Sara Walker, left, where she got hit by a ball while practicing bunting at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt. Tuesday, April 12, 2016. The softball team will leave early Friday morning on their four day trip to New Jersey. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Maddie Fornwalt, right, high fives softball coach Robin Wozny, left, at the close of practice in Bradford, Vt. Tuesday, April 12, 2016. On the team's annual spring break trip Wozny hopes to identify leadership within her players, and to expose them to a higher level of play with a visit to a Rutgers softball game. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bradford, Vt. — Corrina Oakley has been saving up since freshman year to make it to one of the Oxbow High softball team’s annual trips in search of warmer weather. Though she’s played softball all four years, the trip has just never been an option. Now, she can’t believe that it’s right around the corner.

“I’ve always felt left out,” Oakley said. “I was trying to save my money until senior year.”

Oakley and her teammates will take their yearly pilgrimage south to central New Jersey starting Friday, a four-day trip consisting of a seven-hour bus ride, a nighttime practice on the beach, a day at Six Flags and a Rutgers University softball game against visiting Minnesota. It’s a trip that the Olympians believe is not only crucial to their team’s cohesiveness, but is an annual tradition that many on the team wait for all year.

“We’ve been fundraising since the beginning of the year,” said Oxbow junior Mary Bourgeois. “And we’re fundraising for next year because we’re going to Florida, hopefully. That’ll be the best trip ever.”

On paper, at least, the payoff from Oxbow’s softball adventures seem obvious. But for most of the Olympians the trip represents something more: a chance to bond with teammates outside of school, drills, practices and games and, perhaps more importantly, a chance to see the game of softball being played at a higher level.

Oxbow head coach Robin Wozny’s teams tend to take things from their college softball experiences and apply it to their own games, whether it’s a chant or a practice drill or a play on the field.

But what strikes Wozny more is when her athletes turn to her, sometimes during games and sometimes afterward, with an encouraging grin.

“I could do that,” they say.

It gives the Olympians a chance to see the potential that lies beyond high school varsity, floating the idea that hard work and dedication to softball can pay off with, perhaps, a college scholarship.

This is Wozny’s 27th year coaching the Olympians — a journey that even she admits is coming close to an end. But part of her lasting legacy will be Oxbow’s annual trips, which started 15 years ago at Disney World. It was an exhausting experience, Wozny said, involving early wake-up calls and long practices coupled with days at Disney World’s parks.

About seven years later, Wozny decided shorter trips were comperable, catching college softball games along the way. Oxbow saw Villanova University several years ago and Hofstra University last year. This season’s trip will be something similar.

“It’s more like a team-bonding experience,” said Oxbow junior Mary Bourgeois.

“It helps with the team chemistry. … (Afterward) you’re ready, you’re energized. Not this year because the snow is gone but most years the snow is still here so you can get extra time on the field that other people don’t.”

If anything, Wozny’s team trips have reinforced what has been a consistent string of highly competitive teams over the last decade.

“I have a lot of good coaches at the younger level feeding me a lot of talent,” Wozny said. “Where I can just coach the parts of the game and they can already throw and already hit.”

The Olympians are still waiting for another banner in the gym to illustrate that consistency, last winning a D-III state title in 2013. Oxbow is coming off of what many on this year’s team feel was a disappointing season despite finishing 14-2 as the top seed in Vermont Division III.

When expectations are high, losing to lower-seeded Leland & Gray in the quarterfinals hurt more. But more disappointing than the final score was the way that Oxbow played — meticulous, tentative, slow, uncharacteristic of what Wozny expects out of her team in the playoffs.

This season has given the Olympians a lot more to work with, namely the motivation to avenge a postseason loss that they feel shouldn’t have happened.

Oxbow graduated two starters and six seniors overall after last year, bringing back an experienced group that includes its starting pitcher, Bourgeois, and 11 upperclassmen. Oxbow’s varsity roster only features two underclassmen: sophomore Bailee Wheeler and freshman Madison Fornwalt, a back-up pitcher behind Bourgeois that will give Wozny more options than she remembers having in nearly half a decade.

“That’s what building a program is all about,” Wozny said. “We’ve always looked at Lyndon (Institute) and said, ‘That’s what we want for our team.’ We want to be in it every year.”

For Bourgeois, a junior, having a capable backup pitcher is a whole new experience. Not once since middle school has she been on a team with another pitcher; Fornwalt was always on teams a few years below her. Not that it’s taken long to get used to it.

“I think this year will be even better because you have me but you also have Maddie (Fornwalt),” Bourgeois said. “She’s a solid freshman who can come in whenever I’m having trouble.”

It’s the kind of depth that Wozny has enjoyed during her tenure with Oxbow. The feeder program is strong, success at the varsity level breeds interest at the levels below it. Oxbow, with 26 athletes coming out for softball, is one of the few programs in the Upper Valley to boast a junior varsity softball team.

“It’s a good luxury,” Wozny said. “That’s what the trip does. … You have kids that want to go on a trip and then they get interested in softball. I also have some girls that play softball year-round.

“We’re just trying to make smart ball-players,” she added. “I think if kids understand the game, that’s what makes them better. This is one of the sports that 90 percent of it is between the ears.”

That education will extend to New Jersey this weekend, all paid for by individual fundraisers by Oxbow’s athletes. This year each athlete had to raise $200. Next year, which will be a trip once again to Florida, each athlete will have to raise nearly $1,000.

For Oakley, who’s spent years hearing stories from her teammates, she can’t wait.

“I’m really excited (about this season),” Oakley said. “Oxbow has always had a really good head-game. We’ve always been able to get the concept of softball and where the ball needs to be. This year, we have a physically athletic team. I think that’ll help us.

“I know they’ve gone to Florida before. But just going to New Jersey — the bus ride alone — there will be a ton of bonding time.”

Oxbow will begin its regular season at home at 4:30 p.m. today against Williamstown.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or at 603-727-3306.