The pop of a new leather glove and the ping of a well-struck softball is something that’s been missing in the Catholic high school ranks in South Philadelphia the last few years.
Neumann-Goretti High School’s softball program, like many others across the city, was shut down in 2020 due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, the Saints never got out of the batter’s box as other programs played limited schedules. Now in 2022, the Saints are back, and trying to rebuild a program almost from scratch.
“It’s nice because we finally have a team again,” said senior first baseman Abby Nicholas. “We’re getting softball kicked back up.”
Nicholas is among an enthusiastic bunch of players who dove head first into the Philadelphia Catholic League play with the Saints this season. And although the wins have been elusive in the early part of the season, the foundation is being built for future generations of Neumann-Goretti ballplayers.
Nicholas arrived via John W. Hallahan High School, where she spent the last three years playing for the Mighty Micks before the longstanding school shut its doors at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Nicholas is one of a handful of players who now call Neumann-Goretti home. Also making the transition is head coach Brian Sitongia, who coached Hallahan from 2019-21. After Hallahan closed, Sitongia was looking to skipper another team in the PCL and the South Philly resident was delighted to see an opening in December.
“I knew (Neumann-Goretti’s) coach might not come back so I was periodically checking the Archdiocese website where they post the jobs,” said Sitongia, a grad of St. John Neumann. “Three days before Christmas, I saw the job had opened. This was the best place for me to go with Hallahan closing.”
Sitongia picked up his phone and recruited Ashton Chantilope as an assistant to help get things up to speed.
“Brian told me this team is going to want me to push them,” Chantilope said. “Everything we do is with pace. It’s changing the culture one pitch at a time. We’re not going to win the Catholic League championship the first year. We’re just doing what we have to do.”
Five seniors, who were all named co-captains, are helping pave the way. Along with Nicholas, pitcher Ava Grady, third baseman Kaitlin Banning, second baseman Emma Stuhl and shortstop Alura Troilo all share leadership duties.
“They’ve been very helpful,” Sitongia said. “We have a bunch of sophomores and juniors that played their first high school game this season.”
They’re young, but they’re contributing.
In a 7-5 loss to Lansdale Catholic, the Saints trailed 5-0 and battled back with four home runs with two of them coming off the bat of left fielder Mya Grinnell. Lauren Bettelli, Caitlyn Coghlan, Riana Matkowski, Julia Banning and Savannah Pacetti have all made significant contributions in the early going. The wins will come eventually.
“We want to get the program started back up and show girls that we do have a good softball team,” Nicholas said. “Especially after they had two years off at Neumann-Goretti, it’s nice to be a part of this program and build it again.”
In the three seasons prior to the pandemic, the Saints endured a tough stretch going a combined 6-29 in league play. The Catholic League is filled with talented teams. The Saints want to be part of that conversation. With Hallahan and Bishop McDevitt closing last year and West Catholic not fielding a team, Neumann-Goretti’s schedule is loaded with elite teams.
“We just want to win as many games as we can and get better,” Sitongia said. “Neumann traditionally has been part of the bottom three with West Catholic and McDevitt. We certainly don’t want to be the bottom team so we want to establish ourselves. It takes time. We understand that. But we want to eventually compete in this league. We feel like we can get there.”