The young Panthers softball team finished the year at 7-13.
It was an infusion of youth on the diamond this spring for the Whitman-Hanson Regional High softball team.
On some occasions, the Panthers had as many as six freshmen and sophomores penned into their lineup and manning pivotal positions en route to a 7-13 record.
In all, W-H worked in a half-dozen new starters while junior Kayla Crawford was converted from second base to catcher.
The Panthers did most of their business this spring without their senior captain, top returning bat and ace — all combined into one — Colleen Hughes, who hurt her patella in the third inning of the season opener, which forced her to miss the next 15 games. Hughes, a three-year starter and the team’s MVP and a Patriot League All-Star the last two seasons, entered the spring having hurled 106 of 133.2 innings last season while hitting a team-high .486 with 25 RBIs.
“She was one of the best hitters on the South Shore, in my opinion, over the course of her career,” fifth-year Panthers skipper Jenna Olem said. “No one took the injury harder than [Colleen], but she stayed so positive and became such a strong leader and even a secondary coach at practice and on the bench. She started every game for me up until this year, and picked up pitching her sophomore year out of necessity.”
Hughes returned with four games remaining and hit .467 while manning left field. However, her absence left two glaring needs: innings to be logged and runs to be driven in.
Stepping up on the bump in a big way was freshman Abby Cleary. Cleary tossed 94.1 of W-H’s 125.1 innings and collected five wins. Her finest outing came May 2 on the road against Quincy, as she went the distance and two-hit the Presidents in a 2-1 victory.
“At first I was going to have [her and Colleen] split starts and go from there, but obviously, a lot more was put on Abby’s plate when Colleen went down,” Olem said. “When she was on and able to limit walks she got herself into a really nice groove.
“Abby has a pretty steady presence on the mound. She was able to get herself out of multiple jams this year which is a good sign going forward. I believe if she can increase her velocity and hit her spots a little better she is going to take a big leap as our ace next year.”
Shining offensively were most notably senior Hailey Norris and sophomore Victoria Ryan. Both were tabbed league all-stars.
Norris hit a team-high .418, knocked in a team-high 15 runs, crossed the plate a team-high 18 times and led the team with seven steals.
“Hailey Norris has been on the varsity since her sophomore year,” Olem said. “Last year, she solidified her role as our starting third basemen and this year her offense really took off. Her batting average from last year (.200) to this year shows the huge leap she took. She also limited her strike outs from 15 last season to just three all year. Hailey always was capable of hitting for power, but bailed us out consistently this year.”
Ryan hit .382 with 12 RBIs and 13 runs scored.
“She looked real good in the cage from the onset of the season and [I] thought she was going to be able to handle varsity pitching just fine,” Olem said. “She did just that, and I only expect her to improve as she becomes a junior next year.”
Also, proving to be a catalyst for the Panthers’ offense was freshman Reese Codero, who hit at a .377 clip and scored 13 runs. Codero also had 68 putouts from her post at shortstop.
“A lot of the things she does on the field are just from raw athleticism,” Olem said. “Reese improved so much over the season. For anyone, it is an adjustment to catch to varsity pitching and to try to eliminate some bad habits, but she is quite the competitor and chipped away and started to really improve with her approach at the plate (taking pitches that were out of the zone, fouling off 0-2 counts, etc.).
“Defensively, Reese is really solid. I think by the end of her career she will be an all-star and one of best shortstops in league.”
Also, catching Olem’s eye were two of Codero’s classmates — Emily McDonald and Kaitlyn McNaught.
“Emily is also another really athletic kid,” Olem said. “She started in the outfield for us and also got some good experience behind the plate. Her speed on the bases next year, along with Reese, and freshman Kait McNaught (mostly used as a DH), will definitely be a good thing to have.”
Crawford, who is also set to return next season, was fourth on the team with a .431 on-base percentage.
Olem said the highlight of the season came May 10 against Hingham.
“We were still trying to stay afloat [and] it was a must-win game by my standards,” she explained. “We jumped out to a 1-0 lead [and] then gave up six in the first inning. Our offense couldn’t do anything until the fourth inning when we blew it up. We ended up winning 15-6. Abby didn’t allow a run after the first.”
The resiliency shown set the bar for the future and was a flash of what is to come for the young W-H softball team.
“They definitely showed glimpses of potential and how good they could be when they put it all together,” Olem said. “Whether it was for a few innings or a few games, we did a lot of good things this year despite our record.”