Though a scarcity of South Philly softball has been recognized in recent years, an incubator of budding players continues to blossom within a local five-block radius.
For the second consecutive year, the recently established 10U Girls District Little League softball team, a product of the 66-year-old Delaware Valley Youth Athletic Association (DVYAA), ranked in the Pennsylvania 10U Little League state championship this summer.
The team, comprised of 13 9- to 11-year-olds, all living throughout Pennsport and Whitman, clinched third place in July, trumping its fourth-place status from 2018, which served as the first state-level competition for a DVYAA team since its inception in 1953.
“These 13 girls are a really competitive team,” said 10U coach Bob Thompson. “They’re relentless…For us, we were generally a pretty young team. Nine of these 13 girls also play in this age bracket next year, including the pitcher. So, under the guidance of some of the older girls, there was a lot of camaraderie here. Look, these kids are trained softball players.”
With only a handful of girls returning from the 2018 lineup, this year’s stellar team, which also won District 19 and Section 8 championships, primarily featured an entirely new squad.
Several of the new players studied last year’s groundbreaking group in preparation for seizing the reins this summer.
“Everybody brings something to the team,” said Ken Bergmann, vice president of the DVYAA Little League. “Whether it’s good, positive spirit. Whether it’s you’re fast. Whether it’s you can hit the ball far. Whether, you can throw a ball hard – whatever it is, it’s being part of a team. And, I think what (Edward O’Malley Athletic Association) and DV has been doing really well – is that they sort of foster that.”
Four years ago, Bergmann helped to establish DVYAA’s implementation of the all-girls Little League team, as he says parents noticed a dearth of the sport in South Philadelphia.
DVYAA partnered with Edward O’Malley Athletic Association (EOM), which manages the in-house operation of teams, to form the program, including 10U, 12U and 14U softball.
Duplicating 2018’s successful path, the returning players and team managers strived to retain some strengths from last year while also revamping some of its approaches to improve from 2018’s fourth-place showing.
Players say they’ve noticed their defense significantly improve.
“I feel like we had more catches in the field,” said 10-year-old Macie Lieb. “And, I think this team is a lot cleaner in the field.”
“We had a good infield and a good outfield,” added 11-year-old Maddie Wray. “Last year, we had a lot of good players. This year – it was a good experience for everybody.”
Team managers echoed the player’s thoughts, attributing wins to skillful pitches and strikeouts throughout the season, which started in June.
However, much of the triumph rests in close relationships fostered on and off of the field, as all of the girls know one another from attending Performing Arts Charter School, Christopher Columbus Charter School and St. Monica Roman Catholic School.
“They’re hanging with their friends,” Thompson said. “It’s fun for them. It’s not work. It’s fun. I attribute it to that…When you play with your friends, you can teach them as much as you want. They’re sponges.”
The girls say they tended to bounce off of one another’s spirits throughout the season.
They credit these connections to their splendid wins against a Drexel Hill team in the district finals and a Plymouth Meeting team in sectionals.
“I just think we have our energy,” said 10-year-old Sophia Kobielnik. “And, we just keep it when we go onto the field.”
One of the challenges, the girls say, was feeling fatigued, especially in the middle of games, as the team played the maximum number of games in each tournament.
Since there were multiple rounds throughout the tournaments with double eliminations, after losing a couple of games during the sectional and district competitions, the girls had to come back to win a few games in a row in order to advance.
“The highest point of our season is us winning sectionals and districts,” said 11-year-old Maddie Bergmann. “But the lowest point, I think, was having those games where we weren’t focused, and we were out of energy.”
But these drawbacks couldn’t keep the team crestfallen for very long.
“When we are on the field, I feel like, instead of just caring about ourselves, we care about the whole team,” said 10-year-old Brooklyn Balilonis. “I feel like we’re really good together.”
The compassion carried the team to the state-level competition in mid-July.
Even beyond the 10U group, efforts to get the team to Wellsboro, Tioga County for the tournament spilled beyond the field.
After clinching the sectional title, the team established a GoFundMe page with a goal to raise $10,000 for transportation and six-night hotel expenses. Within 30 hours, Bergmann and Thompson say the goal was reached.
“As usual, South Philly came together,” Bergmann said. “Every neighborhood in South Philly came together.”
With extra funds, the team even had the opportunity to visit the Pine Creek Gorge, also known as The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, during their trip.
Though they lost to state champs St. Mary’s in the semifinals, DV actually beat the winning team earlier in the competition.
Whether acknowledging victory or defeat, the team managers say, at the end of the day, the grail of the game exists beyond the final scores.
“Softball is about teaching life lessons,” Thompson said. “The game is just a by-product of that. So, I always say, if you can get on a mound in front of 300 people in the bottom of the sixth (inning) and throw a strike, odds are, you can communicate with an adult on the street. Odds are, you can communicate with your teacher in the classroom. Odds are, you have respect for authority. And, that all comes through softball. All these kids are positive role models in their community, in their classrooms and they’re only 9 and 10-years old.”
Note: DVYAA is seeking new all-girls sports teams, including field hockey and soccer. If interested in starting a league, contact Ken Bergmann at 215-520–6028.