By Nelson Coffin
For John Carroll softball coach Sherry Hudson, the 2017 season has not been about changing the Patriots’ team culture.
Rather, it’s been about watching players grow into roles that have brought a unity and camaraderie to a squad that has already surpassed last year’s win total.
As a result, at the halfway mark of the A Conference season, the upstart Patriots are tied for first place with two-time defending champion Archbishop Spalding.
And that’s a position not many people thought John Carroll would be able to attain, considering that the Patriots were not even included in preseason rankings by either the Baltimore Sun or the Varsity Sports Network.
Yet Hudson’s troops started the campaign with six straight wins, including triumphs over Spalding and Cecil County public school power Perryville.
While it’s true that John Carroll lost one-run games this week to Mount de Sales Academy and undefeated Baltimore County public school Dulaney, there is still plenty of room for growth this season — and beyond — with Hudson at the helm.
With a starting pitcher, sophomore Emma Kropkowski, who is gaining experience with every game, the Patriots have a fine future.
“Emma has a year under her belt now, and that’s been the biggest difference for us this year,” Hudson said. “She feels comfortable throwing a lot of different pitches now.”
The John Carroll hitters are also making their mark this spring.
“We’re being a lot more aggressive at the plate,” the coach said.
However, it took more than just showing up this spring to make the turnaround a reality.
“The girls worked really hard in then offseason,” Hudson added. “They went to batting cages and also worked indoors on their fielding. It’s a really good group. They know what to expect and they know what to do.”
A strong freshman class that boats center fielder Emma Ritter, shortstop Jules Donnelly, right fielder Paris Smith and designated player Courtney Hartman has infused the team with energy and excitement.
Of that quartet, Ritter stands out.
She’s already had a three-homer, 10-RBI game in a win over McDonogh, and slugged her sixth round-tripper to up her season RBI total to 24 against Dulaney.
At the other end of the experience spectrum, senior catcher Erica James has been the kind of steadying influence behind the plate that coaches covet.
“She’s a great leader and she keeps Emma calm when things get tough,” Hudson said.
Things should also improve when senior Gabby Centi, junior Meghan Sheehan and sophomore Shannon Sweeney return to the starting lineup.
Centi, who was on a service trip to Oklahoma, Sheehan and Sweeney are starters who did not play against Dulaney.
That Patriots are off until they are slated to start a three-game spree against Catholic High (April 19), Bel Air High (April 20) and McDonogh (April 21).